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They eat horses, don’t they?

“Behave, or I’ll send you to Italy!”. That’s a strange threat! Wouldn’t it be wonderful to go there to visit the wine country, see the art in Florence, learn some history in Rome, and enjoy the Adriatic beaches?

"Behave, or I'll send you to Italy!".

That's a strange threat! Wouldn't it be wonderful to go there to visit the wine country, see the art in Florence, learn some history in Rome, and enjoy the Adriatic beaches?

Not if you hear the above and you are a horse! Especially if you were a horse back in the day when I used to ride in my now-extinct homeland of Yugoslavia.

With total number of horses in the country small and dwindling after the cavalry was disbanded in 1948, with fast urbanization of the country reducing the number of horses working the fields, and before equestrian sports started taking off again in the late 1980s, there was no need for a dedicated horse slaughterhouse. Occasionally a really urgent case would be slaughtered in a cattle slaughterhouse. A horse in agony after an injury would be killed on the spot (e.g., on the racetrack) and its meat donated to the perennially strapped-for-cash Belgrade Zoo for lions and other carnivores, But most horses at the end of their lives ended up on trucks headed to the meat market of Italy (and probably a few also to Austria - but I don't have access to any documents, just what everyone in the horse business at the time knew).

With all the horse meat ending up in Italy, there was not much left for domestic consumption. Thus whole generations grew up without ever tasting it. The culture gradually changed. A horse butcher had a store in Belgrade for about a decade in the 1960s, but had to close due to low demand. Later, in mid-1980s, another entrepreneurial butcher opened a horse-meat store, this time promoting it as a delicacy rather than utilitarian, cheap alternative to beef. That store did not last long, either.

While there is no taboo against eating horse in the Balkans, there are definitely cultural forces that prevent it from being as popular as it is for its neighbors to the West, And those forces are divided by generations.

According to the elders, especially those with clear memories of World War II, horse meat was a poor man's food, only to be consumed in times of war or famine. If you can afford beef, pork, lamb and chicken, why should you stoop so low as to eat the tough, acidic horse meat?

On the other hand, youngsters saw horses in a much less utilitarian way. They did not remember thousands of cavalry horses, cart horses, and draft horses filling the countryside. They did not remember poverty and hunger. Every horse they met had a name, be it a nice riding school pony, or a stunningly beautiful sports horse.

Obviously, neither of the two age groups could be easily persuaded that horse meat is a delicacy.

I saw that generational divide myself one day, back in the 1980s. We grilled some horse the barn, right after we finished riding, grooming and petting our horses. There were horses inside, happily munching their oats in their stalls. There were other horses outside, sliced and roasting on the grill. How conflicted everyone's feelings were!

But that was an excellent opportunity for all of us to discuss and debate the ethical, utilitarian, economic, nutritional, ecological and other angles of horse consumption. Why older people found it easier to eat the meat than the younger folk? Why was it easier for men than for women? Why some found it delicious, while others hated its texture and taste? Many of the young, pony-obsessed girls wouldn't touch it, while younger boys gave it a try despite obvious disgust.

In the end, it all came down to names. You cannot eat an animal whose name you knew when it was alive. Name gives it a personality. An animal whose name you know is also an animal you know well - its looks and behavior and personality. It's a friend. Friends don't eat friends.

The steaks we had came from a horse we knew nothing about. Not the name, not age, sex, breed, color, anything. Perhaps the previous owner really loved that horse, cried when loading it onto the slaughterhouse truck. Just like one day, certainly, someone in Italy was going to eat the flesh of our horses we loved, and could do it because of not knowing those horses personally.

But by buying and eating that horse's meat, we helped that previous owner recover some of the financial loss. Perhaps it was a farmer who lost a horse essential for working his farm. Without taking the meat price for the old horse, the farmer would not be able to buy a new horse, and would not be able to work the farm and feed his family. The circle of life would have been broken, both the human one and the equine one.

That was the economy of individual horse ownership by regular people. Of course, if you are rich or live in a rich country, and if you can afford to keep all your horses out on pastures until they die the natural death, by all means do that. But most people cannot afford that. And yet they need to have horses for their livelihoods. Eating horse meat is an essential part of such an economy.

[caption id="attachment_2351" align="alignright" width="336" caption="I can attest that this statement is true."]I can attest that this statement is true.[/caption]

But then it got tricky. The problem became more complex. After all, it is relatively easy for an individual to decide not to eat horse meat because of ethical concerns. But that is the meat of a dead horse who died in order to provide that meat. So, how do you try to use ethical considerations to explain why you refuse to eat meat of the horse who is still alive? I am talking about marinated, delicious testicles of the stallion who is still prancing out in the paddock. In a country where offal is a perfectly normal part of everyday cuisine, and one can order sweetbreads in any decent restaurant. No harm was done to any animal. So, why not eat it? Not an easy question to answer. And it's pretty obvious that the answer is not rooted in ethics, economics, ecology, nutrition or health concerns. It is psychological and aesthetic, thus it is rooted in culture.

