Raising the Stakes

I have made it a practice in life to listen to women who are smarter than me. Over the years the pattern became clear: Listen to them and things work out; ignore their input, bad things happen. I’ve had the opportunity to indulge this awareness on a nearly daily basis; it’s probably why I’m not sitting under a bridge right now, gulping MD 20-20 under a blanket of trash bags. So when not one but two women told me “you cannot write a ^#&@ing Tribune column on cooking horsemeat,” I folded like the Chicago Cubs.

Doesn’t mean I can’t run it on the blog. So, if you want to read about me recreating a thousand-year old recipe used to prepare horses that have passed on (then in battle, now in a farm accident), read on.

Raising the Stakes

I have very little interest in the reality tv-style antics of food shows like “Bizarre Foods” and “Man vs. Food.” Instead of learning about the culinary history of northern Italy, for instance, viewers (and there must be viewers, right?) are treated to the horrifying spectacle of a guy trying to down a 72 oz. steak in under an hour. Snake hearts, insects and the unmentionables of male sheep have all had their sordid fifteen minutes. The combination of revulsion and curiosity drives us to do many stupid things – the five interminable hours I spent at a Wagnerian opera comes to mind – but I prefer to keep the how-bad-can-it-get impulse as far from my food as possible.

Still, I got a recent offer from a friend that intrigued me. It seems a horse on a friend’s farm had recently been put down (after an injury, not illness) and rather than simply bury the thing or send it off to the landfill, they decided to try it out; as food. Now horse would qualify as a bizarre food to most Americans, but countries as close as Canada hold it in high regard. France and Italy have famous recipes dedicated to the subject. In Japan they serve it raw. So, yeah, I told him; I’ll take a little off your hands.

Then the real questions started. How, exactly, do you go about cooking a horse? One person who’d already had some leg from the animal said it smelled, well, like a horse. Nothing deeply offensive, but awkward when you’re trying to eat, taste being as reliant on smell as it is. I decided I needed something to offset the potential “gaminess” of the meat. Something strong, intense. Maybe a long marinade. In a stroke of luck I happened upon a recipe about that time on a New York Times food blog that seemed to fit. It was a 1,000 year-old preparation for horse, adapted for modern palate for use with good old, cow-derived rib-eyes. According to Mark Bittman, author of “How to Cook Everything” among other titles, it was transporting, medieval. It was perfect.

I prepared the marinade (recipe below) and placed it in the refrigerator to cool, then pulled out my cryovacked horse loin. It looked a bit like a smooth version of skirt steak; relatively thin, finely-grained and bright red. Nothing wrong so far, I thought, and cut the package open, again finding nothing amiss. It smelled pretty neutral, actually, and into the marinade it went.

Anecdote about its history in Italy

The United States is actually a world leader in the production of horses as meat animals; we just ship it abroad. And much of the opposition to serving horse – none other than Gordon Ramsey faced protests and public ridicule after serving the meat in his London restaurant – stems from the industry’s connection to inhumane treatment of racing horses in the years following their Belmont glory. Mine came from a nice farm, where it ostensibly got to frolic and do horse things. So that took care of one problem. Still, I’ll admit to a little squeamishness while firing up the grill last week and approaching the moment of truth.

The meat, having spent three days in what is essentially a mulled-wine marinade, was now deeply, almost distressingly purple. It smelled strongly of cloves and cinnamon and was noticeable softer. After two minutes on each side on a super-hot grill, the thin loins were charred around the edges and grill-marked: they could have been thin round steaks. Finally getting to the actually eating part, I was surprised to find the meat extremely neutral, almost a little bland, and while not tender, far less chewy than I expected. “Inoffensive,” we agreed on the meat, though the marinade was overpowering.

We agreed we’d be willing to try horse again where they know what to do with it. For now I’ll leave poor Flicka alone, but when in Rome…

(note in recipe length of marinating time, need to like cloves)

Really Old-Fashioned Marinated Rib-Eye

by Mark Bittman

Adapted from Frank DeCarlo

Time: About 20 minutes, plus marinating

1/2 bottle rich, full-bodied red wine, preferably Amarone

2 tablespoons sugar

6 whole cloves

1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon orange zest

2 8- to 12-ounce rib-eye steaks, about 1/2-inch thick

Salt and pepper.

1. Combine wine and sugar in a large pot and bring to boil; lower heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Stir in cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and orange zest, and remove pan from heat to cool.

2. Put steaks in a large baking dish and pour marinade over them. Marinate steaks in refrigerator for at least several hours and up to three days.

3. Take steaks out of the marinade, season with salt and pepper, and cook them in a very hot skillet, about 2 minutes each side for medium rare. (You can grill or broil them if you prefer.) Slice the meat about 1/4-inch thick and serve.

Yield: 4 servings.

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Author: Scott

I am a married father of two. I graduated from Rock Bridge High School and then Mizzou before spending six years in the Washington, D.C. area. We returned to Columbia, Missouri in 2006.

