The Flesh of Foals

When the 2013 horsemeat scandal broke I was surprised and then realised I had nothing to be surprised about. By that stage I’d been researching the history of horsemeat on and off for seven years for The Age of the Horse, and I’d noticed a pattern going back centuries both to these episodes and to public reaction to it. It’s the same in America in the nineteenth century, in France in the seventeenth century, in England in the fifteenth century… and so on.

This Pathé news reel from 1948 is almost a checklist:

  • horsemeat passed off as “blackmarket steaks” and “veal” in cheap restaurants
  • the meat men or kill buyers are unconcerned with the welfare of the horses
  • “a traffic so alien” to the locals

I think Pathé and the British public of 1948 may be protesting a wee bit too much with their “veal, the flesh of foals” and “sinister trade”: horsemeat was eaten in Britain before, during and after World War Two – it was one way to cope with rationing. Yorkshiremen were even nicknamed “kicker eaters” because of their taste for chevaline. Pathé was, however, right that a tremendous number of horses were slaughtered in the late 1940s, and that the Shire and Clydesdale would be facing extinction in a few decades.

Horses were still needed by farmers at the time because we were still dealing with fuel shortages and the era of the tractor had not yet fully begun. They were also still important to the railway system – that same year, British railways kept 9,000 working horses. However, the urban market pretty much collapsed in the late 1940s and so we had a horsemeat scandal – only this time we ate them ourselves, rather than dispatching them to Belgium on “sausage boats” as we did in the 1920s.

Fast forward five decades and we still haven’t worked out what to do with unwanted horses, and we find ourselves eating them in lasagna.

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