And this is where we switch gears, as we need to start comparing cultures, in this case Balkans with America.

"Behaving or not, you're going to Mexico!"

The question "shall we eat horse meat?" is coupled with the related question "shall we slaughter horses?". In both countries, most of the horse slaughter (and consumption) is outsourced to other countries (Italy in the case of the Balkans, Mexico in the case of USA). Yet the attitudes are different. There, if there were more horses and there was more appetite for meat, there would be horse slaughter in place with almost nobody's objection. Without too much emotional opposition to eating horses, economic forces would be allowed to dictate what happens on the ground.

Here, there is an overabundance of horses, but because there is no appetite for meat at all, slaughtering horses is considered a very bad idea. Hence such outcry when the slaughter of horses was recently made legal again after a long time (and opening a slaughterhouse is fraught with difficulties).

[caption id="attachment_2353" align="alignleft" width="448" caption="If unicorns were easier to catch, they would be a staple diet in at least some cultures."]If unicorns were easier to catch, they would be a staple diet in at least some cultures.[/caption]

The shift in culture that I started observing in the 1980s there, already occurred much earlier here in the States. Horses are still used in agriculture there, especially in more mountainous regions where tractors are ineffective and uneconomical. Many small farmers cannot afford tractors, or have too little land to need one. Older people still remember the life on the farm, and even kids have seen horses working in the field. The movement from country to city happened too recently.

Here, agriculture has long ago moved from small farmers to gigantic agribusiness. Very few people have any personal experience with a horse working the land. Most horses are used for pleasure and sport - they have names and are treated as pets, rather than as beasts of burden.

Also, there is an overproduction of horses here. So many horses are bred, often of poor quality, that many never get to be ridden at all - they go straight to Mexico while still young. It is not that just old, sick or lame horses get slaughtered, it's healthy foals! It's not just a natural circle of life, it's production of horses directly for slaughter.

Then, there is the issue of food safety. There is a reason Europe does not allow import of American horsemeat, no matter how much demand there may be there (and demand is dropping there as well). One never knows if the meat came from a racehorse (or if it's horse meat at all). The rules for drug use (from steroids to painkillers) in racehorses in the USA are so lax compared to other countries, that it is almost certain that the meat of an American racehorse is unfit for human consumption. And how can one know if the steak or sausage came from a draft horse or a racehorse? With eating horse in America being potentially dangerous, it's not strange that people don't do it, and the cultural tradition of eating horses quickly dies out. If your parents never ate horse meat, you won't either. Cultural food habits start at home.

But there are other reasons why American culture is so strongly against eating (and thus slaughtering) horses. I vaguely alluded to some of those already, but now need to be more explicit. And for this, we need to go back to the old master, anthropologist Marshall Sahlins and his 1976 essay La Pensee Bourgeoise: Western Society as Culture, in which he takes a close look as to why Americans eat cows and pigs, but don't eat horses and dogs.

Manly Men in the Feed Lot.

True, “in most parts of the world, people are grateful to eat whatever is available to them.” Vast areas of the planet have scant vegetation. Plant agriculture is impossible due to poor soil. People need and want to live there anyway, at least as nomads if not settlers, but cannot sustain themselves on an occasional root or berry. They have to carry their food with them, but that also takes up energy. So the best way to survive in such harsh environments is to have the food walk along with them. Cattle, goats, sheep, camels, donkeys, mules, asses and yes, horses, are the sources of daily nourisment, both meat and dairy.

In places of plenty, in times of plenty, one can afford to have culture, rather than necessity, dictate what foods are deemed OK and what foods are not:

Yet the point is not only of consuming interest; the productive relation of American society to its own and the world environment is organized by specific valuations of edibility and inedibility, themselves qualitative and in no way justifiable by biological, ecological, or economic advantage.

There is no nutritional reason not to eat horse. If anything, horse meat may have some advantages over beef. If production of horse meat was a viable, large industry due to high demand, it would have similar environmental impact as beef industry has now, and the economics would be the same as well. Low demand is due to culture, which determines even how food taste is perceived. It is not surprising that food preferences then become deeply ingrained, and offers of locally unusual foods elicit strong negative responses based entirely on emotions, rather than rational calculations. So even during times of crisis and famine, those cultural and emotional obstacles prevent the population from taking advantage of available food sources, regardless of governmental, corporate, scientific or media efforts to help enlighten the population about it. The angry reactions are based entirely on cultural norms and emotional sense of disgust. Sahlins uses this example from the Honolulu Advertiser of 15 April 1973:

"Horses are to be loved and ridden," Gallagher said. "In other words, horses are shown affection, where cattle that are raised for beef ... they've never had someone pet them or brush them, or anything like that. To buy someone's horse up and slaughter it, that, I just don't see it. "

Sahlins again:

In a crisis, the contradictions of the system reveal themselves. During the meteoric inflation of food prices in the spring of 1973, American capitalism did not fall apart-quite the contrary; but the cleavages in the food system did surface. Responsible government officials suggested that the people might be well-advised to buy the cheaper cuts of meat such as kidneys, heart, or entrails-after all, they are just as nutritious as hamburger. To Americans, this particular suggestion made Marie Antoinette seem like a model of compassion (see fig. 10). The reason for the disgust seems to go to the same logic as greeted certain unsavory attempts to substitute horsemeat for beef during the same period.

