Anything That Moves
Renegade Chefs, Fearless Eaters, and the Making of a New American Food Culture
New Yorker writer Dana Goodyear combines the style of Mary Roach with the on-the-ground food savvy of Anthony Bourdain in a rollicking narrative look at the shocking extremes of the contemporary American food world.
A new American cuisine is forming. Animals never before considered or long since forgotten are emerging as delicacies. Parts that used to be for scrap are centerpieces. Ash and hay are fashionable ingredients, and you pay handsomely to breathe flavored air. Going out to a nice dinner now often precipitates a confrontation with a fundamental question: Is that food?
Dana Goodyear’s anticipated debut, Anything That Moves, is simultaneously a humorous adventure, a behind-the-scenes look at, and an attempt to understand the implications of the way we eat. This is a universe populated by insect-eaters and blood drinkers, avant-garde chefs who make food out of roadside leaves and wood, and others who serve endangered species and Schedule I drugs—a cast of characters, in other words, who flirt with danger, taboo, and disgust in pursuit of the sublime. Behind them is an intricate network of scavengers, dealers, and pitchmen responsible for introducing the rare and exotic into the marketplace. This is the fringe of the modern American meal, but to judge from history, it will not be long before it reaches the family table. Anything That Moves is a highly entertaining, revelatory look into the raucous, strange, fascinatingly complex world of contemporary American food culture, and the places where the extreme is bleeding into the mainstream.
Chapter 8: Off Menu
Denying someone’s humanity based on what they eat is a form xenophobia. In America, it can also be sibling rivalry. When Jonathan Gold got back from Korea, in the fall of
2008, he published a piece about eating whale in Ulsan, a port city in the south. “I am surprised to discover that the whale is delicious, leaner than beef, with a rich, mineral taste and a haunting, almost waxy aftertaste that I can’t quite place,” he wrote. “I am
already anticipating the nasty glare I will inevitably get from my marine-scientist brother, Mark, who as the leader of Heal the Bay has dedicated his life to pretty much the
opposite of this. I swear: I’ll never eat whale again. Mark responded, on the Weekly’s Letters page:
Bro — now you’ve crossed the line. For far too long, you have been chowing down on every marine critter I’ve spent my life protecting, from shark’s fin soup to live prawns to bluefin to wild‐caught sturgeon (largely freshwater). What did I do to you in our
childhood to justify this ichthyocide?
Now you’re on to whale meat. This time you’ve crossed the line. IT IS ON!
The next summer, I went fishing in Iceland and—local custom—bit the dorsal fin off the first salmon I caught and swallowed it. I got through it, with the help of a cook who cut the fin three-quarters of the way across for me, and a slug of vodka. A few days later, in Reykjavik, some of my fishing friends took me to a sleek Icelandic-Japanese restaurant. They ordered whale, and asked me to try it. Was I thinking about Gold when I agreed? Yes, and I was also thinking about the guest-host contract: accepting food is how you prove that you are not the enemy. The whale came to the table, unappetizingly red, with an oily taste that recalled the smell of a burnt wick in a hurricane lamp. My friends spent the rest of the meal talking about the polarizing politics of the hunt.
Several months later, The Hump, a Santa Monica sushi bar with a reputation for catering to thrill-seekers, was accused of serving an endangered species of whale to an undercover vegan activist. One night in the fall of 2009, Crystal Galbraith, a slender 26-year-old with bleached blonde hair and a mole under her right eye, put on her best dress, a knee- grazing, tight-fitting black number by The Row, and set out to save the animals. Crystal had read “Skinny Bitch” in college—“I was a normal eater at lunch and by dinner I was vegan,” she says—and after graduating saw “The Cove,” a documentary about the
dolphin hunt in the former whaling town of Taiji, Japan. She became obsessed, attending every screening, volunteering, talking to viewers afterward. Eventually, she met one of the producers, Charles Hambleton, a soft-spoken man in his late forties, with a distracted, trembly affect he ascribes to all the tuna he ate on location: he and the director, Louis Psihoyos, he said, both got severe mercury poisoning.
