Horse Meat, Anyone?

Horse is not my first choice of meats. Cow, pork, chicken—those are the usual ones. Duck, rabbit, even venison or buffalo are all acceptable animals to eat. But horses? They are friends, not food.

Being from Kentucky, and having ridden horses all my life, I always swore that horse was the one meat I could never eat. Yet I seem to be a homing device for bizarre foods: sea snails, cow tongue, haggis, blood sausage, tripe, geoduck, crocodile, and hippopotamus—I’ve tried them all (drawing the line at goat’s eyeballs).

But call it peer pressure, chock it up to an impulsive thirst for adventure, blame it on a moment of insanity…the truth is, when faced with the option (and the challenge), I broke down.

I ate horse.

Horse Butcher (Peschici, Puglia)
Horse Butcher (Peschici, Puglia)

“Le cheval, s’il vous plaît,” I said to the waitress, hardly believing what had come out of my mouth. Jason and his German friend, Volker were silently shuffling through the menu, and I grinned. “Gotta’ try everything once.”

Admittedly, this wasn’t an original thought. It had been drilled into me at an early age to be food daring, ‘You don’t have to like it, but you have to try it.’ Which is perhaps the best explanation for why, sitting in a small restaurant in Strasbourg, France, that I ordered horse off the menu. And it arrived. And I sliced my knife through it’s sinewy slab.

“Kind of boring,” were the first words out of my mouth.

Jason leaned over his plate, “That’s it?”

“Tastes like beef, only…sweeter? And dried out. The flavor is…well—it’s kinda’ old, I said, my face contorting. I wasn’t a fan.

Horse meat butcher in South Italy.
Horse meat butcher in South Italy.

From a purely functional point of view, I get why people eat horse:

  • We eat most other land animals on earth… Why exclude horse?
  • Horse meat is healthier than beef; lower in fat and calories. Same goes for horse’s milk.
  • Plenty of countries on the planet eat horse meat, chiefly: China, France, Belgium, Kazakhstan, Japan, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, the Netherlands, and Indonesia.
  • It’s insanely high in iron, and in places where it’s tough to grow/obtain other iron-rich foods (like Mongolia)—alright, there’s always _horse_.
  • What else do you do with lame, or generally useless old horses but chopped ‘em up for food? [There are no old cows or goats because we’ve eaten them, already]

After all, isn’t it just a cultural taboo* that makes Americans adverse to eating horse. We’ve eaten it before in our history (e.g., during the Civil War). Can’t we get over that, I ask myself? Shouldn’t we?

Yet the other half of me says, Why would we want to eat horse?

Since moving to Italy, I’ve heard frightening details about the horse industry…because it’s so small, it’s the least regulated of any of Italy’s meat industries…you can never really trust the quality of the meat (the source, the contents)…it’s usually just aged, used up horse that get thrown into the meat hacker…And I believe it, too. The horse meat I ate (albeit in France) tasted like a withered end-of-lifer.

This is how I normally feel about horses: uninterested in eating them (Alsace, France)
This is how I normally feel about horses: uninterested in eating them (Alsace, France)

From a flavor standpoint, there are so many more delicious meats out there : duck, goose, wild boar, buffalo, rabbit (to name a few). From a sentimental standpoint, I have a non-existent interest in expanding my horse flesh-eating experience.

But allow curiosity to enter the scene, and…well. I cannot be held responsible.

I need to know. If prepared right, could horse meat actually be tasty? Do we Americans have it all wrong? Am I missing out on something great, here?

Tasting something one time does not grant a person expertise on that food; but tasting it only one time does not warrant enough experience to offer a full report. So although it’s possible that horse meat “just isn’t that good”, it’s also possible I simply had a bad experience. As things stand, I have no way of knowing which thing is true.

This is where you come in, dear reader.

Horse meat display case (Altamura, Puglia)
Horse meat display case (Altamura, Puglia)

If I get enough encouragement from y’all, I might work up the nerve to eat horse again. To find a recipe, ask for it at the meat counter, and get cookin’… photographing the whole thing. Who knows—perhaps it’ll be much tastier this time around. Much better quality, much more worth the effort of horse-greets-taste-buds.

Eh. Turns my stomach just thinking about it.

It’s the American in me, I suppose. Proof positive that I’m not Italian (or Chinese, French, Belgian, Kazakhstani, Japanese, German, Swiss, Dutch, or Indonesian)—and perhaps never will be.

To read about other experiences with horses here in Italy, check out the ways people get around in Val di Non, including horseback.

*Some theories about why Americans are so against eating horse point towards early Christianity’s push against Paganism, while others claim that America’s westward expansion and reliance on the horse made our relationships more intimate. Either way, it’s “all in the ‘cultural’ mind”.

[Feature Image Credit: Plastic animals, author: iamthas, licensed under CC0 1.0].

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