When I came to the States, I understood that I would not be eating horse here at all. Which is fine with me - I tried a steak once and a sausage once, and while they were OK, I can totally live without them. But when we castrated a couple of colts at the barn, none of the whites would touch the testicles. But they were expertly prepared by an African American friend and we ate them with great appreciation.

[caption id="attachment_2355" align="alignright" width="405" caption="Salome serves roasted unicorn head, which inludes cheecks, lips, tongue and brain."][/caption]

As I wrote at length a few years ago, one of the specifics of American cuisine, due to culture, lies in its history. When we talk about Balkans food preferences, we are covering pretty much everyone who lives there - the class divisions and cultural divisions were always quite miniscule there. But when we talk about American food preferences, we tend to forget a big chunk of American culture. Whites prefer beef to other species, and will almost universally not eat offal. But there is a whole parallel culture, often unmentioned. The soul food, the Southern food, all the offal and innards and roadkill and strange foods that were cooked, and recipes perfected into delicacies by generations of African Americans, descendant of slaves who fixed steaks for the white masters and learned how to utilize everything else from the slaughtered animals. They have no problem with offal - or horse - as that is an intergral component of that subdivision of the American culture. Sahlins:

The poorer people buy the cheaper cuts, cheaper because they are socially inferior meats. But poverty is in the first place ethnically and racially encoded. Blacks and whites enter differentially into the American labor market, their participation ordered by an invidious distinction of relative "civilization." Black is in American society as the savage among us, objective nature in culture itself. Yet then, by virtue of the ensuing distribution of income, the "inferiority" of blacks is realized also as a culinary defilement. "Soul food" may be made a virtue. But only as the negation of a general logic in which cultural degradation is confirmed by dietary preferences akin to cannibalism, even as this metaphorical attribute of the food is confirmed by the status of those who prefer it. I would not invoke "the so-called totemism" merely in casual analogy to the pensee sauvage. True that Levi-Strauss writes as if totemism had retreated in our society to a few marginal resorts or occasional practices (I 963a; 1966). And fair enough-in the sense that the "totemic operator," articulating differences in the cultural series to differences in natural species, is no longer a main architecture of the cultural system. But one must wonder whether it has not been replaced by species and varieties of manufactured objects, which like totemic categories have the power of making even the demarcation of their individual owners a procedure of social classification. (My colleague Milton Singer suggests that what Freud said of national differentiation might well be generalized to capitalism, that it is narcissism in respect of minor differences.)

Marshall Sahlins then delves into the question of words and names. As he reminds us, Red Queen said, "It isn't etiquette to cut anybody you've been introduced to." Horses (and dogs) have names. Most cows (and pigs) don't.

Muscles of accepted food animals have cute monikers that hide what parts of the animal and which animal they came from. There is beef and pork and mutton. There are steaks and t-bones and round and chuck. But un-acceptable species don't have such cutesy names for their muscles. Horse meat is called horsemeat. Dog's would be dog-meat. Nothing to hide. Likewise, names for innards are not cutesy, hiding the obvious source: liver is liver, tongue is tongue, kidneys are kidney (though intestines become tripe, and testicles, probably due to puritanism, become whitebreads). Sahlins again:

Edibility is inversely related to humanity. The same holds in the preferences and common designations applied to edible portions of the animal. Americans frame a categorical distinction between the "inner" and "outer" parts which represents to them the same principle of relation to humanity, metaphorically extended. The organic nature of the flesh (muscle and fat) is at once disguised and its preferability indicated by the general term "meat," and again by particular conventions such as "roast," "steak," "chops," or "chuck"; whereas the internal organs are frankly known as such (or as "innards"), and more specifically as "heart," "tongue," "kidney," and so on-except as they are euphemistically transformed by the process of preparation into such products as "sweetbreads."The internal and external parts, in other words, are respectively assimilated to and distinguished from parts of the human body-on the same model as we conceive our "innermost selves" as our "true selves"-and the two categories are accordingly ranked as more or less fit for human consumption. The distinction between "inner" and "outer" thus duplicates within the animal the differentiation drawn between edible and tabu species, the whole making up a single logic on two planes with the consistent implication of a prohibition on cannibalism. It is this symbolic logic which organizes demand. The social value of steak or roast, as compared with tripe or tongue, is what underlies the difference in economic value. From the nutritional point of view, such a notion of "better" and "inferior" cuts would be difficult to defend. Moreover, steak remains the most expensive meat even though its absolute supply is much greater than that of tongue; there is much more steak to the cow than there is tongue. But more, the symbolic scheme of edibility joins with that organizing the relations of production to precipitate, through income distribution and demand, an entire totemic order, uniting in a parallel series of differences the status of persons and what they eat.

