Six years ago, an episode of Canadian Top Chef featured a moment that would never be replicated on its American counterpart under any circumstances. Nothing about most of the episode was particularly outstanding: It had a French theme with New York-based chef Daniel Boulud dropping in as a guest judge, and the elimination challenge required each contestant to cook with a different protein common in French cuisine.
One by one, contestants randomly chose proteins: sweetbreads, frogs’ legs... horse. Andrea, the contestant who drew horse, whipped up a horse tartare and the judges found it passable; all in all, the slab of equine flesh only got about 45 seconds of screen time. But those 45 seconds prompted mass outrage: Media outlets jumped all over it, and a Facebook page calling for a boycott of Top Chef Canada garnered thousands of followers (six years later, it’s still active).
The Food Network, which produces the Canadian version of Top Chef, defended using horse as part of “a truly authentic, traditional French menu.” The network ended up pulling the episode from its website — and it may have been a learning experience, as Top Chef Canada never went near the meat again.
While it may not be to those protesters’ tastes, eating horse is quite common, and has historic precedence in Europe and Asia. It has long been consumed in Central Asia by nomadic groups in countries like Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, where grassy steppes allowed horses to thrive; a horse sausage, kazy, is particularly popular.
Further west, consuming horse meat has had a more fraught history: Pagan groups in Europe were accustomed to it, but Pope Gregory III issued an edict against eating it in 732 (apparently to target the pagans). It has never been on the menu for Jews — the hooves mean horse isn’t kosher — and while Muslims can eat it, they have sometimes been discouraged from doing so.
Though stereotypically seen as a hub for horse meat, France didn’t jump on the bandwagon until the revolutionary era, when it dawned upon revolutionaries to seize the aristocrats’ steeds to help feed the population.
As for the taste of it: It’s a red meat, often considered adjacent to both beef and venison, with a touch of minerality and sweetness. David McMillan, co-owner of prominent Montreal restaurant Joe Beef, which has often served horse, is a fan of it as a leaner meat choice.
“I like the depth of flavor, I really view it as a healthy option,” McMillan says. “If someone wants a delicious steak, I’m not going to steer them down the horse path. If I see a guy who’s pretty ripped, or someone who seems pretty serious about the gym — no cream, no butter — I might suggest a big green salad and a horse tenderloin. It’s a pretty clean meal.”
The kerfuffle caused by Top Chef Canada’s foray into horse meat certainly would have discouraged producers of its American counterpart from cooking with equine — had the idea ever occurred to them. But there’s another key reason why such an episode will never air: Horse meat simply isn’t available in the U.S.
Killing horses isn’t technically banned in the U.S.; variations on an outright horse slaughter ban have surfaced but floundered in Congress several times since 2006. But appropriations committees did successfully ban funding to the USDA to inspect horse meat in 2007 — and if there’s no money for inspections, there’s no guarantee of safety, therefore it can’t be sold. In the words of a USDA spokesperson, “If there is no mark of inspection, then horse meat is not allowed to move in our national commerce.” This spelled the end for America’s three horse-slaughter facilities, closed a decade ago. (Their products had primarily been sent overseas.)
The horse debate was revived earlier this year: In July, the USDA’s annual funding bill passed without the ban on horse meat inspection funding. But the USDA isn’t free to resume looking at horse carcasses yet. The House has to pass that bill, and the ban could be added back on. In short: Horse meat won’t be appearing on American menus any time soon.
Given the above legal situation, the answer to “Why don’t Americans eat horse?” seems fairly straightforward. But even if it were freely available, it’s unlikely that horse patties would manifest on supermarket shelves. The Canadian situation bears this out: Through language and cultural ties to France, the French-speaking province of Quebec is somewhat accepting of horse eating; in Montreal, it’s no challenge to find the meat in a grocery store. A number of restaurants feature it on menus, too.
But outside Quebec it’s almost impossible to find, despite the fact that Canada is one of the world’s largest horse meat-producing countries. Toronto has a horse meat butcher, but restaurants peddling it in the city are rare.
Activists and academics have often leaned on health and safety arguments for why horse shouldn’t be eaten. Animal welfare organizations like the ASPCA take issue with the slaughter process: Nancy Perry, senior vice president of government relations at the ASPCA, says she’s concerned that slaughter facilities are made with cows in mind, not horses.
“To take an animal that is such an extreme flight animal and place them into the commercial slaughter process would be problematic,” Perry says. “Cattle are flighty but by and large they’ve been domesticated over time, and the [slaughter] equipment and setup is actually built around cattle.”
Others are more concerned about what’s hiding under horses’ skin: Dr. Nicholas Dodman, a veterinarian and former director of Tufts University’s animal behavior program, says that retired racing horses are often sold into the meat supply stream. (For American racehorses, this would involve crossing the border into Canada or Mexico.) His concern is that “hardened” track vets have often pumped those animals full of drugs to enhance their performance, which would make them unsafe for consumption, particularly due to the painkiller phenylbutazone (or “bute”).
