Horseburgers Are Probably Delicious
A horse is a horse of course of course.
Bucephalus was the horse of Alexander the Great. As the story goes a merchant named Philonicus offered to sell Bucephalus to Philip of Macedon for the price of thirteen talents. At first Philip balked as it seemed no one could tame the massive black animal. But then Philip's son, ten-year-old Alexander, extended his hand to the beast and calmed it, and jumped on its back and rode him across the open fields. From that point on Bucephalus and Alexander became inseparable. Legend has it that Bucephalus saved the conqueror’s life on several occasions, and when the beast died in battle in the year 326 BCE, Alexander held a lavish funeral and even named a city in his honor. In later years Bucephalus was regarded as a god.
Throughout history horses have been steeped in mysticism. These animals, which in pre-ancient times were slaughtered en masse for their meat, once domesticated became magical, even divine. They took on new forms and avatars. The pegasus, The tulpar, the unicorn. Beginning around 5,000 BCE there developed an aversion to the eating of horses. The act was considered taboo, a sort of cannibalism, or act of ritual murder. In some circles the horse even took on sexual symbolism, becoming a fetish item.
Horses were almost never sacrificed in history. The Romans would sacrifice one warhorse per year to the god of war, but for the most part avoided the practice. In some cultures horses were thrown into rivers to call upon the floods. In ancient Ireland a king would marry a white mare, which would then be boiled in a giant pot after which the king would bathe in the stew as to ensure a good harvest. But this tradition did not hold.
Even in times of famine the eating of horseflesh was considered a desecration. Despite knowing the nutritional value of the meat, the idea was so repulsive that even Napoleon’s troops, starving as they retreated from out of Russia in the dead of winter of 1812, almost allowed themselves to die rather than cook up the cavalry stock.
Food aversion has always been with us and its not always horse. For example, the people of the Hellenistic world tended to avoid beef even at their most lavish banquets. They gorged themselves instead on stuffed dormice baked in honey and calves’ testicles dipped in broth. But this was likely a preference of taste.
Why do we eat the flesh of certain animals while avoiding that of others? Religions are filled with dietary restrictions, as was the first ever legal code written by the Babylonian king Hammurabi.
The pig has been banned by Judaism and Islam, among other cultures mainly localized in the Ancient Near East. But this is not done because the pig is sacred. It is said to be an unfit animal, an unclean animal.
From Leviticus: “the pig, which does indeed have hoofs and is cloven-footed, but does not chew the cud and is therefore unclean for you.”
From the Qur’an: “he has only forbidden you dead meat, and blood, and the flesh of swine, and any (food) over which the name of other than Allah has been invoked.”
Swine are meat-producing machines. And contrary to popular belief their meat is no more dangerous than that of any other. So why ban pork? Does God really care if you eat bacon? Could the consumption of pork really tip the scales toward indiscretion and sin?
Recent scholarship has offered practical theories. Swine require water, shade and abundant quantities of food. They compete directly with human beings for resources. Unlike horses they have no other function beyond their meat. So to raise swine was simply economically and ecologically unsound for cultures that lived in dry, desert environments. The profit simply wasn't worth the cost.
And what of the ox? On the one hand it was an animal worshiped as a god by the Egyptians, Chinese, Assyrians, Babylonians, Gauls, Persians, and Greeks and yet it was eaten by them all. It is an animal butchered so often that some species of oxen have actually gone extinct. It served as a source of food, of labor, a symbol of masculinity. So if the eating of horse is taboo for its usefulness, and the eating of pork is taboo for its cost, why is the eating of beef generally acceptable?
The simplest answer: oxen eat grass. Whereas pigs compete with humans for resources horses and oxen, which have multiple uses, do not. In arid environments where shade and water were scarce, raising pigs might not only prove impractical, but fatal. And with no fluency in science or reason, it was simply easier to assign mystical justifications for why one animal was good and another bad.
But what of the present? Most of us now consume pork as readily as we consume beef, as now pigs no longer threaten human food sources. Technology has stripped the horse of its usefulness. We race them, some of us ride them, but have horses not lost some of their mystique? Cultural key stones are hard to dislodge. Our lives are abound in rituals we perform but seldom understand. And when we finally shake them off, we're shocked at how long they had endured. Are horseburgers in our future? Or is the legacy of Bucephalus so deeply entrenched in the Western mind, is it so heavy a cultural relic, that it will remain with us for all time?