Earlier this week, Cure, the much-lauded Pittsburgh eatery, got an earful on Twitter and Yelp (the twin towers of people registering dissatisfaction on the internet) because they served horse tartare. A Change.org petition soon followed and the USDA slapped the restaurant’s wrist over the decision. One furious commenter on the restaurant’s Facebook page wrote, “Wow. Serving up mammals that are generally smarter than some humans. [sic] You putting Hipster Tartare on the menu next? This is truly revolting.”
Cure is generally known for having fun with their proteins (and flavor combinations). The very same menu that featured the horse also highlighted razor clam poutine, elk, and “lobster nuggets.” So why does serving horse cause so much uproar? How did it become taboo in the US, where we serve deer meat at fast food restaurants?
A Little History
Historically speaking, humans have been eating horse since at least the last ice age. Moreover, the vast majority of the meat-eating world still eats horse. You can find plenty of butchers and restaurants selling horse meat across Europe, Asia, and the Americas (Quebec and Mexico especially). Horse is so popular in some European countries that there are horse burger fast food joints — like Hot Horse in Slovenia. In these places, it’s no different than eating cow or pig or fish.
That’s not to say that horse has been universally accepted. Over the course of history, Catholics, Jews, and Muslims all banned eating the meat at one time or another. In Judaism, horses don’t fall under the cloven hoof didactic teachings of Leviticus, so they’re not kosher. In both Catholicism and Islam, the situation is more muddled. Islamic scholars debate whether horses are okay to eat to this day but err on the side of “no” — citing a Quran verse that anoints horses for adornment and riding, not slaughter. The Catholic bias doesn’t come from scriptures but from 732, when Pope Gregory III decided that banning horse slaughter would help distance society from its pagan ways.
Still, horse meat persisted in the United States until well into the 20th century. In fact, as late as the 1950s, Time Magazine reported horse as being a staple of western cuisine. This endorsement didn’t do much to turn the tide — in the years that followed the protein rapidly faded from menus.
The decline of horse meat was driven by a dramatic shift in the role horses played in human lives. By the 50s and 60s, the beasts of burden had become beloved pets. Horse ownership bottomed out in the 1960s at around three million horses in the United States. Today, we keep closer to eight million horses as pets.
There were other factors, too. Horse meat was often associated with starving troops on the battlefield, who had to resort to eating their horses to survive. It was a meal of last resort, food for the desperate. It’s no surprise then that the last boom in horse meat in America came in the 1970s and was attributed to a shortage of other meats.
In 2007, the last horse slaughterhouse in the United States closed. The era of horse meat in American cuisine looked like a relic of the past.