“They’re basically walking pharmacies; the racing industry is completely corrupt and self-policing,” Dodman says. “It’s a bit like Wall Street: If you are caught, it’s a slap on the wrist.”
Canada’s Food Inspection Agency is adamant that it won’t tolerate bute in horses destined for the dinner plate. In any case, not all horse slaughterhouses are made equal. McMillan says he’s conscious of this, and has a clear idea of the horse he wants to consume: “A happy horse that isn’t a track horse,” he says. “I want wines to be natural, somewhat organic, I expect that as well from the rabbit farmer, the duck farmer, the cheese people.”
At the time of the interview, McMillan’s supplier was leaving the horse meat business; he noted that he’d rather nix horse from his menus altogether than switch to a supplier he was unsure about.
Ask the average American why they don’t eat horse, and they’re unlikely to know much, if anything, about bute or the slaughterhouse process. Simply put, cultural norms have kept horse off U.S. menus.
Perry points to a history Americans have with horses that Europeans don’t: “They have shared a role in creating the United States,” she says. “We could not have founded this country without the horse and they certainly played a role in every major war that we’ve been involved in until recent times.”
McMillan understands the cultural connection — and just because he’s happy to serve horse in Montreal doesn’t mean he thinks it makes sense elsewhere.
“I think it’s culturally appropriate in this province, one of the only French-speaking places in North America, if there was one damn pace to serve horse without repercussions,” he says. “If you’re going to serve horse in fucking Boston — which has no history of eating horse meat but you want to do it, get ready to be boycotted. If I opened a Joe Beef in New York, the horse would stay in Montreal.”
That cultural connection is amplified among people who have direct contact with the animals. Sinikka Crosland, the executive director of the Canadian Horse Defence Coalition and horse owner, likens them to a companion.
“I just felt a kinship with horses,” she says. “I love dogs and cats, and I thought, Why not horses as well? The more I got to know them I realized how sensitive and intelligent they are and how you can have a bond with them just like other animals that are pets.”
But it might not be that imagery of the American frontiersman and his trusty horse are so enduring that even two centuries on it’s stopping Americans from tucking into horse tartare. Stanford economics professor Alvin Roth points out that as recently as World War II, the prestigious Harvard Faculty Club was eating it. He argues that eating horse hasn’t been permanently and intrinsically wrong for Americans; rather, it came to acquire a status as “repugnant” and unacceptable as the populace grew richer.
“Repugnance has to do with not just what I want to eat but what I think you shouldn’t be allowed to eat,” he says. “There are no laws against eating worms, because you don’t need a law against something no one wants to do.”
He adds that laws — like California’s 1998 ban on horse meat — have helped to signal the cultural status of the meat.
The cultural argument is one that James Serpell, who studies human-animal interactions, knows well. The professor of animal ethics and welfare at the University of Pennsylvania draws a parallel between the aversion to horse in the U.S. and parts of Asia that consume domestic animals like dogs.
“There’s some interesting things going on in Asia now with a lot of local resistance to the idea of eating dogs and eating cats… there’s certainly a cultural shift going on,” he says. “And it’s due to the rise in pet-keeping in these countries and the experience of having those animals as family members, which is turning them off the idea of eating them.”
For Serpell, strip out the emotion and there isn’t a terribly logical explanation for the refusal to eat horse. “It actually would make a lot of sense to eat old horses,” Serpell says. “It seems like a terrible waste of protein [not to]. But it makes sense to people from an emotional and cultural perspective.”
To say that not eating horse is inherently part of American culture might be an oversimplification — individuals can be socialized in and out of eating certain meats. It’s something Harvard-educated psychologist, and author of Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows, Melanie Joy has contemplated at length.
“We learn to classify a handful of animals as edible and we’re socialized basically to disconnect from our authentic thoughts and feelings… When we see a hamburger we don’t see a dead animal, we see a piece of food,” Joy says. “If we see that it had been made from a Golden Retriever or kittens, most people would have a hard time seeing that as food.”
It seems that most Americans feel that emotional connection to horses: Polls asking whether horse meat should be banned suggest around 80 percent of people are against eating it.
With horse meat effectively eradicated in the U.S., convincing people to take it back is a tough sell, and debates around its ban are highly emotional for what’s effectively just an appropriations bill. For all America’s romanticism around cowboys and their horses, history shows people have been willing to stick a fork in a steed — but it takes the right cultural moment, and perhaps a dash of catastrophic scarcity. At present, it looks like America will continue to say nay to horse meat.
Tim Forster is the editor of Eater Montreal. Subin Yang is an illustrator currently based in Portland, Oregon who explores the themes of home, culture (which means lots of food), and identity in her work.
Editor: Daniela Galarza