From Taboo to “Ecoterrorism” – Horsemeat’s Troubled Political History in America

I’ve written something for The Atlantic‘s Object Lessons blog on the long (if potted!) history of horsemeat in America. A much fuller account is on offer in The Age of the Horse!

During World War II food shortages, horse meat once again found its way to American tables, but the post-war backlash was rapid. “Horse meat” became a political insult. “You don’t want your administration to be known as a horse meat administration, do you?” the former New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia demanded of his successor William O’Dwyer. President Truman was nicknamed “Horse meat Harry” by Republicans during food shortages in the run up to the 1948 “Beefsteak Election.” In 1951, reporters asked if there would be a “Horse meat Congress,” one “that put the old gray mare on the family dinner table.” When Adlai Stevenson ran for president in 1952, he was also taunted as “Horse meat Adlai” thanks to a Mafia scam uncovered in Illinois when he was governor.

Trump’s Plan to Turn Mustangs into Meat

The Trump budget cut isn’t well thought through. Firstly, there are no slaughter houses in the US processing horses for meat, and recent attempts to open new abattoirs have resulted in passionate local protests. Secondly, the horses could go to Mexico or Canada, but both countries are obliged to keep horses for six months before slaughter to ensure there’s no drug residue in their meat if they want to sell to Europe (and horsemeat exports from Mexico have long been suspended in Europe). This makes horsemeat a lot more expensive to produce. A Canadian plant has already closed as a result of this requirement. So who would slaughter these mustangs?

There are many, many historical antecedents for this latest move, some of which I mention in The Age of the Horse. It’s a familiar cycle full of themes that come up over and over. Here’s just one example, from the Bismarck Tribune on August 15, 1919:

Montana must exterminate its wild horse herds.

Washington dispatches carry discouraging news for those who hope to see the Montana wild horse converted into meat for hungry Europe. American commercial attaches have forwarded from France and Belgium to the American capital data indicating that the expected market does not exist. In the first place, the people will not eat frozen horsemeat. In the second place, horses consigned to the butcher must be slaughtere, within the cities or districts in which they are to be consumed. The Montana plan contemplated slaughter at some point in the state, with sale of the bi-products [sic] in America. It had always been supposed that a ready market for the meat would be found abroad. There is still another plan – to render the wild horse for his products and sell the meat for fertiliser. This, it is said, it may prove feasible. The wild horse has been a problem in the state for some years. The animals number hundreds of thousands and consume a vast amount of range. There is not profit in rounding up the beasts, since they cannot be sold, except a rare few. Hunting them, as well, is no child’s play. They are fleet and wary and the hunter on a horse has little chance to overtake them. Yet the beasts must go. Stockmen are determined on that. The matter was recently discussed in the state convention of the stockmens association and it was stated that tremendous herds of cattle and sheep could be maintained on the grass the world horses eat. The beasts probably are descendants of Indian horses. They are of the poorest stock and are difficult to domesticate and almost worthless when tamed. They travel in bands and are formidable fighters with tooth and hoof, when aroused or cornered.

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.

Horse-oil Gâteau and Pegasus Filet: a Hippophagic Banquet

Horse-oil Gâteau and Pegasus Filet: a Hippophagic Banquet

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In the nineteenth century, vets, scientists, doctors, social campaigners, animal-welfare advocates and other prominent figures in Europe and America decreed that horsemeat was just the stuff for the working classes to eat. The proletariat lacked red meat, it was argued, and yet city streets were filled with horses that, once their working life came to an end, could provide nourishing food for humans instead of being turned into petfood. This would also be better for the horses, they argued, because the animals would be treated kindly and well fed if they were being considered for the table. The only obstacle was “superstition”, and this, the distinguished gentlemen believed, could be overcome if a good example was set.
And so the gentlemen threw elaborate banquets and invited journalists and still more distinguished men to attend and tuck into horseflesh. I’ve written more about the intentions and effects of these banquets in The Age of the Horse, but I wanted to share one of the menus in detail because they’re quite fascinating to take apart.
Firstly, they are classic, high-Victorian feasts, with more courses and dishes than we 21st-century folk can contemplate without rummaging through the nearest bathroom cabinet for antacids. Secondly, they are typically full of puns. As these hippophagic meals are always for male dinner guests alone, I guess the puns are at least partly a reflection of somewhat schoolboyish amusements in gentlemen’s clubs. They mock the modish obsession with French restaurants and also make it clear that they are all sophisticated enough to translate and enjoy the in-jokes. I’d guess also that the puns are meant to defray the anxiety involved in eating horseflesh. There’s something of the ogre’s feast to it as a result.
This meal, cooked at the Langham Hotel in London for 160 guests in February 1868, was prepared by the chef of Emile Decroix, a military veterinary surgeon who became one of France’s pioneering hippophagists. There is an obsessive – or is it hysterical – quality to the exhaustiveness of the menu. A cake made with horse oil instead of butter? Lobster dressed with horse? Hoof jelly? Could they really have thought that ordinary working people on little money and with little time or facilities for cooking would have gotten excited at the thought of all this fancy French stuff?