Hambleton, whose father worked for Pan Am, grew up all over the world. As a child in Moscow at the height of the Cold War, he was forced to eat caviar sandwiches because peanut butter cost too much. Living in Antigua as a dive instructor and a treasure hunter, he ate whale with the old fishermen, and has no regrets about it. (His ethical line is that he won’t eat factory-farmed meat.) When I met him recently, at a coffee shop in Los Angeles, he was wearing a skull ring, a memento from his work as a pirate-trainer on all four “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies. On “The Cove,” he planned the covert missions, setting up blinds for filming the dolphin hunt, and dummy-blinds to trip up the local police. When I asked him what had prepared him for the job, he said, “I was good at creative problem solving, long hours, nasty conditions.” I pressed him, and he rattled off his lawyer’s phone number from memory.
In a couple of days, Hambleton said, he’d be leaving for Western China with Psihoyos, and the six-person “Pirates of the Caribbean” prosthetics crew, who had designed him a new face, with straight dark hair, a broadened nose, darkened skin, and brown contact lenses. Disguised as a Chinese-American buyer, he was going to film at an exotic-meat market in Wuhan, where tigers and dolphin heads are said to be sold openly, and use the footage for a television show about environmental crime-solving. Psihoyos would probably have to sit in a wheelchair to conceal his height. The prosthetics took six hours to apply, and had to be worn overnight. He showed me a picture—shades of Mickey Rooney—and mentioned that he’d also be looking for human-fetus soup. (Human-fetus soup is a hoax; the pictures online, which Hambleton showed me on his laptop, are from a series called “Eating People” made by a Chinese performance artist.)
Hambleton told me he had heard about The Hump from a source at Sea Shepherd, a renegade anti-whaling organization. He wanted to sting them, and recruited Crystal to be the bait. At an apartment in Santa Monica on the night of the operation, Hambleton removed a snap from Crystal’s Guess purse, and sewed a spy camera in its place. Crystal brought along a Chinese friend who spoke fluent Japanese. They settled on a backstory: they’d just taken jobs in Japan and wanted to acquaint themselves with the culture by eating the most exotic food possible. “I thought, ‘This will be scary and I don’t know how I’ll feel, but there’s no other option but to leave with a sample of whale meat,’ ” Crystal told me. Her friend, Crystal said, wasn’t vegan, nor was she an animal activist. She was in it for the free sushi.
Not all that long ago, the U.S. government tried to convince people that whales, whose oil was used to light lamps, lubricate transmissions, and make margarine, were edible. In
1918, at a gathering at the American Museum of Natural History in New York described by the New York Times as “a conservation luncheon,” the chef from Delmonico’s served humpback pot au feu and whale planked a la Vancouver. The diners, “men prominent in scientific, business, and professional spheres,” praised it: so like venison! Given its cheapness, they “were almost unanimously in favor of having whale meat substituted for beefsteak and urged its immediate adoption as a feature of the national war diet.” Again, in 1943, the Times reported that “Whales, those greatest of mammals whose pastures
comprise seven seas, will be hunted for their flesh, which will be used to help fill the gap in the nation’s meat supply.” The Department of the Interior gave reassurances that the meat was “wholesome when properly handled and it does not have the fishy taste which makes seal meat almost unpalatable.”
Over the next several decades, the popular conception of whales began to shift, from floating oil factories to noble, cerebral beings. In 1970, Roger Payne, a marine scientist, published “Songs of the Humpback Whale,” a recording of humpback music he and his wife made from a sailboat: groaning whales, creaking rigging. Other researchers reported advanced social behavior: humpbacks make bubble nets to trap their prey; sperms can nurse for up to thirteen years; and killer-whale males live with their mothers into adulthood. Much remained mysterious, particularly about the baleen whales, which are too big to study in aquariums, but it was easy to make inferences from their large brains, complex neural pathways, and the behavior of their clever smaller relatives, the dolphins.
The American public began to view killing them as both an ecological and an ethical tragedy. After centuries of increasingly technological hunting, several whale species were nearly extinct. Eating them, which in spite of the government’s efforts, never caught on here, suddenly struck people as obscene, practically cannibalistic. In 1972 Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act, prohibiting the taking and importation of whales, dolphins, and porpoises, regardless of population numbers; the Endangered Species Act of 1973 outlawed the hunt, harassment, and capture of vulnerable populations. Violations of these laws can lead to imprisonment and hundreds of
thousands of dollars in fines. In addition, since 1986 the International Whaling
Commission has upheld a worldwide moratorium on commercial whaling. [break]
The Hump was singularly well located, overlooking the runway at the Santa Monica Airport, a great place to watch rattling vintage planes and featherweight experimental aircraft take off and land. It served things few others could or would: blowfish, which contains a deadly toxin and can be fatal if improperly prepared; keiji, super-fatty salmon babies which, before they are sexually mature, follow the adult fish to the rivers, where they are harvested. (One in ten thousand salmon caught is keiji, and the price can be as high as $150 a pound.) A sign on the door read, “Warning! This sushi bar does prepare live sea food in full view, at the counter.” It was routine to see a chef take out a live eel and drive a spike through its brain, and serve it seconds later. Live lobster would be cut in half and presented with the tail meat draped over the carapace, and the head, still moving, beside it on a bed of ice. Eddie Lin, who writes an adventure- eating blog called Deep End Dining and frequented The Hump, said, “The effect of it is the animal is watching you eat it.”
