The French can . . . put a liquid overcoat, and non-pronounceable name, on a slice of horse meat and have an American wondering if it’s breast of veal or angel food cake. It’s that gravy those Frogs pour on there that does the dirty work.
That’s according to Will Rogers, political satirist, and top-paid movie star (cowboys) in the Progressive Era of the first twenty years of the twentieth century. It comes in his introduction to the Fashions in Food in Beverly Hills (3rd edn, 1931), a book full of the recipes of movie stars that coincidentally introduced avocado to the American public. Not British, clearly, but drawing on the same attitudes. Horse meat is suspect, sauces disguise it.
Look, there’s so much that could be said about the background to the current horse meat kerfuffle, quite apart from the lack of transparency and the revulsion at the very idea of eating horse meat.
There’s the five or more century-long effort of the Christian Church during the Dark Ages and early Middle Ages to ban horse sacrifice and the feast on horse meat that followed. They eventually made it seem disgusting just as in this century smoking has become regarded as disgusting.
There’s the interesting (and as far as I can see) unexplored question of what happened to the carcasses of all those farm horses and cavalry horses over the centuries. Honorable burial? Don’t think so.
There’s the scrabble in the nineteenth century to find new sources of protein for the growing European cities (blue bottle flies, moles, zebras, they were pretty desperate). The horse was the solution in much of Europe, overcoming the taboos and disgust of a thousand years.
There’s the British reaction that they were beef eaters and would not stoop to horse.
There’s a debate that goes back at least to Plato about good, honest un-sauced food for real men with real appetites, endorsed by the British and the Americans, versus food disguised with sauces to stimulate the appetites of idle aristocrats, attributed to the French.
These attitudes creep in to the language (where’s the beef?), are inculcated in children by nods, winks, and instructions in manners, and crop up in jokes and popular media.
In short, as the American author William Faulkner said in Requiem for a Nun (1951), “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
I’ve been thinking about that a good bit the past week. First, the living past in the Super Bowl Dodge ad, which celebrates an agrarian philosophy of the hard working, virtuous farmer as the bedrock of the state. Now the equally living past in the horse meat scandal. Both of them are so emotionally powerful that they frame the way we experience the present.
We need history, folks. Without history, we are trapped in such suffocating webs of myth and legend that we thrash around unable to move forward.