Thursday, February 28, 2013

Getting Horsey

Horse meat has been in the news recently.  The revelation that traces of horse meat had been found in products labeled as pure ground beef in Great Britain first triggered the uproar.   Much to the horror of many consumers, DNA testing revealed the presence of horse meat in frozen foods sold in grocery stores across Europe.  And then it was revealed that even the meatballs sold at IKEA, the iconic Swedish super store, were tainted with horse meat.  (The presence of dangerous hormones is an entirely different story; we should all care about potentially dangerous toxins in our foods).  While horse meat is not commonly eaten in England, in Eurasian countries such as Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan horse meat is a very common meat.  And horse meat consumption is not limited to less developed parts of the world.  China, Mexico, Argentina, and Italy are ranked amongst the top consumers of horse meat.  At Ljubljana, Slovenia's  Hot Horse fast food restaurant, horse burgers are pumped out the same way McDonald's serves Big Macs.  Not every country has jumped on the horse meat bandwagon however.  The Food Standards Code of Australia and New Zealand does not recognize horse meat as a "meat" and Jewish dietary laws forbid the consumption of horse meat because horses do not have cloven hooves.  To each their own.

I'm not advocating for or against the consumption of horse meat.  Food is very much cultural and very personal.  What is popular in one country might be considered inedible in another and within individual countries people make their own dietary decisions based on their own personal beliefs.  While Americans love their beef, reindeer rules supreme in Scandinavian countries, haggis fills plates in Scotland, raw fish is rolled into sushi in Japan, and rabbit is common fare in Italy.  And just think about some of the culinary delicacies found in Asian countries.   I once had a conversation with a woman whose husband travelled the world extensively for work.  She often joined him and attended her fair share of lunches and dinners where she was treated with VIP status.  She said she found Asian trips particularly challenging.  As such, she had found herself in many situations where she was expected to consume flora and fauna that would be considered inedible by American standards.  She quickly learned that in the name of world diplomacy she must not question what was on the plate in front of her before a meal, and perhaps to only question after it had been consumed.  In the Balkans, and other parts of Eastern Europe, every part of the animal is eaten.  And when I say every part, I mean every part.  I once visited a butcher shop in Budapest, Hungary that proudly displayed case upon case of pig penises and testicles.  You will see sheep eyeballs peering up at you from meat cases in Albania and as a guest of honor you may be presented with an entire sheep head.  Our butcher was excited when ordering a whole lamb for the first time, I told him that he could keep the head, feet, and all of the inner organs. Personally, they just aren't my cup of tea.  The French have escargot and the Greeks have calamari; strange looking foods that get consumed with great gusto.  In comparison to some cultures, American cuisine can be pretty tame but we have some foods that appear to be just as foreign to people unfamiliar with the American palate.  Try explaining a chicken fried steak or a corn dog to a European and imagine the questioning looks you will get.

I love food and will try just about everything once.  With the exception of a couple of the items mentioned above, I have tried them all. Some I liked and would order again but others I will take a pass on the next time around.  In a world where millions of people are simultaneously starving and obese, food is more than sustenance.  It speaks to who we are and our values as individuals and cultures.  It identifies us and defines us. Who are we to pass judgement on what others choose to eat?

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