Taboo: A custom prohibiting or restricting a particular practice or forbidding association with a particular person, place, or thing.
One of the most emotional experiences of my childhood came when I read Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, a story of a mistreated English horse. I remember sobbing for hours in the way that children can when they experience something so hurtful that only tears will do. Later, I saw a movie based on the book and the same thing happened, the endless weeping, sorrow because of the rampant cruelty in the world.
I would no more have eaten a horse than I would have eaten another human being. And, I will admit, that to this day, I still have never eaten horsemeat. That in spite of the fact that I could have done so countless numbers of times while traveling in France.
Admit it. When you come across references to eating horsemeat, you probably think of the French, don’t you? “Oh yes,” you say, maybe attempting to hide a slight shudder “they eat horses don’t they?”
Yes, they do. And they did, a lot, after the 1850s, when a French veterinarian with the French army, Émile Decroix, among others, urged the consumption of horsemeat, by the poorer classes, aiming to better their nutritional intake (and increase their work output!). A lively discussion on this topic ensued in the pages of learned journals. Note that horsemeat never really moved into the haute cuisine slot. And it became officially acceptable to sell horse meat for consumption and July 9, 1866, at Lemardelay, a Parisian butcher. Prior to that periodic official prohibitions arose against the sale of horsemeat.
Drawing by Honoré Daumier
But acceptance of horsemeat as food in France – officially or unofficially – had not always been the case. How did a taboo become a stereotype?
As with any taboo, you find myths and theories and some truths. Humans long ate horses without recoiling in disgust.
Przewalski's horse, thought to be prototype of early horses
According to Alan Outram, an archaeologist at Britain’s University of Exeter, horse domestication likely originated around 4000 BCE with the Kazakh people of the ancient Botai culture in Kazakhstanin central Asia. (Science 2009) Native Americans, such as the Apache, ate horsemeat, some believing that by doing so the horses’ massive physical power would transfer to them. Horses evolved first in the Americas, made their way across the Bering Strait and into Central Asia. Around 12,000 years ago they disappeared from North America, and only returned when the Spanish conquered Mexico. (See this map for a visual rendition of their migration patterns.)
In France, the story of horsemeat consumption began early: carved horse bones in Solutré in the Burgundy region prove that prehistoric humans devoured horses, as well as reindeer and bison. Hunters drove herds of these animals to the edge of cliffs and forced them over in order to kill them. Or that’s the theory anyway.
Horses at Lascaux Caves, France
Paintings of horses in the caves of Lascaux bring you close to the visions of these early hunters, or so you might like to believe. You really will never know.
So how can you explain what happened, why a perfectly edible source of meat became taboo?
Start with religion, always a good place to begin when it comes to prohibitions and prescriptions.
First of all, Mosaic law forbade horse flesh.
And then came Christianity, with its drive to conversion.
Fish on Friday and Lent and fasting – all of these dietary practices became associated with the Roman Catholic Church. All date from the Middle Ages, a period when the Church’s hegemony reached further and further every year.
There’s another aspect of the Church’s alimentary heritage not bandied about much: a taboo on eating horsemeat. If you’ve ever wondered why we in the West don’t fancy horsemeat very much, why we shrink back when we think of eating Black Beauty or Mr. Ed, well, blame a couple of eighth-century Popes named Gregory III and Zachary. They instructed Saint Boniface, on his way to convert the horse-eating/worshipping pagans of northern Europe, to put a stop to their practice of rampant ritual hippophagy (the official name for the eating of horse flesh).
Drawing by Honoré Daumier
Getting back to the nineteenth-century debate on the edibility of horsemeat, in order to promote the eating of it, upper-class men held a well-publicized banquet – February 6, 1865 - where the piéce-de-rèsistance was, you guessed it, horsemeat. The artist Honoré Daumier captured these occasions in a series of caricatures. According to Larousse Gastronomique (2009), the banquet took place at the Grand Hôtel, prepared by a chef named Balzac. The menu included the following:
Horse Sausage and Charcuterie
Horse à la Mode
Fillet of Horse with Mushrooms
Potatoes Sautéed in Horse Fat
Rum Gateau with Horse Bone Marrow
Wine: Château Cheval-Blanc
By the end of World War II, because horsemeat was not rationed – nor was it in the First World War, horsemeat found a place on French dining tables.
Today, although you will see Boucherie Chevaline signs occasionally in France, a quick survey of the yellow pages for Paris (city code 75) renders up a list of only thirteen horse butcher shops. You’d think that for an area this size – the estimated population of Paris on January 1, 2010 was 2,201,578 – there’d be more than thirteen horse butcher shops. (And there probably are.) Nevertheless, that number represents a fairly small number of potential customers.
One last fascinating fact: you will search pretty much in vain for cookbooks, or even recipes, featuring horsemeat. But with persistence, you come upon a few. One book does exist, in German – Henriette Davidis’s cookbook, published in 1848. A few others appeared in French in Montreal in 1975 and 1980. Of course, you must assume that people ate horse often during war time and during famines, when no food remained to feed the livestock. Desperate straits indeed.
Somehow, although horse meat or beef work equally well in most recipes, I don’t think most Americans will take to eating Black Beauty or his fellows any time soon.**
Taboos, as you know, run deep. Especially food taboos. The whole question is one of disgust, which comes into play here, working well to create stereotypes of the Other and their food habits.
But, you know, I plan on trying horsemeat the next time the opportunity arises. For, “When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became an adult, I did away with childish things.”
*Black Beauty: The Autobiography of a Horse (1877), by English novelist Anna Sewell, a classic children’s story in the English-speaking world.
**In December 2011, the U.S. Congress lifted a ban from 2007 on the slaughter of horses for human consumption in the U.S.
For more on hippophagy, especially in France:
Russian post on Kazakhs and horses: translate it via Google [WARNING: VERY graphic depiction of the death and butchering of a horse, not in any way for the squeamish]
La Viande Chevaline national site
Bouchet, Ghislane. Le cheval à Paris de 1850 – 1914 (Librairie Droz, 1993)
Bourre, Jean-Marie. De l’animal à l’Assiette (Odile Jacob, 1993)
Decroix, Émile. L’alimentation par la viande de cheval (Asselin, 1864)
Drew, Robert. Early Riders: The Beginnings of Mounted Warfare in Asia and Europe (Routledge, 2008) – chapter 2, “Horsemeat,” is of interest.
Gade, Daniel. “Horsemeat as human food in France.” Ecology of Food and Nutrition 5:2 – 11, 1976.
Horsemeat in France
Levine, Marsha A. “Eating Horses: The Evolutionary Significance of Hippophagy.” Antiquity 72: 90 – 100, 1998.
Saint-Hillaire, M. Isidore Geoffrey. Lettres sur les substances alimentaires, et particulièrement sur la viande de cheval (Victor Masson, 1856)
Weil, Kari. “They Eat Horses, Don’t They? Hippophagy and Frenchness.” Gastronomica 7 (2): 44 – 51, 2007.
© 2012 C. Bertelsen