Since horsemeat outrage is suddenly in vogue, now seems a good time for me to write about my own scandal involving equine flesh. Although it played out on a smaller, more domestic scale than the one currently gripping Britain, believe me when I say it was no less traumatic.
Our story begins in Bordeaux, that charming French town better known for its fine wines than for scarring young children for life. It takes place at a time when I was more inattentive than usual, thanks to the thesis I was in the midst of writing. I felt that my studies were taking over my life, leaving me tired, snappy, and riddled with guilt over neglecting my daughters, who were then 10 and 12 years old.
One day I decided to make up for my negligence by cooking a proper roast beef dinner for my family. (I’m a terrible cook, but it was either that or clean the filthy house to prove my love, so….) I remember how virtuous and maternal I felt as I put the meat in the roasting pan, ringed it with carrots and potatoes, rubbed it with some things I hoped were herbs, and popped it in the oven.
A little later, as I was throwing out the potato peels and meat packaging, a sudden wave of dread washed over me. I guess it’s true that our subconscious picks up on things before our conscious mind is aware of them, because it took me a few seconds to realize what was wrong: there, on the cellophane wrapper from Carrefour, as plain as the nose on your face, was the word cheval. I was cooking horsemeat.
This would not do.
I stared at it in horror for a moment or two, and then did the only thing possible under the circumstances: I yelled at my husband.
“You. Bought. HORSE MEAT!” I screeched into the phone. (A note of explanation: The reason I was able to make Chef Boyardee the scapegoat is because he did all the grocery shopping in France. Funny how I didn’t mind driving on the other side of the road when I lived in Singapore, but one look at those narrow Bordelais streets sent me running for a bus pass.)
“I wondered why it looked a little different,” he said mildly.
“Didn’t you read the label?”
Of course he didn’t. Chef Boyardee’s rudimentary French allowed him to understand only the really important stuff: how to order beer, for example, or buy tickets to football matches.
“What do I do now?” I wailed. (You’re correct, I am a total Drama Queen. Thank you for noticing.)
“Let’s just eat it,” he said wearily. “Don’t tell the girls. I’m sure it tastes exactly like beef.”
I was unconvinced. Younger Daughter had recently developed a passion for horses — riding them, that is, not ingesting them — and was demanding weekly lessons out in the countryside. It didn’t seem fair to trick her into eating the object of her affections. On the other hand, we were living in a country that viewed horsemeat as just another item on the menu, and it wouldn’t kill us to try something new. In the end, I decided that we’d do as the French do, and eat a meal of (overcooked) horse and (undercooked) vegetables.
That’s what I told myself, anyway. What really happened was this: I watched that first forkful of horse make its way from Younger Daughter’s plate to her mouth in agonizing slow motion, and then, just as it was about to make contact, I yelled “wait!”
All eyes turned to me (although Chef Boyardee’s were the only ones rolling in exasperation.) I confessed my crimes, and was sentenced to an eternity of recriminations. “How could you?” Younger Daughter howled, over and over again. “You know I love horses!”
It’s true. Her love for them has grown stronger since then, reaching even greater heights with the acquisition of Brando, her six-year-old Warmblood. I look at that magnificent creature, and I know I’ll never consider horse as food again. Some cultural taboos are just too strong to break.
(Word nerd bonus: the act or practice of eating horseflesh is hippophagy.)