Brian Vidor, the restaurant’s owner, is tall, with bushy white hair and the warm but slightly furtive manner of someone who has spent too much time in camp. In the seventies, he worked as a guide in the safari park at Great Adventure in New Jersey. Then Chipperfield’s, a British circus-and-carnival company, hired him to go the Sudan to
capture white rhino calves, elephants, hartebeests, and topi for a zoo in Prague. They scouted for the animals from the air, in a small plane called a Piper Super Cub, and rounded them up with trucks, darting the mothers with tranquilizers so they would not stampede when the hunters took their young.
After that, Vidor took a job with a company called International Animal Exchange building a safari park—baboons, giraffes, rhinos, elephants, tigers—in Miyazaki, Japan. For the next fifteen or so years, he travelled all over Asia, building zoos. In Taipei, he drank snake blood in Snake Alley, and tried his first insect: a Jerusalem cricket, fried with garlic and red pepper, served with beer. In Singapore, he had scorpions on toast. By the early nineties, he had become a flight instructor. Landing at the Santa Monica Airport, he noticed a “for lease” sign, and decided to become a restaurateur, recreating
his favorite Asian street foods at a restaurant called Typhoon, where part of the menu was devoted to edible insects. Following Jonathan Gold’s recommendations, Vidor often ate
in the San Gabriel Valley. Several years later, he opened The Hump upstairs for the customers who had graduated to a more morally complex and expensive confrontation with omnivorousness.
Whale consumption occupies a special place in the Japanese conscience. In “Tsukiji,” a book about the Tokyo fish market, Theodore Bestor, a professor of anthropology and Japanese studies at Harvard, writes that whales are the object of “ritual concern,” mourned in special Buddhist services called kuyo. Historically and etymologically considered fish—kujira, the word in Japanese, means “major fish”—whales were exempt from Buddhist prohibitions against eating meat. (Catholics, historically, saw the issue similarly, and allowed whale on Fridays.) After the war, when there were food shortages, it became an important source of protein. Canned whale, mostly less desirable sperm whale, became the Spam of mid-century Japan, remembered fondly by some aging Japanese, reviled by others as something they ate only in desperation.
In spite of the moratorium, Japan continues to take several hundred whales a year in the name of scientific research. Before it was possible to collect accurate D.N.A. from small tissue samples, they said they needed genetic information to understand stock structure; now they say that they need to examine the stomach contents for the purposes of ecosystem management. The hunt, which is accomplished by firing an exploding harpoon at the whale, is considered by many to be inherently inhumane. In any case, U.S.
scientists have a hard time finding anything useful in the Japanese data, because the whalers go only where they know the whales to be, and do not carry scientific observers aboard. Pro-whaling politicians and organizations insist that whale stocks are healthy, and characterize the opposition as “culinary imperialism.”
But subsistence coastal whaling has little in common with the hunt today, which takes place in the Southern Ocean, in an area designated a whale sanctuary by the International Whaling Commission in 1994. The Japanese government spends copiously to support the
hunt—reportedly some forty-five million in 2011, including funds intended for tsunami relief—though it struggles to find a market for the meat, which, under the terms of their research exemption, they are obligated not to waste. In 2008, the government sold ten tons of whale at a discount to schools in Yokohama for ‘Traditional School Lunch Week.” Homey, old-fashioned, and not particularly prestigious, whale nonetheless commands a high price at specialty all-whale restaurants where everything from tongues to testicles are served. The tastier tail and belly cuts of the rarer baleen whales are sometimes available at fancy sushi bars. But a poll conducted by the International Fund for Animal Welfare in early 2013 showed that only ten per cent of Japanese had eaten whale in the previous year.
