This winter, inspectors in the United Kingdom discovered horse meat in a variety of meat products labeled beef, setting off a battery of DNA tests there and all over Europe to determine just how widely the “horse meat scandal” extended. While some European countries do eat horse—France, notably—the American media generally reacted with horror across the board. Horse meat has occasionally been on the menu in the United States—during wartime, and, oddly, at the faculty club of Harvard until the 1980s. But in this country, no horses are currently processed for human consumption. A horse slaughtering plant in New Mexico is currently pending approval, the Department of Agriculture, but if it goes through, that meat will be shipped to diners abroad.
It may be surprising to realize, however, that even in France, hippophagy (or the eating of horse meat) was not legalized until the latter part of the 19th century—the result of a public campaign to override objections very like the ones Americans have today. At the time, officials justified the practice with arguments similar to those being put forward in New Mexico: Horse is a perfectly healthy meat, it avoids waste, and it might even be good for the welfare of the animals. But the fact that it took so much persuasion to convince the French to consider eating horse—in a dispute that exposed passionate beliefs about public health, animal rights, and social welfare—suggests why we are once again facing a public scandal over hippophagy. At heart, it is an unsettled cultural crisis about which animals we accept as moral to eat.
In the early 19th century, horses were at the height of their presence and popularity in France, whether pulling cabs or wagons or being ridden in races or in the city parks. Along with their popularity, of course, went the necessity of handling horses after their useful lives ended. In 1825, the public hygienist for the City of Paris, Alexandre Parent-Duchâtelet, who was also commissioned with regulating prostitution, began an investigation of the sanitary status of the city’s slaughter yards, including those for horses. To his surprise, he discovered that many poor people were regularly consuming horse meat with no ill effects. Indeed, his discovery of masses of horse meat in a brothel brought his two investigations together, providing evidence that both practices—prostitution and hippophagy—were already widespread and could safely be legalized.
Parent-Duchâtelet came to believe that eating horse meat could fill an important need for protein on the part of the poor, make use of the otherwise wasted abundance of horse carcasses, and reduce the abuse and suffering of horses by ensuring that they be maintained in good condition. He began a campaign to legalize hippophagy in France, but was unsuccessful. Some 40 years later, the natural historian Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, son of a famous zoologist, joined forces with the French army’s chief veterinarian, Émile Decroix, to take up the cause again. It was absurd, they argued, to waste kilos of good meat when so many were in need.
Saint-Hilaire did realize that the practice of eating horse could threaten France’s important gastronomic reputation. Consequently, in 1865, he organized a series of “hippophagic banquets,” where dishes such as vermicelli with consommé of horse, fillets of rainbow horse (sauce xeres on the side), and liver pâté of horse with truffles were served to an array of journalists, lawyers, bankers, and doctors—those who, he believed, could influence public opinion.
But if the banquets proved that horse could taste good, they did not convince everyone that eating horse was in good taste, or good for the nation. Indeed, as the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss would later argue, for something to be good to eat, it must be good to think, and to many, eating horse was unthinkable. Horses were omnipresent on city streets; they were considered partners in war and in leisure. Some identified with their work, and their suffering as beasts of burden. Others thought of them as pets, or even as members of the family. To eat horse was to raise the specter of uncertainty over who or what might constitute meat next—the noble horse head at the butcher perhaps inciting memories of the guillotine.
Ultimately, it took more than 40 years after Parent-Duchâtelet’s initial revelation for the first legal horse butchery to open in 1866. But as the mandatory horse head above its doors indicated, French culinary pride afforded separate but not equal status to horse meat. Only designated shops could sell the meat, responding to consumer fears that a filet of horse might be slipped to them in the place of beefsteak without their knowledge. Today, horse remains a lesser, cheaper meat in France. (Its popularity did rise again during the mad-cow controversy, allowing the French to turn up their noses at nonhippophagic fellow members of the European Union.)
Today, the United States is wrestling with a similar moral calculus to those in the French government who saw horse as a proper food for the poor. Valley Meat, the company hoping to operate the slaughter plant in Roswell, N.M., is not planning to sell meat in the United States, or at least not initially, but to ship the meat to Europe and other markets.
In America, horses may no longer share our lives as they did in the 19th century. But as they still live on in our imagination as comrades, pets, working animals, and creatures of beauty. The horse on your plate recalls that horse you may have ridden or those whom you admired at a distance for their speed or their endurance; horse meat is a “who” turned into a “what,” a living being turned into a thing. We see horses as fellow sufferers, not as food.
Then again, the pigs and cows we accept as food are not so different, except that few of us know them as pets or working animals. Our modern agricultural industries, along with terms like beef and pork, keep us at a distance from them, so that we need not recognize the animal in the meat. With horse, there is no escaping this recognition, and that is why horse meat is once again causing controversy. As in the 19th century, most of us don’t want to think about whom or what we may be eating. But our enduring discomfort suggests that we should.
Kari Weil is University Professor and Director of the College of Letters at Wesleyan University. Her book “Thinking Animals: Why Animal Studies Now?” was published in 2012.