Horses eaten: three geldings (age 4, 20 and 22), two of them cart horses, one a carriage horse who’d drawn a brougham (a rather trendy and racy mode of transport) – a lot of horse but perhaps not when you’ve invited 160 guests.

MENU

Potages (soups)

Consommé de cheval (clear horse broth)
Purée de destrier (puréed warhorse soup)
Served with Amontillado

Poissons (fish)

Saumon à la sauce arabe (salmon in Arab sauce)
Filets de soles à l’huile hippophagique (soles served in horse oil)
Served with vin du Rhin

Hors-d’oeuvres

Terrines de foie maigre chevaline (potted horse liver with “the strong and unmistakable flavour of horse sweat”, according to The Field. Am guessing the fact that the horse liver is “maigre” or “lean” is a joke on the foie gras or “fat” liver of the goose)
Saucisson de cheval aux pistaches syriaques (dry horse sausage with Syrian pistachios)
Served with Xérès

Relevés

Filet de Pégase rôti aux pommes de terre à la crême (roast Pegasus filet with potatoes in cream)
Dinde aux châtaignes (turkey with chestnuts, which have the same horsey double meaning in French as both a coat colour and those little vestigial nubs on the inside of horses’ legs)
Aloyau de cheval farci à la centaure et aux choux de Bruxelles (horse sirloin stuffed “centaur style” and served with brussels sprouts)
Culotte de cheval braisée aux Chevaux de Frise (horse rump – although this is a pun, as “culotte de cheval” means “riding breeches” – braised over a “Friesian horse” – another pun referring to a spiky medieval defence used against cavalry. Dutch or Friesian horses were thought slow, hence the stationary “Friesian horses” as a defence. What it means here I’m not sure – braised on a spit of some kind?)
Served with dry champagne

Entrées

Petits pâtés à la moëlle-Bucéphale (shortcrust pastry topped with marrowbone and hardboiled eggs, “Bucephalus style”)
Kromeskys à la gladiateur (minced horsemeat rolled in bacon and fried. The French racehorse Gladiateur won the English triple crown in 1865)
Poulets garnis à l’hippogriffe (I’ve searched for this but can only come up with a notion of some kind of seasoned or spiced chicken “hippogriff style”)
Langues de cheval à la troyenne (Trojan horse tongues)
Served with Château peurayne

SECOND SERVICE

Rôts (roasts)

Wild ducks
Plovers
Lobster mayonnaise with Rosinante oil (probably not actually made out of Don Quixote’s old nag)
Peas à la Française, cauliflowers in parmesan
Served with Volney

Entremets (desserts, in English)

Gelée de pieds de cheval au marasquin (horse hoof jelly with cherry liqueur)
Zéphirs sautés à l’huile chevaleresque (I believe these are “Zefirs“, which seem to be somewhere between a marshmallow and a meringue. Tossed in horse oil?)
Gâteaux vétérinaire à la Decroix (cake made with horse oil instead of butter; named for Decroix himself)
Feuillantines aux pommes des Hespérides (tarts with apples from the Hesperides, nymphs of Greek mythology who tended the goddess Hera’s golden orchard)
Served with Saint-Peray

Glaces (ices)

Crême aux truffes (truffle cream)
Sorbets contre-préjugés (sorbets against prejudice)
Served with liqueurs

Desserts

Marmalade au kirsch
Gâteau d’Italie au fromage Chester, etc.
Served with fine Bordeaux wines, Madeira and coffee

Buffet (in case you were still hungry)

Collared horse-head (another pun, I believe. I think to “collar” a piece of meat meant to pot it, although the pun on “horse collar” was doubtless relished)
Baron of horse (sirloin and legs. Carried in by four men and accompanied by “Roast Beef of England”. It weighed 280lbs)
Boiled withers (definitely not hungry now)

 

 

The Emininently Recyclable Horse

 

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From Internet Archive’s scan of The Anatomy and Physiology of the Horse (1863) via Wiki Commons

In The Age of the Horse I gave readers some idea of the ingenuity humans used to recycle the bodies of horses used in the nineteenth century west. Of course, this inventiveness was not restricted to the Victorian era nor to the more rapidly industrialised nations – and we’re still finding new uses for horses’ bodies. Here is a brief, morbid and often suprising list of them, from armour to face lifts.

