"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Eating Horsemeat, Bush Meat, And Insects

An article in the Guardian (1.16.13) ponders the question, “Is it immoral to eat horsemeat?”.  One day a few years ago, an American friend living in Paris organized a dinner party and gave us each separate assignments for the meal.  One of us was to get the cheese, the other the wine, a third the vegetables, and I the meat.  My friend wanted roast beef, and advised me that there was an excellent butcher on the Rue de Sevres. I quickly found it, for it had the most succulent, brilliantly red meat displayed in the window. Tempted by the color, cut, and texture of the many cuts of meat I went in, polished my best French accent, and asked for a kilo of his best.

The butcher smiled, looked at me quizzically, and repeated my request, although hesitatingly.  “Are you sure you are in the right place?”, he asked.  I was pissed.  Yet another arrogant Frenchman assuming that yet another American had made a typically stupid mistake.  I had just come from a day shopping for a sports jacket and had been subjected to the worst kind of French insolence.  After trying on a number of jackets, none of which fit properly – too tight in the shoulders, pulling under the armpits, and about two inches too short in the sleeves, the salesman gave a shrug, poofed, and said, “Perhaps Monsieur would be happier if he shopped back in America where they have….” Here he paused for the right turn of phrase. “…More appropriate sizes”.  What he meant to say was, “If you want gorilla suits, go back to the US to find them. Frenchman are normal”.

My wife had taught me to stand up to these cultural Nazis, be pissy back, shrug and poof, humiliate and denigrate. The butcher saw this coming, raised his hand, and before I could say anything, swept his hand across the meat counter and the brilliant red cuts of roast, sirloin, filet, and cutlets, and said politely, “Perhaps Monsieur may not realize it, but he is in a boucherie chevaline” – a horse meat butcher shop.  In case I didn’t get the picture, he whinnied and held his hands out in front of him as if he were holding reins. 

I didn’t buy any meat.  My friend would never have served such a low-class food to her guests.  Then as now, there was no foodie cachet to horsemeat.  It was what the butcher ate.  When my wife and I were in Paris a number of years later, I bought, roasted, and enjoyed a prime cut of horsemeat; but I, like most Americans, with every swallow believed I was taking a bite out of Black Beauty, Silver, Trigger, National Velvet, Sea Biscuit, and Secretariat.

We had had a Chinese exchange student living with us for a school year, and he told us that dog was very delicious, prized in fact.  “Very good”, he said. “Delicious. Especially front legs”.

One day he and I took a walk along the C&O Canal in Washington.  Although it is only a few miles from the White House, this narrow National Park along the Potomac River provides habitat for a variety of birds, reptiles, animals, and insects.  Every so often Zhou Wang would point to a lizard, snake, heron, or vole and say “Very good to eat”.  I was so impressed with the variety of food appreciated by the Chinese that I asked him about it. “If you can catch it”, said Zhou, “Chinese eat it”.

There is great movie called Gummo, a twisted indie about a retarded-looking boy who catches stray cats for the local Chinese restaurant in his hillbilly town.  He and his friends hide behind food store, restaurant, and diner dumpsters, and snare cats with fishing nets.  My mother never wanted to eat Chinese food because she was sure that Beef with Ginger was really cat meat; and it took me a long while to get over my own revulsion at the idea of eating chunks of the mangy animals that prowled the alleys behind the old 19th century factories which had made my town famous. 

Over the years I became a good and adventurous cook and never shied away from eel, brains, thalamus, balls, tripe, udder, octopus, and a hundred other kinds of foods.  I cooked them for my wife and our two young children who didn’t know what they were eating, but loved it.  I drew the line at insects.  Like most people I could not even consider eating bugs, ants, moths, or worms.

One day I was out in the quartiers of Kinshasa, lively neighborhoods filled with bars and local eateries.  The protocol for all of them was to go up to the steaming vats of cooking food and order what looked good.  In one bubbling mess I saw what looked like worms, decided they couldn’t be, and moved on just in case to what I later found out was pig scalp in hot tomato sauce.  I returned to my Zairian friends who asked me why I didn’t try the____, the caterpillar-looking stew I had avoided.  “It is a national delicacy”, they said, and tried to find the English word for the worm-looking things floating on the surface.  One fellow diner wiggled his finger, flapped his arms, and repeated the Lingala word ____, which clearly meant ‘caterpillar’.

On another trip in Africa, this time in Cameroon Yaoundé to Bamenda, I stopped at a local restaurant for lunch.  Because the waiter did not speak French or English, my African colleague ordered for me.  When the food came – an unrecognizable stew, very oily, with only a few vegetables, and small chunks of meat.  “What are we eating?”, I asked.

“Better not to inquire”, he replied, and then went on to tell me that it was ‘bush meat’, i.e. any wild animal caught that day in the forest.  It could be monkey, rat, snake, or varmint. I ate it, and we moved on.

My lifelong adage has always been, “If everybody eats it, it has to be good”.  Even if bush meat was all people could afford, recipes had evolved over time.  Cooks spiced and cooked food in ways that took advantage of whatever good taste it had and disguised all the bad.  Many of the surreally blazing hot curries I had eaten in India were nothing more than brain-stimulating (one theory suggests that hot food stimulates endorphins), hunger-quelling, and taste-numbing meals.  I never balked at anything, except insects.

Which brings us to the moral issue concerning the consumption of horsemeat, raised by Natalie Hanman in the Guardian:

Horse DNA has been found in burgers sold by four major supermarket chains in Britain – Aldi, Iceland, Lidl and Tesco – forcing stores to withdraw them from sale. In one sample, the Guardian reports, horsemeat accounted for 29% relative to the beef content.

The Independent has rounded up "10 great horsemeat puns" on Twitter following the revelations (and one bad one from John Prescott) but the reaction from the supermarket chains, the authorities and the media suggests we are incredibly squeamish about eating horsemeat. Why? Is it more immoral to dine on a horse than a cow? The Telegraph's James Kirkup thinks not: "there's nothing wrong with eating horse, or any other meat, just as long as we're honest about it. And that means everyone, producer and consumer alike."

As I have mentioned above, honesty is not always the best policy.  I was happy that my Cameroonian colleague did not go into detail about the bush meat; but I see the point.  If there is cat or dog in my hamburger, I should know about it.  I am sure that if I ever visit China I will have to try dog, just to see what the fuss is all about.  These ‘table dogs’ are raised for eating, and are not rounded up from the wild packs that roam in some cities.  They may not be as humanely treated as our cage-free, open-range, lovingly raised poultry and livestock; but are cared for to be sure that they are as succulent, marbled, and delicious as any porterhouse; and I am sure are delicious. 

I hate cats, think they are dumb and evil, and am happy whenever I see one squished on the road; and perhaps because of these Osiris, evil-eyed, creepy nightmares of cats I have, the thought of actually eating one – the most perverted communion ever – would never occur to me.

As for horseflesh? Why not?

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