Taboo

The first time I ate horse (knowingly) was at the pool in Coimbra. I’m sure I ate it blissfully unaware many times before, in my myriad wanderings around the world.

It was a hot day, one of those days where everything seems to be holding its breath, even the insects, and I stayed underwater for most of the day to avoid the worst of it. The pool was done in Moorish tile, and quite pretty. I remember tracing the designs with my fingers before shooting off into the deep end, diving into the cooler water on the bottom. Leaves from the neighboring trees scattered the surface, and would sometimes get stuck to me as I drifted through the water.

The pool was in the direct sun, and eventually I grew uncomfortable, hauled myself out, and padded across the tiles to the shade of our umbrella table, where our belongings were strewn about willy nilly. I sprawled in the shade, almost instantly dry again, and started to read my book.

Someone else ordered food, and I realized that I was ravenous when it came to the table–a big plate of shredded meat with spicy dipping sauce, crispy salty frites, shrimp, and an assortment of other things I can’t remember.

I set to with gusto, never one to be shy when there’s food in the offing. There was companionable silence for quite some time, which I finally broke.

“What kind of meat is this,” I asked.

The meat was lean and well flavoured, a little chewy, but really quite good, especially dipped in the sauce which you then had to lick off your fingers, and combined with the heavenly frites. It reminded me of boar, or older bull–wiry, strong, dark.

“Horse,” someone said.

I stopped chewing for a moment. I had a horse at home, of whom I was very fond. I couldn’t really imagine eating her. I had missed her greatly during this trip, even though I knew she was probably having fun without me. But my horse was my companion, my friend, and we explored the woods together and raided peoples gardens and sometimes she would follow me into the house, like a puppy.

“Oh,” I said, while the other people at the table studied me, perhaps expecting a violent reaction.

I was torn between two things—my lifelong pursuit of delicious food, paired with my claim that there was nothing I wouldn’t eat, and my discomfort at eating an animal I don’t generally think of as food. Had I known, would I have eaten it? Isn’t it sort of hypocritical to be willing to eat one sort of animal and not another?

“Well, it’s pretty good,” I said. “I like it.”

I felt ashamed to admit it, but also slightly liberated. Take that, American establisment! I just ate horse! In Portugal! Next to a pool! And it was good! I reached for another sliver of the meat and ate it plain, without sauce, to explore the flavour.

Now, the thing is, having eaten horse, I don’t think most Americans would like it. It’s a dark meat, it’s lean, it’s chewy, and it certainly has a flavour all its own. I happen to adore dark meats, and so I greatly enjoyed it. And I started to wonder about our love affair with the horse.

Europeans are often foolishly fond of their horses. Yet they also eat them. When did the shift in American values occur that horse was deemed a taboo meat, when we still eat other intelligent, sensitive, beautiful animals like pigs? Is it perhaps because we’ve evolved different tastes in meats? That Americans grew to dislike the meat, and to love the animal, to the point that it was deemed socially unacceptable to eat it?

I’m intrigued by the things we eat, and the things we don’t, and why. It’s an interesting world we live in, I tell you, when all over the place people get riled up about the things other people eat. The slaughter of an animal to provide protein is a serious thing, I think, and it’s very interesting to examine my own, and others’ value systems surrounding food consumption. There appears to be a complex set of rules dictating the meat we eat—I have to very careful about whom I relate this story to, because some people are disgusted at the thought that I ate horse, willingly, and even ordered it again later. They give me a look that clearly says I’ve sunk in their esteem.

I could point out that I think it’s disgusting that they eat pigs who have been raised in a dark and filthy shed, or that I think it’s foul to eat beef from a CAFO. But I don’t. I say “to each his own,” and make a note not to tell them about the time I ate monkey, either.

Oh, and you want to know the secret to great frites, other than thin-slicing?

Horse fat.

[taboo]