“The whale industry has nothing to do with whales,” Casson Trenor, a former Sea Shepherd activist who in 2008 started what he believes to have been the world’s first sustainable sushi bar, Tataki, in San Francisco. (Now you can eat sustainable sushi in Boise.) “It has to do with drawing a line in the sand about national sovereignty and resource management,” he said. “The idea of other countries being able to determine what can and can’t be taken from the ocean is anathema to the Japanese.” To this way of thinking, Japan has created a baffle to distract Western conservation groups from the fishery it truly wants to shield from interference: bluefin.
When they got to the restaurant, Crystal chose a seat facing away from the bar, and put the purse with the camera in it on the table. On the chair next to her, she put her friend’s purse, which had a gallon-size Ziploc bag inside it. They ordered omakase, chef’s choice. After they had been eating for a few hours, her friend asked the waitress, in Japanese, for whale: kujira. According to Crystal, it came to the table, sliced very thin, on a glass plate, with special soy sauce, and accompanied by several pieces of dark reddish-brown sashimi that the waitress identified as horse, which has been illegal to serve to people in
California since 1998. Crystal’s friend, who was seated facing the bar, had her leg pressed against Crystal’s; she moved it away whenever the chefs were watching. The women tasted both kinds of sashimi, while the chefs studied their reactions intently. As soon as the chefs turned away, Crystal’s friend touched her leg again, and Crystal secreted two pieces of each kind of meat in a napkin, which she slipped into the Ziploc. They left with a hand-written receipt, which included the words “whale” and “horse,” in English. The price for that plate alone was $85. Though the “horse” was gross, Crystal said. “Everything else was so good. I feel guilty saying it.”
Hambleton took the meat, froze it, and the following morning FedEx’ed it to Dr. Scott Baker, the associate director of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University, and an expert in cetacean molecular genetics. Baker, who recently established a database of whale, dolphin, and porpoise DNA, and has sampled cetacean meat sold in markets all over Asia, identified the meat as sei, the fourth largest of the baleen whales, behind blues, fins, and rights. Fast, sleek, and elusive—they live far offshore and can go thirty-five miles an hour—sei have been listed as endangered since 1973. Baker called the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, which enforces the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
A few months later, federal investigators asked Crystal to return to The Hump to collect more samples. Her Chinese friend had refused to go back, afraid that the yakuza were involved and might come after her, so Crystal brought another friend, Heather, a petite, half-Asian woman in her early twenties. Hambleton tricked out the Guess purse with a better camera, from a top designer of surveillance equipment in New York, who helped with “The Cove” and, Hambleton told me, works with Israeli intelligence. “A lot of the cameras we get before the military does,” he said.
Again the girls ordered omakase, and when they asked specifically for whale they were allegedly served a plate of it. While they ate, Psyihoyos, the “Cove” director, who was in town getting ready for the Academy Awards, sat with Hambleton in a van in the parking lot, monitoring the audio feed.
Meanwhile, a pair of agents from the N.O.A.A. and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had set up a base of operations at the Beverly Hills estate of an animal-loving former rock- and-roll manager. Leaving the restaurant with more samples, Crystal and Heather headed
to Beverly Hills. The house, vast and contemporary, with a waterfall, a room with a piano and eight guitars, and an extensive art collection, was also home to six rescue dogs. The agents turned a guest bathroom into a lab, and tried to ignore the fact that the owner of
the house, who has MS, was walking around with a joint. “The look on their faces was great, like, Keep that away from us,” Hambleton said.
In the bathroom, the agents worked late into the night debriefing Heather and Crystal and preparing the samples. Hambleton secretly kept a little meat for himself; he didn’t trust the feds to resist political pressure if someone decided it would be inconvenient for U.S.-
Japan relations to find sei whale for sale in the U.S. But he didn’t have cause to use it: the
NOAA lab the meat was sent to identified it as sei, too.
In early March, 2010, the investigators asked Crystal and Heather to make a final trip to The Hump. This time, they checked their purses before they went in, and stationed three of their own undercover agents—from NOAA, Fish and Wildlife, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection—at the sushi bar. The girls did their thing: omakase—including blowfish— building up to kujira, requested by name. According to the affidavit, when the chef left to go outside, the Fish and Wildlife agent followed him and watched from a stairwell as he appeared to walk away from an old white Mercedes in the parking lot, carrying a hunk of meat wrapped in clear plastic. Trailing the chef back inside, the agent said he saw the chef slap it on the sushi bar in front of an underling, who cut it into small strips. Then, the agent said, he and his colleagues instigated speculation among the other patrons at the bar as to what kind of meat it was. Finally, the chef slicing it muttered “whale,” at which point it was delivered to Crystal and Heather.