Of course, there are cultural (and language) differences between nations as to how they name the animals and how they name edible body parts. French is quite different from English in that regard, for instance. In Serbian, the words for muscle-meats from various animals are not cutesy but directly derived from the names of those species: govedo=govedina (cattle=beef), tele=teletina (calf=veal), ovca=ovcetina (sheep=mutton). Where eating animals is both an economic and a cultural necessity, where there is no taboo or even mild unease about eating meat, there is no need to come up with linguistic camouflage.

But what I find most interesting in Marshall Sahlins' article is this passage:

The exploitation of the American environment, the mode of relation to the landscape, depends on the model of a meal that includes a central meat element with the peripheral support of carbohydrates and vegetables-while the centrality of the meat, which is also a notion of its "strength," evokes the masculine pole of a sexual code of food which must go back to the Indo-European identification of cattle or increasable wealth with virility. The indispensabilitty of meat as "strength," and of steak as the epitome of virile meats, remains a basic condition of American diet (note the training table of athletic teams, in football especially). Hence also a corresponding structure of agricultural production of feed grains, and in turn a specific articulation to world markets-all of which would change overnight if we ate dogs. By comparison with this meaningful calculus of food preferences, supply, demand, and price offer the interest of institutional means of a system that does not include production costs in its own principles of hierarchy. The "opportunity costs" of our economic rationality are a secondary formation, an expression of relationships already given. by another kind of thought, figured a posteriori within the constraints of a logic of meaningful order. The tabu on horses and dogs thus renders unthinkable the consumption of a set of animals whose production is practically feasible and which are nutritionally not to be despised.

The American meal - a big juicy beef steak surrounded by a little bit of vegetables mainly as decoration - as a manly man's meal. The meal of the pioneer, the cowboy, the self-sustained, survivalist, rugged individualist. The beef steak as a descendant of the steak a hunter hunted in the past. Beef steak as a product of the hard work in the harsh environment in the vast expanses of the American West. Only the toughest need apply. The cultural mythology that led to placing beef at the pinnacle, that led to distaste for eating any other species (not for macho men!), that led to taboo against eating horses (companions and co-workers in the difficult production of beef), and that eventually led to hyperproduction of beef for the growing population by consolidating it from small farms into huge feed lots owned by large agribusiness. So, both the illogical, uneconomical, and environmentally damaging food instructure in the States AND the taboo against eating horse may stem from the same cultural source - the early self-sufficient pioneer man.

But that was centuries ago. Surely we have progressed since then. Remember when Michael Pollan made the full circle, from feed lot (symbolic hunt) through a series of organic and local small operations back to the non-symbolic, real hunt, he had difficulty pulling the trigger. We are more civilized now.

In his book A Primate's Memoir, Robert Sapolsky relates how he adjusts his own diet depending on where he is. Earlier in his career he used to split his year in half. During the half spent teaching neuroscience at Sanford, he was a vegetarian. In America, one has that choice. But in the other half of the year, studying baboons in the field in Africa, he ate what the locals fixed. Yes, a zebra leg. Not just that he would have insulted the hosts by refusing, but if he refused it would incur additional expense and effort of the hosts - they would have to find nutritious plant food every day for him, something that is not as easy to do in that region. There are good reasons why local diet is mainly based on hunted animals.

Thus, the deep roots of the American culture may prevent us from ever eating horse. Although it makes no economical, health, nutritional or environmental sense, that is OK as it makes cultural sense and we can afford this taboo.

But we should re-analyze why outdated machismo is still guiding the way our food instructure works in damaging ways and perhaps do something constructive about it to bring it along into the 21st century, somewhat away from beef and gigantic feed lots and toward a more sustainable, environmentally friendly, public-health reasonable, nutritionally balanced food system.



Marshall Sahlins, La Pensee Bourgeoise: Western Society as Culture, in Culture and Practical Reason (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976) (pp. 166 - 179)


Photo of me: original photo by Russ Creech, photoshop by Mindy Weisberger.

Unicorn on the grill and on the platter, original art from Taymouth Hours, 14th century, at British Library, additional photoshop by Sarah J Biggs. Originally posted on April Fool's Day by Julian Harrison at Medieval manuscripts blog of the British Library.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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