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Why We Have Such Complicated Feelings About Eating Horses

Smoked horse meat on toast

Smoked horse meat on toast

Tasty, Tasty Horsemeat. Why So Serious? 

Eric Grundhauser writes: In many cuisines—Chinese, French, French Canadian, Kazakh—eating horse is no big deal, and sometimes even considered a delicacy. But in the U.S., the U.K., and much of the modern English-speaking world, the idea of horses as food is considered a big no-no, even among avid meat eaters.

The practice of eating horses goes back to the time of early man, with evidence of horse consumption dating back to the Paleolithic era. But using horses as food has long presented both practical and emotional quandaries. Almost universally, horses have long been seen as companions and beasts of burden. “It’s an animal we anthropomorphize, but it also comes from this tradition of herbivores that we feel more comfortable eating,” says Amy Bentley, a Food Studies professor at New York University, who has never tried horse meat herself. “So, I’m sure that makes it more flexible in that way.”


There has also been a nearly ever-present religious objection to eating horse. Religions such as Judaism and Islam forbid the consumption of certain animals, including horses, as a general tenet. Within Christianity, horse-eating became taboo with a papal decree in 732, when Pope Gregory III deemed the consumption of horse meat to be a pagan practice (possibly in an effort to preserve horses for more practical purposes, such as war). This decree still forms much of the historical foundation of the Christian aversion to eating horse.

[Read the full story here, at Atlas Obscura]

The cultural development surrounding the production and eating of horse meat differs from country to country, but for the most part, it has been eaten out of necessity. “Here’s this huge animal with hundreds of pounds of meat on it,” says Bentley. “If you’re going to eat animals, it’s a pretty logical animal to eat.”

They still eat horse in Iceland, but it’s not especially popular. Tillea/CC BY-SA 3.0

In places such as the U.S. and the U.K., horse has been eaten during war and recession, when other animal foods weren’t easily available. This has given equine meat a reputation as a cheap food eaten mainly by the poor.

In both the U.S. and the U.K., the countries that today are arguably the most easily offended by the concept, eating horse meat was not uncommon into the 1930s, although it was often passed off as more desirable meats.

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In America, horse-meat consumption tapered off slowly, as traditional taboos reasserted themselves along with economic growth and people’s ability to be choosier about what they ate. “It is a luxury to declare certain foods off-limits,” says Bentley.


The practice did, however, hold on in certain circles. A 2007 article in The New York Times mentions several situations in which horse meat briefly came back into vogue (or never left). For instance, in 1950s Oregon, horse meat experienced a small comeback and Time even shared cooking tips in an article about the trend. As explored in an article on Priceonomics, during the post-boom recession in the mid-1970s, the price of beef soared, and a shop in Connecticut started selling horse meat. It became so popular that they were eventually able to put out a cookbook. … (read more)

via Atlas Obscura

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