2012: Year of the Horse?

The debt-ceiling compromise that Congress and the White House worked out earlier this year left a lot of Americans feeling squeamish about politics. But the bill President Obama signed into law last month could soon make many of us feel squeamish about something else: horse meat.

A recent Associated Press report in the Chicago Tribune noted that Congress quietly succeeded in restarting horse meat production in the U.S., following a five-year-old ban on funding for USDA inspection of horse slaughterhouses. (The new legislation doesn’t provide funding for the new inspections, though—the department’s existing budget will simply have to stretch to cover them.) The AP cites pro-slaughter activists who claim that the first horse abattoir could be up and running (so to speak) within a month; it describes them as “scrambling” to open one somewhere in the Midwest or Plains states.

Of course, no investor is likely to fast-track a plant built solely to ship horse cutlets or shank bones to American supermarkets. Instead, the meat would end up overseas in countries that’d include France and Japan, where horse meat traditions are robust.

How robust? I asked my friend Masumi Matsumoto—who grew up, sort of serially, in Tokyo and Southern California, and often spends part of her summers in Japan—to describe horse meat encounters there.

In Kobe, Masumi’s eaten horse sashimi, called basashi, a delicacy from Kumamoto Prefecture on the southern island of Kyushu. “It was sliced thin, like shabu-shabu meat,” she says, “and the taste was—I don’t generally like beef tartare—I hate that bloody scent of raw beef ...” She trails off to consider. “This was delicate.”

Then there was seabura, thin slices of raw horse back fat, at a superfancy Tokyo izakaya where the chef serves four diners a night. Another name for seabura is tategami, “the mane,” Masumi says. “Some people are real connoisseurs.”

In Europe, horse meat has been a cheaper alternative to beef, starting, of course, when cobblestone streets rang with the clip-clop-clip of hooves. In a 2008 article in the New York Times, Michael Johnson described encountering it in Bordeaux. French cooks were snapping up horse in the form of fillets, entrecotes—even ground for hamburgers. “It’s lower in fat, higher in protein and cheaper than beef,” Johnson wrote after querying Eric Vigoureux, vice president of the Fédération de la Boucherie Hippophagique, France’s horse meat butchers’ organization. The Italians were eating it up, Vigoureux said, even turning it into mortadella.

Naturally, animal activists in the States—who succeeded in essentially banning horse meat production five years ago—are horrified by the specter of its return. "Local opposition will emerge,” Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, told the AP, “and you'll have tremendous controversy over slaughtering Trigger and Mr. Ed." Horse slaughter is barbaric, Pacelle implies.

Maybe. Still, I’ll bet I could name half a dozen American chefs chomping at the bit to do things to horse back fat or loins that’d show off a delicacy few of us probably never suspected Mr. Ed to be capable of. Braised on a nice bed of hay, maybe, with a few roasted finger-length carrots.

Image source: Basashi from Flickr member shrk under Creative Commons