Of all the things she ate in the name of saving animals, Crystal Galbraith, the young vegan operative who went undercover at The Hump, found the alleged horse meat most disturbing. Whale had the strange but not unpleasant flavor of “fishy beef,” but horse she found altogether unpalatable. “It was pungent and gamey, really disgusting.” she told me.
To eat it, she had to fool herself back into a pre-“Skinny Bitch” mentality. Self- deception, as it happened, was not the only trickery at work on Crystal’s visits to The Hump. So committed was the restaurant to serving the outrageous and off-limits and hard- to-source that it resorted to a little subterfuge of its own. When Scott Baker’s D.N.A. tests came back, the horse that had assaulted her palate with its strangeness was revealed to have
A few days after “The Cove” won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, the Hump’s chef, Kiyoshiro Yamamoto, and Typhoon Restaurant, Inc., Vidor’s company, were charged with violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act. People were shocked. “Short of putting human body parts on the menu, there isn’t anything worse than serving whale to restaurant customers,” Mark Gold wrote on his blog, Spouting Off. (His brother merely linked to his piece about eating whale in Korea.)
An apology posted on the Hump’s Web site doubled as a defense of culinary relativism. “The charge against the restaurant is true,” it said. “The Hump served whale meat to customers looking to eat what in Japan is widely served as a delicacy.” The message also said that The Hump would close, donate to conservation organizations, and pay whatever fine the court might deem appropriate (usually $100,000 for individuals and $200,000 for businesses). But then the charges against the restaurant and Yamamoto were abruptly dropped. Vidor, when I asked him about it in 2011, said he couldn’t discuss the case. Prosecutors filed a separate charge—a misdemeanor—against the supplier, from whom, they claimed, Yamamoto had been getting whale for years. Using genetic information, Baker traced the whale served at The Hump to the Japanese scientific hunt.
At the end of 2012, a friend of mine told me that Yamamoto had opened Yamakase, a secret sushi bar with an unlisted phone number and address, accessible, according to its Web site, by invitation only. Bringing extra sake to share with the chef is one way to get invited back, so we had a cooler with us. When we arrived, Yamamoto was standing outside, smoking a cigarette on an otherwise empty street. The restaurant, a one-time gelateria next to a place advertising itself as “Home of the Pregnant Burrito” had
papered-over windows; behind them, a row of traditional narrow-necked bottles showed in silhouette, like a Morandi. The sign on the door said, “Closed.” It was the seafood equivalent of Totoraku, the invitation-only beef restaurant where I’d gone with the Hedonists, and in fact Yamamoto and the beef chef, Kaz Oyama, are great friends: the white Mercedes Yamamoto allegedly took the beef from was registered to Oyama.
Inside: nine seats before a sushi bar, a glowing pink lump of Himalayan salt, and a gigantic, bristling Hokkaido crab with the face of an Irish brawler. Yamamoto had opened specially for us, and we were the only customers. He went behind the bar and sliced a piece of Japanese Wagyu into sheets, grated a little salt on them and seared them lightly. The ban on importing the beef had just been lifted. “Only two weeks it’s been
available,” he said when he looked up. “It’s not on the open market yet.” He offered to get us some.
We ate the beef, we ate the crab, we ate gumball-sized baby peaches, olive green and tasting like a nineteen-forties perfume. There was slippery jellyfish in sesame-oil vinaigrette, and a raw oyster, poached quail egg, and crab guts, meant to be slurped together in one viscous spoonful. That dish—quiver on quiver on quiver—epitomized the convergence of the disgusting and the sublime typical of so much foodie food. It was almost impossible to swallow it, thinking ruined it, and submission to its alien texture rewarded you with a bracing, briny, primal rush.
“Damn good!” Yamamoto, a solid, gruff guy with bushy eyebrows, said, and took another swig of sake.
Yamakase was authentic, obscure, and demanded special willingness and stamina on the part of the eater. One influential blogger, who posted about eating 26 courses there with the French chef Ludo Lefebvre, wrote, “I think Yamakase's going to be the next big thing on the Japanese scene here in LA. I'm already thinking about my return trip—it's that good. Seriously though, if you care at all about Japanese dining, you owe it to yourself to give this place a try, if you can get in of course.”
