On a recent day trip out of Geneva, we made a spur-of-the moment decision to stop in the gorgeous old lake-side resort town of Vevey for a scenic stroll and some lunch. The stroll was lovely, though it was a blustery day:
Having worked up an appetite, we were primed for the siren call of steak and pommes frites –and so when we spotted both words on a chalk-board menu in front of a charming restaurant frequented by locals, we headed straight in with barely a backward glance. No need for menus—we knew exactly what we wanted. The steak was served “au paprika” – which traditionally means a sauce made with sautéed minced onion, paprika, cream, and butter. The sauce enrobing our steaks was silky, savory, and plate-lickingly delicious. The medium-rare steaks themselves were succulent, and we ate every bite with a sigh on our lips. The pommes frites (french fries) and accompanying vegetables rounded out the dish, and we left the restaurant in a pleasant state of euphoria. I was reminded of the Virginia Wolf quote: “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”
In hindsight, it was clear I did not begin thinking until after lunch. First, I thought to take a photograph of the chalk-board menus outside, as a reminder of the excellent meal we had just eaten. And then I thought to read the description of the chef-recommended dish a bit more carefully, as the steak we had eaten seemed to be a special kind of steak—steak de cheval. And then I thought—“Wait a second, doesn’t ‘cheval’ mean…”? Yes, it does. It means horse. Whereupon I thought, “Oh no.”
So, did we or didn’t we? We did. For a brief moment, I hoped the dish was somehow “à cheval,” which is a (beef) steak with a fried egg on top. Except ours did not have an egg on top. And it was “de cheval” not “à cheval.”
I’ve eaten calf intestines, cartilage salad, chicken feet, slivered eel, fish eyeballs, squid ink, stewed pig skin, and assorted other animal parts. But this dish—as absolutely delicious as it was–struck a bit close to home. For Americans, eating horse meat is taboo. As the French food sociologist Claude Fischler has argued, we eat within a culture, and that culture determines what foods are considered edible, how to prepare them, when and how to eat them, and with whom. What we eat marks “us” vs. “others.”
Though people have been consuming horse meat for millennia, in the United States (and in most English-speaking countries) it is culturally inappropriate to eat it, even though some commentators argue there could be good reasons to do so. But across Europe (including in Italy, where I live), and in Asia and Mexico, horse is on the menu.
If I’m honest, when I ate “steak de cheval au paprika” in Switzerland, I dined extremely well. But it also made me think—about cultural norms, and what is taboo, and why. My conclusion: As someone who enjoys eating other domesticated animals, I cannot judge those who eat horse. And I have to remind myself that this squeamishness works both ways; many of the things we eat have historically disgusted others. This is how the Chinese once described cheese: “the putrefied mucous discharge of an animal’s guts.”
Umm, mmm good.