Wednesday, November 14, 2007

I'm so hungry I could eat a horse

Even the most inattentive among us probably has some vague sense that food is related to culture. We talk about going out to a Mexican restaurant or a Chinese restaurant. We have some idea that people from different parts of the world cook things differently, although in the American culinary landscape it would seem almost to be a matter of a few different spices, maybe a different way of preparing something, but rarely something beyond a different flavor of an already familiar food. Maybe tonight you can have a chicken burrito, or maybe sweet and sour chicken, or curry chicken, or barbecued chicken, etc.... We all agree for the most part that chicken is part of the wider family of objects and materials that we like to think of as food.

What a lot of people don't realize or haven't had a chance to pick up on is culture determines far more than just how we prepare food--it also determines what we consider to be food in the first place. On a friend of mine's blog, she talks about eating live ants that taste like lemon in Ecuador. It only seems weird if you're not from Ecuador. Many Asians, I've heard, that don't use dairy in their native cuisines find cheese to be horribly disgusting. Whereas I think it's delicious.

Which is all just a long way of getting around to the fact that in Sicily and other parts of southern Italy, I hear, people eat horse. I've never seen it on a restaurant menu but I've seen people grilling it up fresh out on the street and serving it on rolls. I've seen horse butchers and I've even seen horse sausages. In fact, horse, is one of the many things I see sold as food that I don't see served in restaurants. (Evidence that restaurants only represent a certain aspect of the cuisine of a culture. Think about what you eat in restaurants in your home town and then think about what you actually prepare to eat at home. Not the same things are they?) Although there's no biological reason not to, we Americans have a tendency not to eat horse. We simply don't think of horses as food. If you haven't been brought up to consider horses to be a food source, you might even balk, psychologically, at the thought of eating horse. Whereas no one around here would give it a second thought.

I myself spent six months in Sicily in 2001 and have made a few trips back since and have never actually tasted any horse. I've known it was available but it was never served to me and, well, I just hadn't really been brought up to consider horse as an option for dinner. I had never tried it. It occurred to me that that was kind of silly. Curiosity got the better of me so at the supermarket I bought the smallest package I could find of horse meat. I don't need a lot. There's only one of me. It was about 250 grams--two very thinly sliced steaks. It looks a lot like beef but the color is different. Redder. And yellower, kind of, at the same time. I figure if it looks like steak I'll cook it like steak so I planned to pan fry it like I would a similar cut of beef, with a little salt, pepper and olive oil. I also prepared a sauce based very loosely on Argentinian chimichurri. Chopped parsely, garlic, red pepper, olive oil and lemon juice, served raw. Sort of a South American pesto, if you will. It's supposed to have onion in it but I didn't have any lying around. I think I probably used too much garlic, or something. It has so much bite to it that almost hurts to eat it. We'll see how it does in the fridge for a day or two. Maybe it needs to soak in that oil for a bit to mellow it.

As far as the horse meat--tasted like beef. I mean, not exactly like beef, but not different enough that I probably couldn't slip it to you with you even realizing it. Probably leaner than beef. You're not likely to make any horse burgers any time soon. Not enough fat. But, yeah, no big deal. The biggest obstacle is psychological more than anything else. In the end, I'm glad that I've been able to give myself a new experience, and to try something else that is indicative of the region--even if I have no idea, honestly, how the locals would have prepared it. The Professor seemed to think pan frying it was a perfectly reasonable idea, although I bet he's never had chimichurri on his horse. The professor says horse is actually a good food to feed to sick people, especially those that are anemic--it's easy to digest and has lots of blood which is good for our blood. (Lots of iron.) For dessert, a couple of Mandarin oranges from the market that are out of this world delicious.

In conclusion, I'm happy that I could I give myself this experience--taking a beautiful, strong and noble animal and devouring it. I didn't find it to be any better or any worse than an average steak experience. Actually, I'd probably prefer the beef steak. But there certainly seems to be no reason not eat it. If for no other reason than variety. Which, the nutritionists say, is good for us.