But in early 2013, Susumo Ueda and Yamamoto were indicted, along with Typhoon Restaurant, Inc., on charges that they conspired to smuggle and sell whale meat; Yamamoto was also charged with interfering with the investigation. This time the penalties were potentially severe: up to 67 years in prison for Yamamoto and 10 for Ueda, and a fine of $1.2 million for Typhoon Restaurant, Inc.
On the day of Ueda’s arraignment, I went downtown to the federal building. In the hallway outside the courtroom, I noticed a young Japanese woman with a long black ponytail, shushing a baby. It was Ueda’s wife, Yukiko; I went over to introduce myself. She said that her husband now had a job working at a sushi bar in Beverly Hills. “It’s more conventional,” she said. “Not so interesting as at The Hump. But you can call in advance. If he knows you’re coming he will order something special for you.”
Ueda, a kind-looking man with a greying buzz cut and a short goatee, used a Japanese interpreter to enter a plea of not guilty. Sei’s status as an endangered animal was largely responsible for the outrage, but it wasn’t the legal matter at issue; the law the chefs and the restaurant were charged with violating covers all cetaceans, endangered and not. In a sense, he was accused of not understanding that in America whales and their relatives are considered too smart to eat.
Brian Vidor built his businesses around the thrill of eating the forbidden: tiny insects downstairs, massive endangered species upstairs; one place representing rapacious, selfish, greedy devouring of all the world’s creatures, the other broad-minded, virtuous, global humanism; one theoretically sustainable, one likely not; both challenging notions of what is appropriate food. Vidor’s lawyer entered a not guilty plea for Typhoon
Restaurant, Inc., too. After leaving the courtroom, he summed up his client’s position and, as far as I could tell, the attitudes of the adventurous foodies who ate there and distanced themselves when the dark side of their thrill-seeking was exposed. “He owned the restaurant, but he’s a Caucasian, he’s a fun-loving guy—he wasn’t involved day to day.”
In early 2013, Tesco, the British supermarket chain, made a startling revelation: some of its frozen beef patties contained horsemeat, one sample as much as twenty-nine per cent. Then Burger King, which used the same Irish supplier (who put the blame on its supplier, in Poland), admitted that its meat was potentially contaminated, too. A British food manufacturer disclosed that its beef lasagna was purely horse. Ikea pulled its meatballs— horse—from locations across Europe. CBC News reported that the horsemeat scandal had stirred the competitive instincts of Canadian foodies, many of whom were rushing to try
it. For Americans who worried that something similar might happen here, it was hard to say what was more disconcerting, the idea that you wouldn’t be able to taste the horse, or that you would.
Horse meat is red, bloody, unmarbled, and is said to be reminiscent of venison (venison, apparently, is the chicken of the alt-meat world). It takes a lot of grass to make a little bit of horse; given a choice, people have preferred to use them as work animals, transportation, and instruments of war. In the first millennium, the Catholic Church, threatened by the stubborn pagan habit of ritual horse-eating—it was tied to Odin worship in Germany and Northern Europe—took the unusual step of banning it. Mostly, the ban was successful; only Iceland, which made exemption a condition of conversion, kept at it.
Parisians discovered horse meat the hard way, as a meat of last resort during the Revolution. By the mid-nineteenth century, just in time for the Siege of Paris, when it came in handy again, intellectuals were promoting it as a cheap, nutritious, and tasty solution to the problem of hunger. The nineteenth-century French zoologist Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, who advocated for chevaline on practical and culinary grounds, wrote that its flavor was comparable to beef and recommended it by saying that “it has been sold in restaurants, even in the best, as venison, and without the customers ever suspecting the fraud or complaining of it.”
“Horse-flesh pie, too, eaten cold, is a dainty now at Berlin and Toulouse, and boiled horse, rechauffé, has usurped the place of ragouts and secondary dishes!” Peter Lund Simmonds wrote in “The Curiosities of Food,” in 1859. But trusty, tin-earred Anglo- Saxon—“horse-flesh pie”—was not the way to introduce the delicacy that, Simmonds said, was “at the present the rage” in the dining clubs and salons. The Englishmen of the Society for the Propagation of Horse Flesh as an Article of Food hired French chefs to prepare banquets of chevaline. Previously, the English had known chevaline by the name “cat food.”
