21 February 2013

My Burger Kingdom for a Horse

The chevaline stall — you should pardon the expression — in a market in Poitiers.

The current scandal over beef burgers “tainted” with horsemeat has me mystified, to the point that I’m tempted to downgrade it to a mere moo-haha — though it’s been hyped and sensationalized in every press outlet. Granted, one would prefer to know what one is eating, and even I observe the strict dietary rule of never eating anything that’s smarter than I am. (This rules out orangutans, dolphins, and, in some but not all cases, Presbyterians.) But unless one is an exceptionally strict vegan, the difference between eating a cow and eating a horse strikes me as extremely fine.

It’s true that little girls seldom develop sentimental attachments to cattle, as they do to horses, and movie audiences are far more likely to attend a screening of The Black Stallion than The Black Angus. Cattle don’t conform to the aesthetic model of strength and grace that horses uphold so beautifully.

Moreover, the Norman Conquest of Britain assured future generations of English-speaking diners that only certain meals would remind us where they came from: we eat “beef” (boeuf), not “cow,” “pork” (porc), not “pig,” and “venison” (venaison), not “Bambi.” The Normans never quite got around to providing us with a euphemism for “horse,” probably because those animals were too scarce and valuable; I don’t know what excuse they can make for failing to rename “rabbit.”

The chevaline stall at the market at Beynes can be seen in the background here. Unlike the fishmonger and the other butchers, the chevaline vendor comes to town only one day per week, instead of two.

With language as a foundation, British and American cultures over time built up a wall between the farm and the dinner table, one at which only hardcore foodies chip away. Supermarkets and prepackaged products are further manifestations of most modern consumers’ insulation from the realities of what they eat, and my own experience bears this out: I was shockingly old before I understood that tuna comes from the sea, not from a can; that it is fish-shaped, not cylindrical; and that, in nature, it is raw, not cooked, and smells like tuna, not like catfood.

Most of the excited news reports on the hamburger scandal mention that horse is eaten in many otherwise respectable countries, and that one of these is the cradle of haute cuisine, France. It’s therefore incumbent upon me to state that I have eaten horse, not only in France but also in Cuba, a country so lacking in horses that for a time its cavalry rode bicycles. In Havana one night, I ate horsemeat stewed with tomatoes, onions, and bell pepper. It was delicious, but it was prepared much the way any other dish might have been prepared in that country, and doesn’t tell one much about the distinctions of caballo.*

The French have come up with a word for horsemeat, chevaline, which is most often sold by specialist vendors in markets; I don’t recall ever seeing chevaline in a supermarket, and perhaps this reflects a desire to be absolutely sure that consumers understand what they’re ordering. In France, I’ve eaten ground horsemeat in a steack haché and in a thinly sliced portion that looked like (and may have been called) a hanger steak. The flesh is, as you’d expect, much leaner than that of beef, the flavor darker and yet not quite as strong. It’s red meat — no big deal, unless of course you don’t eat red meat of any kind.

A chevaline shop in Paris.

Chevaline vendors usually purvey steaks, ground meat, and great big sausages, in red casings, that look quite like bologna. I’ve never eaten horse sausage, though I have eaten very tasty donkey sausages, hard and garlicky, in Corsica. (This does mean that, over the years, I have sampled most of the cast of Winnie the Pooh, excepting Owl.)

As a few news reports have mentioned, nobody wants to eat American horsemeat. We reject it because we’re squeamish, and the Europeans reject it because American racehorses are pumped full of performance-enhancing drugs. A chacun son goût.

I hope these observations may serve as a corrective, in some small way, to the lurid coverage of the scandal in television, print, and the Internet. But, as I say, don’t come crying “Ew, gross,” unless you say neigh to meat of all kinds.

A horse is a horse, main course.

*NOTE: Dan Rather joined me at the dinner in Havana when we ate horse stew. When it was presented to us by a Spanish-speaking waiter, Dan asked me to translate. Knowing that he likes goat, and unsure how he’d feel about eating horse, I told him it was cabrito, which sounds close enough to caballo to cover my deception. I confessed the truth only several hours later.


Alex said...

Maybe it's just my poor memory of high-school French, but chevaline seems like it should mean "female rider" (or maybe "female jockey") -- definitely not something you'd want to see on a menu at your local diner.

Anne said...

I think it's the not knowing...the er...lying by omission involved and how total it is...it seems the word " meat" now means " horse flesh"

This will mean less troublesome inspections and we will soon see articles on the health benefits of horse meat. Horse meat is not going way imo

It's interesting you bring up rabbit because I believe it's now law that a butchered rabbit head must be intact since headless cats were being substituted and called" rabbits " before! It was ever thus