Hide

As shelters in the eighteenth century by the Puelche and Pehuenche of Argentina and Chile. (Horse Nations: The worldwide impact of the horse on indigenous societies post-1492, by Peter Mitchell, 2015, p281)

The skin from colts’ and mares’ lower legs were used to make gauchos’ “bota de potro” footwear. (Mitchell, 2015, p282)

Drumheads; Blackfoot Indians, (The Role of the Horse in Man’s Culture, by Harold B Barclay, 1980, p177)

Leather for covering large boardroom and office tables (Waste Products and Undeveloped Substances: Or, Hints for Enterprise in Neglected Fields by Peter Lund Simmonds, 1862, p364)

“Leather guards on [German] cavalry trousers”, carriage roofs or whip lashes. (The Horse-World of London by W J Gordon, 1893, p187)

Shoe leather or “porpoise hide”  (“Horse Meat for Food” by Frank G Carpenter, The National Tribune, 19 January 1893, p9)

Saddles and boot tops (twentieth century America)

For making braided reins, bridles, girths, cruppers and whips in Kazakhstan. (Barclay, 1980, p319)

Bags and shoe soles in Mongolia (Barclay, 1980, p302)

Cordovan leather, shield and buckler parts, coat worn under armour, harness (Barclay, 1980, p133)

Fat

Distilled for use in lamps, etc. (Waste Products and Undeveloped Substances: Or, Hints for Enterprise in Neglected Fields by Peter Lund Simmonds, 1862, p364)

In skin care products in South Korea (Shark, 2017).

Intestines

Sausage skins, gut strings (Simmonds, 1862, p364)

Bones

Grease and bones burned for fuel on the Pampas in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. (Barclay, 1980, p187)

“Lucifer matches” (Simmonds, 1862, p340)

Knife handles, phosphorus, super-phosphate of lime (Simmonds, 1862, p364)

Oil for candlemaking, leather dressing and lubricating. (Gordon, 1893, p186)

Ground and mixed with sulphuric acid for fertiliser, or simply ground into bone meal for manure making. (Gordon, 1893, p186)

Button-making (Gordon, 1893, p186)

Ribs and scapulae for smoothing clay pots, cannon bones for spear heads, jawbones to scrape leather thongs, pastern bones to make ornaments. (Copper Age Botai culture, Kazakhstan)

Teeth

As necklaces by some Native American groups, (Barclay, 1980, p177)

Tendons

Glue and gelatine (Simmonds, 1862, p364)

“Nithya” – a botox-like cosmetic treatment that stimulates the cells that produce collagen.

Hair of Mane, Tail

Tapestry making, girths, ropes, fetters, collars for horses and cattle, shoe covers, rain hats and fishing nets in Buryatia, Siberia.

Hair-cloth, mattress stuffing, woven into bags for crushing seed in oil mills (Simmonds, 1862, p364)

Furniture stuffing, fishing lines. (Gordon, 1893, p187)

Plaited to make ropes, nets, lassoes and fly whisks by the Yakut of Siberia, who also use it for decorative work and stuffing saddles. (Barclay, 1980, p327)

Tipi decorations among some Native American groups (Barclay, 1980, p177)

Clothing or harness decoration by some Native American groups, (Barclay, 1980, p177)

The shirts of penitents (Barclay, 1980, p133)

Mixed with rubber to create “hairloch”, which was used as padding for the equipment dropped into Occupied France for use by the Special Operations Executive in World War Two (The Women who Lived for Danger, Marcus Binney, 2002, p26)

As crests for helmets (Ancient Greece, Persia) and on war standards carried by the Mongolian Army.

For bows for violins, cellos, double basses, violas and other stringed instruments (fascinating facts to be found here) including the Mongolian morin khuur or horse-head fiddle.

Callouses/Chestnuts (?)

Used in perfume making by the Blackfoot (Barclay, 1980, p177)

Flesh

Boiled for men, dogs and poultry (Simmonds, 1862, p364)

Cat and dog meat (Gordon, 1893, p187)

Fed to animals on fur farms (Horse meat for fur farms: its chemical composition by Sedgwick E Smith, Washington, Department of the Interior, 1940)

Fed to zoo animals in Central Park (The Daily Yellowstone Journal, 2nd December 1887, p1)

Fed to hunting hounds (UK)

Fed to pigs raised at knackers yards and sold for commercial pork-pie making in the UK (Among Horses in Russia by Captain M H Hayes, 1900)

Hoofs

Trimmings turned into funeral wreaths (Luc Sante’s The Other Paris); bright blue dye (Simmonds, 1862, p340)