In 1979, another intellectual, Calvin W. Schwabe, the “father of veterinary epidemiology,” published “Unmentionable Cuisine,” which he described as “a practical guide to help us and our children prepare for the not too distant day when the world’s growing food–population problem presses closer upon us and our overly restrictive eating habits become less tolerable.” The taste for horse, he wrote, was “superficially latent” in many Americans. Case in point: a horsemeat shop in Westbrook, Connecticut, that
opened in the early seventies, during a period of high beef prices, and was hugely successful in spite of mounted protestors. (“I’ll sell it as long as it moves,” the proprietor told a reporter amid brisk sales on opening day.) Schwabe also provided a recipe for meatloaf—three parts horse to one part pork—he and his wife made often during his years in vet school.
At the turn of the twenty-first century there were only three horse slaughterhouses operating in the U.S., all foreign-owned, with all the meat going to Europe and Japan. In
2007, the last of them closed, and U.S.D.A. inspections were struck from the federal budget, effectively banning domestic slaughter. Over the next five years, hundreds of thousands of live horses left America to be slaughtered in Canada and Mexico, under conditions advocates of domestic slaughter and animal-rights groups alike deplored. In spite of laws against the practice, a report by ProPublica suggested that some of them might have been wild horses captured by the Bureau of Land Management in round-ups and sold to “kill buyers”; others came from racetracks and were full of steroids, anti- inflammatories, and other medications prohibited in food animals.
In 2012, funding for U.S.D.A. inspection was restored, and various companies have announced plans to open slaughterhouses. While the majority of the market will likely be foreign, boosters are making a direct appeal to adventurous American foodies, on the basis of the other exotic foods they have accepted. “The Promise of Cheval,” a document recently produced by the International Equine Business Association, asks, “In a country where common gastronomic choices include everything from baby lambs and suckling pigs to grasshopper tacos and alligator tails, why can you not find the horse steak that
was available on the menu of the Harvard dining room in the 1990s?” (The Faculty Club served it, with mushroom sauce and vegetables.) It goes on to describe a cheap, sweet,
red meat, just out of reach. “When our Canadian neighbors are dining on delightful meals of Cheval au Porto, where is the same lean, tender dish to tempt our palates?” When I talked to Sue Wallis, a state legislator in Wyoming who is trying to open a
slaughterhouse in Missouri, she said, “There’s great action going on with artisanal meats and butchery, and I think cheval would be interesting to those folks.” Wallis is also a
raw-milk advocate. Her favorite, of course, is raw horse milk, which she has tried courtesy of an Amish farmer who sells it to the cosmetics industry but drinks it with his family.
The history of accidental horse-eating is long. Simmonds, in “The Curiosities of Food,” reported that no one in the English knackers’ yards could account for the hearts and tongues, and suggested that the “ox-tongues” sold as Russian imports might be equine
instead. Upton Sinclair put it on par with the other horrors depicted in “The Jungle,” revealing that, until public outrage temporarily put a stop to it, the packers, in addition to all their other crimes against purse and palate, were also slaughtering and tinning horses. At the turn of the last century, the New York Times reported frequently on a German butcher named Henry Bosse, “of horse-bologna sausage fame,” who operated a horse slaughterhouse beside the race track in Maspeth, Long Island, where he “transform[ed] decrepit quadrupeds into odiferous bologna sausages” for shipment to Belgium and Germany. Sometimes, the paper alleged, “after the horse meat was shipped to Europe and manufactured into sausage it was resent to this country and sold as some of the famous brands.”
Hugue Dufour came by his “horse-bologna-sausage fame” differently—by openly appealing to the outré tastes of foodies. Dufour, who is Canadian, grew up on a working farm; sometimes the family slaughtered and ate their horses. Before coming to New York, he worked for Martin Picard at Au Pied du Cochon, in Montreal. The restaurant is known for its hedonistic foie gras and whole-animal frenzies: Animal plus Incanto. In an
idiosyncratic homemade cookbook, “Au Pied de Cochon Sugar Shack,” Picard chronicles a sugaring season at a maple orchard forty-five minutes outside of town, where he has a second restaurant. Among photographs of syrup-immersed bacchantes, and detailed instructions on how to make squirrel sushi, he writes, “I LOVE carcasses! I like tearing them apart and picking them clean with my fingers and I don’t feel the slightest bit shy about doing it in public.”