14 thoughts

  1. The Black Stallion, Black Beauty, and all of the Budweiser Clydesdales are here to tell you to always, always, always listen to the women in your life and never ever tell us about eating horses. I will gladly cop to being a hypocrite…I will eat Daffy Duck, Bessie the Cow, Foghorn Leghorn, Babe, and Baa Ram Ewe and hopefully they will be presented on a fine styrofoam tray, but butcher paper works too, but not the horse…can’t do it. ewww, Scott, no, can’t do it! hehehehe

    Thank god they stopped you from printing this in the Tribune…

    (And I adore you, my friend, but this is just too much)
    πŸ™‚

  2. I love it. But I will have to respectfully disagree. This needed to be in the Tribune. The city needs to know about eating horse as much as it needs to know about other culinary interests. Food intrigues. I’m intrigued.

  3. Good for you, Scott. Western culinary culture is just as arbitrary as any other. Fried grasshoppers are as normal in the Philippines, where my parents grew up, as popcorn is here (serves the same culinary niche, too). I’m not sure I could handle trying that, but I’m quite willing to read about it and understand why it’s done and respect its purpose for others.

    If you get any more, I’d take some off your hands for the same reasons. As long as we’re on the topic of reviewing new meats, tried the goat yet?

    Pam, he clearly warned you not to keep reading if you had an attachment to horses. More than many writers do. And his point is absolutely right that our arbitrary opinions of animals means, in effect, that the lives of many are wasted. How many dogs and cats are put down each year in the Humane Society while thousands of Missouri residents can’t afford meat of any kind? Pigs and goats are smarter, in my opinion, than many “pets”, we’re just conditioned to make a mental divide. I include myself in that; I don’t know that I could eat a cat or dog. Doesn’t mean it’s wrong in general, just that it’s wrong for me.

    I know people who instinctively recoil at the mention of goat meat or cheese, having never tried it (or never tried good versions), because they have the Saturday Morning Cartoon vision of goats as stinky beasts who eat tin cans. Everyone’s free to choose their culinary standards, but I don’t see the value in restricting others’.

  4. Regarding the Trib, I grudgingly have to agree with the non-Trib folks. Right or wrong, it would have caused such a stink that any benefit from the opening of a few minds would have been outweighed by the negativity. If it was your own, private forum (like this blog), I’d be all for it (and am). But a business like that has to manage its image.

    I remember the online furor a while back when one of the papers published a piece on the horse slaughter industry. It was crazy. I doubt the Tribune wants more of that. Sad, but realistic. The Peace Nook wing would have been on you like horseflies to a nudist colony.

  5. LOL I apologize if my remark came off as condemnation; I was definitely writing it while laughing and hopefully pointing to my own hypocrisy about all of the things I do eat. Sarcasm is sometimes lost in written commentary and the spirit of my comment was meant as good natured ribbing and I am sorry if it didn’t come across as that.

    I will now add several smiley face emoticons to show that I am honestly smiling while I type this, because I really do love this blog and the entire community that gathers here! πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚

  6. Well, I have to say, if ever there were a reasonable, inoffensive way of eating horse, this was probably it. I don’t know how I’d react if there were some in front of me, but it’s good to know it came from a trusted farm and that you were avoiding waste rather than creating it by killing such an animal only for its meat. You obviously thought this through.

    I myself am trying to get over my hypocritical meat eating practices. How can you eat one part of an animal’s flesh and squirm at another? That’s why this weekend, we’re cooking oxtail and tongue stew.

  7. Pam, no condemnation was detected on my part, I know what you were saying.

    Oxtail and tongue stew…now we’re freaking talkin! I’ve only had tongue in tacos and cured, but both were so great as to make me (almost) forget I was eating something weird. Actually, I’d eat a hairball if it was half as good as the pork tongue I had at Lupa. Jeez.

    I’d like to hear how the stew turned out. I’ve done oxtail a couple of times and had good success with it. You do need to take the time to pull the meat off the bones, though…that’s a must.

    While you’re at getting over hypocritical meat eating, try the tripe tacos at Taqueria El Rodeo next time you’re there. If you don’t dig it, you’re out about a dollar, but I think most would like it, for one simple reason. They’re fried. Crunchy, only slightly chewy loving. Good stuff.

    Eric, I have not dipped into the goat. Since my gumbo today (of which I have at least two liters leftover and upon which I was going to rely on for a few more days of Mrs. SMEs-less existence) was a few thousand Scoville units above what normal people can tolerate, I’ll need to whip something up for the kids tomorrow. Goat braise anyone?