Gelatine, prussiate, “fancy snuff boxes” (Simmonds, 1862, p364)

Glue, blue-maker manufacture (Gordon, 1893, p186)

As pendants by some Native American groups, (Barclay, 1980, p177)

Armour – “These mares [the Sarmatians use] not only use for war, but also sacrifice them to the local gods and eat them for food. Their hoofs they collect, clean, split, and make from them as it were python scales. . . . These pieces they bore and stitch together with the sinews of horses and oxen, and then use them as breastplates that are as handsome and strong as those of the Greeks. For they can withstand blows of missiles and those struck in close combat.” (Description of Greece, Pausanias, translated by W H S Jones)

Blood

Button manufacture; albumen extracted and used for making photographs  (Carpenter, 1893, p9)

Dung

For making cores/loose internal parts of casting moulds in foundries “in some foreign countries” (Simmonds, 1862, p368)

Collected, moulded into cakes for fuel and sold (China) (Simmonds, 1862, p369)

To insulate roofs (Copper Age Botai culture, Kazakhstan)

Urine

For making PreMarin, a hormone used to allay menopause symptoms and in feminizing hormone therapy for transwomen.

Boiled to preserve seeds, in a mythical Chinese pharmacopoeia.

Bezoar (a solid mass that forms in the digestive tract of some animals)

“It has the medicinal properties of settling fright and resolving phlegm, clearing heat and dispelling poisons. It is used to treat internal proliferation of phlegm-heat, manic depression (diankuang) and fright epilepsy (jingxian), malign poisons, ulcers and swellings, disturbances of consciousness, etc.” (Bencao gangmu, a Chinese Systematic Materia Medica by Li Shizhen, 1590)

Horse-shoes

Shipped to China, straightened and sharpened into razors (Carpenter, 1893, p9)

Horse-shoe Nails

“Horse-shoe nails, kicked about the world by horses innumerable, are not the useless fragments we might naturally deem them. Gun-makers tell us that no iron is so well fitted for their purpose as that which is derived from horse-shoe nails and similar worn fragments. The nails are, in the first instance, made of good sound iron, and the violent concussions they receive when a horse is walking over a stony road, give a peculiar annealing and toughnening to the metal, highly beneficial to its subsequent use for gun-barrels” (Simmonds, 1862, p418)

Body

If you’ve had your horse cremated, the cremains can be transformed into diamonds or glass jewellery as a keepsake.

Alternatively, the horse can be allowed to break down into compost.

Department of Zero Surprises and Some Hope

Illustration from Nutztierhaltung & Tiermedizin & Pferd by Georg Simon Winter, 1678 via Wikimedia Commons.

Illustration from Nutztierhaltung & Tiermedizin & Pferd by Georg Simon Winter, 1678 via Wikimedia Commons.

Tons of low-grade Canadian horse meat were purchased and passed off as halal beef by the Dutch businessman who is now in custody as French authorities investigate the scandal in which horse meat from Romania wound up labelled as ground beef.

(The Globe and Mail – and for my background piece on the scandal, Spiegel Online.)

Yesterday the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) announced bold steps designed to improve endurance horse welfare, proposing unprecedented athlete penalties for equine injuries, extended rest periods, and increased accountability.

(TheHorse.com)

 

 

Whole Heap of Little Horse Links

  • Composer Eve Harrison teamed up with Scottish schoolchildren to write a musical about the horse meat scandal, called The Unspeakable. If I weren’t on the move just now I would dig out a 17th century story in which Scottish children chased and stoned a man known to eat horse meat. (BBC)
  • The FAO reports that the number of horses in the world has dropped by a million every year from 2009–2011, doubtless in response to the recession. The number of donkeys has increased – again, I’m pretty sure that’s down to the recession too. Donkeys make the developing world go round, after all. (Horse Talk NZ)
  • In the wake of the horse meat scandal, Ireland tightened its enforcement of slaughter regulations, with the result that the number of horses entering abattoirs has plummetted. The government is now considering a humane disposal programme for horses that have been treated with bute and other drugs that render them unfit for human consumption. (Irish Times) Meanwhile the UK’s DEFRA will close the loop hole that allowed horses travelling between Ireland, the UK and France to escape a full vet inspection. Racehorses and FEI competitors will still be excused (Horse Talk NZ)
  • In May the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ and Exhibitors’ Association’s executive committee voted in favour of a bill that would end the use of padded shoes and chains. The board of directors nixed it. Now a member of the executive committee is running an unauthorised poll among members to ask them what they think, and feathers are flying (The Tennessean)
  • Archaeologists in Bulgaria have uncovered a 2,500 year-old Thracian chariot and two horses – the twist? The horses were somehow buried standing (Habitat for Horses)