Two weeks ago I placed the first legal bet of my life, on a horse named Zeddemore.
The racetrack at Saratoga Springs, New York is more fairgrounds than sports arena. Geriatrics camp out in front of the track, admission to the park is $2, to the stadium an additional $3, but why pay extra when outside the cheap beer is cheaper, the air considerably fresher, and the horses projected onto giant TV screens, larger than life? The atmosphere on the lawn chairs, though medieval, is less menacing than the club seats. There are no programs, scribbled with notes marking Shanghai Bobby a sure winner, discarded in manic frustration. There are no families lodged in pleather luxury. There are no grandmothers sipping whiskey sodas. There are no future key club members playing on iPads and getting restless as the long day wears on.
Perhaps I suffered from a sense of false confidence. The night before the race, I feasted on horse meat. I was visiting Montreal, disoriented from an extended drive from St. Louis into Canada. For lunch, I ate a smoked meat sandwich, provenance technically unknown, presumably beef. I knew that dinner would be my last chance for a little sympathetic magic. The meal was intended as a totem. With the still bloody flesh of a horse racing through my body, how could I pick wrong?
In Montreal, horse meat is eaten with no more hesitation than pork. Filet de Cheval, it’s called at Joe Beef. Cooked rare, the steak peels open to a rich purple, still cool in the center, like an exotic fruit. Eating a horse steak is not especially difficult, from a psychological standpoint; it is quite rich, though, especially when a fried egg is draped over top. I suspect that finishing a roasted horse head—eyes twisted about in wild fear, tongue protruding through massive molars—would be more challenging. But the meat carries only the barest tinge of gaminess. Otherwise, horse meat tastes inoffensive, if a little alien.
I have read, perhaps in the work of Marshall Sahlins, that we do not eat horses in America because we anthropomorphize them. We imagine them as sentient beings with human characteristics. To eat a horse, as to eat a dog, is to commit a variety of cannibalism. Our contemporary aversion to horse meat can be attributed to an inherited and now universal
conservatism. The historical association of horse meat with poverty and pagan immigrants has extended into a general rejection of cruel, anti-liberal consumption habits.
This is an unremarkable transformation considering the situation of horse racing in American culture. For me, it is harder to watch nine horses whipped into lather than to eat a horse steak.
Unless one refuses to eat horse steak on the grounds of its inherent barbarism, that is. A proper revulsion at the needless and heartless domination of other beings is rerouted into an illogical revulsion at the consumption of another being. If we inflict pain on others, we might as well not rationalize our indefensible ethical position with token gestures of compassion. As I trace this argument to its inevitable end, I can predict my future vegetarianism. At least for the moment, though, a feeble turn to aesthetics gets me out of an untenable ethical jam. Horse meat is a pleasure I am not willing to forgo.
Zeddemore finished second to last. I lost a dollar. Horseracing does not appeal to me as much as hippophagy, so I can console myself that I have dodged one potential addiction. No more lost wagers for me.
Jason Bell is a Columbia College senior majoring in English. In Defense of Delicious runs alternate Fridays.