  8. I have been a horse lover all my life, and a horse owner for many years, and I really don’t have a problem with horse eating as a general concept. Eating a creature that died an untimely death isn’t something I’m uncomfortable with at all. Now, I wouldn’t eat my own personal horses, but I’m not sure I’d care all too terribly much if someone else did. The sad reality is that once your beloved friend passes on, they leave a rather large carcass behind, one that requires disposal, and some of the options are pretty distasteful. If you are lucky enough to have land and a backhoe, you could, of course, bury them, but if not, well, you call the carcass guy, and send them off to the renderers.
    I do have a huge issue with sending horses off to slaughter, but it’s not really their ultimate fate as dinner that riles me up, it’s their treatment beforehand, and the corrupt industries (like racing) that churn out foal after foal in the hopes that a few bucks will be made for their owners before either the horse proves a loser, or a catastrophic injury ends their career. There are many organizations that try to adopt retired race horses, but the supply far excedes the demand.
    Actually, perhaps if there was more of a demand domestically for horse meat, fewer horses would spend their last days packed in semi-trailers bound for slaughter houses thousands of miles away and end their days with much less stress and hopefully a bit more dignity.

  9. Interesting points, Ashley. I grew up riding slothful, spoiled Shetland ponies my grandfather kept around for our amusement each summer. Teddy and Tiger were dear friends, but hey, they weren’t substantively distinct from the dumb, driven cattle that also roamed their ranch. Well, you could ride them, so that was cool, but not much else different. Now, would I eat them, probably not. I was a tad squeamish as it was; knowing the animal probably would have heightened the aversion.

    Eric, care to chime in on the psychology of eating animals you’ve come to know – and presumably – to love in some small, fleeting way?

  10. I haven’t had tripe, but in LA I tried a Huarache de Lengua (google image search it) and Sope de Chicharronnes (fried pork skin).

    And goat is great. Not much different than lamb. The Mizzou Meat Market sells it often. We’ve bought ground goat before and have a goat rack in the freezer right now.

  11. Pam,

    As we all know, the internet doesn’t convey sublety. Sorry for any overreaction on my part; I was fully geared up to defend Scott from the PETA hordes I expected.

    Scott,

    High-Scoville gumbo sounds good to me. I have never had what I would consider success with gumbo; would you share some ideas sometime?

    Ashley,

    I think you nail the entire meat/animal use issue with this one line: “it’s not really their ultimate fate as dinner that riles me up, it’s their treatment beforehand”. That’s how I view all animals, meat or otherwise. It seems to me to be the most internally consisten ethic that can be used in a complicated system.

    On the psychology of eating animals you’ve come to know:

    It requires a certain mindset to raise a goat kid for 8 months or so, enjoying its personality and foibles, then point a rifle at its head and shoot it before cutting it up into meat and disposing of the carcass. Birds aren’t as tough, perhaps because we tend to feel a closer attachment to mammals. Chickens, especially up close, have this predatory-Jurassic thing going on that’s easier to separate from. Their eyes aren’t nearly as “human” as livestock.

    Of course, experience is part of it. If you grew up on a farm twisting heads off chickens, or as a hunter, it’s probably something you haven’t thought about much, like most of the world’s population. I suspect many rural hunters would find this discussion absurd. Mostly in the modern world have we succeeded in not having to take part in the production of our food, and in having the luxury to question how it takes place.

    I’ve been deeply guided by two things. One is just my personal beliefs, which regard death as deeply natural and inevitable; a loss to the living perhaps but not a disaster to the dead. It blends into the conservation ethic, as Ashley and others have touched upon. All life will end, but to me it makes sense to make the best use of what life there is. Thus I am quite willing to eat animals whose life I take, so as not to waste what’s there. My greatest beef with vegetarianism is that it’s an impractical ideal; I actually regard veganism as more internally consistent.

    The second is a quote by Joel Salatin which I read long before we embarked on our own butchering, but which stuck with me nonetheless. It something along the lines of “Killing may be necessary, but if you get comfortable or start to enjoy it, you’re doing it too much”. I thought that was perfect. I don’t like slaughter. I don’t expect to. But I consider it useful and necessary, and work to make sure I don’t do so much of it that I become complacent. This is the difference between small farms and factories; I don’t want anyone to be an assembly-line zombie mindlessly making the same cut 8 hours a day year-round.

  12. Eric it is all good! I have your back when Peta comes πŸ™‚

    I really like your explanation and thoughts about how we kill and process our food. It’s what I was trying to make a joke about; I am a city girl and two generations removed from the last hunters in my family, so I do fight a certain squeamishness for anything that isn’t presented on a styrofoam tray under florescent lights. But my love of food and my sense of adventure has made me embrace snout to tail eating and perhaps if you didn’t tell me what I was eating until AFTER I enjoyed it, I could kick that squeamishness to the curb! lol

  13. oh! and Scott, if we are going to have thoughtful discussion about eating a horse, for pete’s sake, surely we should be ok with an expletive or two! Why edit the fucking? πŸ™‚

  14. Pam, true, true.

    What seemed like an illuminating f-bomb at night did not seem so in the morning. Could be said for many things in life, no?

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