EYE ON EUROPE
WHY, IT'S HORSE, OF COURSE!
"Excuse-moi, Garcon, but I think that's a horseshoe in my soup."
I was so hungry, I could
have eaten a horse!
By MICHAEL JOHNSON
One day last week I was really hungry, so I went to the local supermarket and picked out a thick steak for dinner. I decided to fry it the simple way--with a little olive oil, some salt and pepper. I flipped it every 10 seconds as it sizzled to make sure it wasnt getting overdone. In France we like our red meat bloody. This slab was bright red, lean and tender.
Im so hungry I could eat a horse, I thought to myself, and--how fitting--thats exactly what I was planning to do. If I hadnt known in advance, I would have thought this was just a good cut of beef from Kansas. But some horse somewhere, probably in Canada, had to die for this dinner.
This being my first time, it took some willpower to swallow the quivering flesh. The smell and taste were just a bit off, in some indefinable way but not disgustingly so.
Im a creature of cultural conditioning like everyone else. I kept thinking of Trigger and that golden hide, that white mane and those big brown eyes. What would Roy and Dale think? I know how loyal these animals can be and how willing they are (after we break their spirit) to carry us around on their backs.
But I persevered and concluded that if youre hungry enough, and you smother it in Dijon mustard and lots of spices, horse goes down just fine and stays down. After this meal, I felt sated as never before.
"No, I don't think that's an outrageous price at all, Mr. Johnson.
After all, you just ate a horse that finished No. 2 in the Belmont Stakes!"
Horsemeat is the new big thing in France, coming out of the closet where it has long been considered a slightly odd thing to eat. Restaurants dont serve it, and it is sold mainly in special horsemeat butcher shops.
In other countries, including Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland, it has long been a dietary staple. Now the Italians are discovering it. Italy is our growth market, an official of the French Boucherie Chevaline (horsemeat butchers) association told me. His job, besides selling it, is to demystify human consumption.
I met this man, Monsieur Vigoureux, at the outdoor market near my home on a Sunday morning. It was his first appearance at the market, which had never offered horsemeat before. He was working out of a well-equipped refrigerated trailer that opens up on the side to become a butchers counter and showcase. His wares were neatly arranged into horseburger patties, rump steak, prime rib, brochette chunks and several dark things that looked like vital organs.
Monsieur Vigoureux was cheerful and eager to communicate his message--horsemeat is cheaper and healthier than beef, and the French are queuing up for it more than ever. Its no longer just dogfood.
His reasons made sense to me. The cost of living in Europe has become a major political issue, and horsemeat is 10-20 percent cheaper than beef. Its also higher in protein and lower in fat than beef. We have seen an increase in demand just in the past few months, he said, interrupting our chat to serve his customers.
Another factor boosting horse is the mad cow epidemics of the 1990s. Europeans have not looked at beef quite the same way since. Horsemeat has gradually become an alternative red meat.
"Why have they been feeding me
so well lately? Why is that guy in
a chef's hat coming around every
day? Am I getting paranoid in my
I tried to reach Monsieur Vigoureux by phone later in the week for more explanation of whats behind the horsemeat boom, but he couldnt talk. He was even busier serving more hungry customers.
Not everyone is flocking to the horsemeat counter. In a Bordeaux supermarket a few days later, I asked a young butcher what cut he recommended. I wouldnt know, he said. I happen to love horses. Live ones.
Horsemeat in France has an interesting historical dimension. As every French schoolboy knows, Vercingétorix, leader of the Gauls, surrendered to Caesar during the siege of Alesia in 52 B.C. because he refused to let his starving army slaughter their horses for food. But Napoleon had no such compunction. At the battle of Eylau in 1807 his men used their shields as frying pans to cook their horses and stave off a slow death and defeat. This heroic initiative apparently made it acceptable for the French to consume horsemeat, and they have been at it ever since.
Until recently, much of the European market was supplied by U.S. and Canadian slaughterhouses. But in 2007, the last two U.S. packers, based in Texas, were shut down by pressure from animal rights activists. Now the market is served from Canada and from large-scale abattoirs in northern France and elsewhere around Europe.
An American friend who used to be into falconry in a big way fed his bird on horsemeat. He would get his supply from a packing plant in the poorest part of the Mexican quarter of Albuquerque. Several years ago, he recalls, one of the women in the neighborhood got caught selling ground horsemeat to school cafeterias.
Today the crime would seem even greater but I wonder if she would be prosecuted in France. Probably no more than a slap on the wrists.
Eating habits are all about cultural conditioning. What Americans reject, the French call delicacies: snails, lamprey (sea snakes) and most anything else that swims or wiggles. The Mexicans, Japanese and Chinese like dog. In Hong Kong they serve snake and monkeys in the finer restaurants.
On the other hand, Americans can be omnivorous in their own way. As some wit said during the worst days of the recent French-American feud, I like the French. They taste like chicken.
©2008 by Michael Johnson. The cartoons are from IMSI's Master Clips Collection, 1895 Francisco Blvd. E., San Rafael, CA, 94901-5506, USA. This column first posted June 9, 2008.
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