Under Picard, Dufour learned to cook red deer, venison, bison. Au Pied du Cochon avoided serving beef, which it saw as the product of a wasteful, unwholesome industry. Although the restaurant did not serve horse, he began to wonder about it. The stuff he’d eaten as a kid had not been good; as a chef, he wondered if he could make it delicious. “It has long ribs so you can do a very Flintstoneish rack that’s kind of cool,” he said. He played around with tartare, a classic presentation—and the Tartars ate their horses, too. Ultimately, he decided that the leanness of the meat made it ideal for charcuterie.
In the spring of 2012, Dufour, by this time living in New York, was invited to participate in the Great Googa-Mooga, a food festival in Prospect Park. “It’s supposed to be the big foodie happening, so let’s see how far foodies can go,” Dufour recalled thinking. He sourced some horse from a friend with a slaughterhouse in Canada, and obtained permission from Customs, the U.S.D.A., and the local health authorities to bring it in. His booth, which he decorated with a horse cutout—you could stick your head through and
get a picture taken—was in Tony’s Corner, an area overseen by Anthony Bourdain. His offering, a grilled horse-bologna, cheddar, and foie-gras sandwich, was a test of foodie identity. “The foodies got torn. ‘Should I go for horse meat or should I not be a foodie?’ ” he said. Five thousand of them went for it. The event proved to many that foodie culture, as Jonathan Gold posited, had in fact attained the status of rock-and-roll—scant food,
long lines, complaints of “clusterfuck”—and when the V.I.P. section ran out of food, they came to Dufour to beg for horse.
For Dufour, the bologna was exploratory; he wanted to see what the public could tolerate. He was happily surprised. “They loved us so much,” he said. “I was like, ‘New Yorkers are great. They have no problem with horse meat. Let’s do it.’ ” Soon afterward, he announced that he would serve horse tartare at M. Wells Dinette, the new restaurant he was opening at P.S. 1 in Queens, and he found himself fielding angry calls from people questioning his right to remain in the United States. Then the head of the health department called him and told him that Bruce Springsteen, whose daughter is an equestrian and was part of a campaign that got horse meat banned in New Jersey, didn’t want him serving horse. “O.K.,” Dufour said. “I understand who’s the boss.” He wrote a statement saying that he would drop the tartare from the menu. His intention, he wrote, had been to “offer customers new things,” beyond the trinity of beef-chicken-pork. “It
was certainly not our intent to insult American culture. However, it must be said, part of living in a city like New York means learning to tolerate different customs.” Then he invited his critics to come in for a drink “and a bite of whatever animal they do consume (if any)”—foie gras bread pudding, escargot and bone marrow, blood pudding.
Haute cuisine, these days, can sometimes look like the dumpster of a taxidermy shop. A few years ago, Dave Arnold, the mop-haired food pioneer who runs the Culinary Technology department at the International Culinary Institute, published a piece in Popular Science called “Why I Eat Lion and Other Exotic Meats.” “As the food revolution continues to gain traction, our ancestral lust for robust, unusual meats is starting to spark and reawaken,” he wrote, and provided recipes for sous vide yak, bear, and lion steak (“57°C for 24 hours. Tastes like pork but richer.”). Later, he was horrified to discover that his source—the owner of Czimer’s, outside Chicago, which supplies much of the beaver, bear, and lion served in America—had several years before plead guilty to illegally selling numerous endangered tigers, including two Bengals; and an endangered black spotted leopard from the Funky Monkey Animal Park in Crete, Illinois. The meat, unloaded from a van into a back building, sometimes late at night, was, needless to say, not inspected by U.S.D.A.; according to the plea agreement, one of the animals, a liger—a lion-tiger cross—was shot and killed in a trailer in the parking lot. Czimer’s sold much of this illegal meat as “lion.”
“Maybe the whole foodie counter-culture is a reaction to the oppression of just a few things to eat and big supermarkets where you find everywhere the same thing,” Dufour said. “For me, eating other animals, including horses, is a responsible thing to do. If you like meat, it’s trying to find other sources, meat that is already around that would otherwise go to waste.” Because it’s not raised for human consumption, the meat sometimes poses a health risk—but, he says, so does conventionally raised beef and poultry. He went on, “It’s more like recycling a dead animal. We can’t start burying horses with tombstones every time.” For example, he buys blue sharks caught during sportfishing tournaments from the piers at Montauk. The meat—which would otherwise get trashed—is oily, funky, and fatty, he said, and when you smoke it and brush it with maple syrup it is beautiful.
Dufour wants to feed the people who want something different. At his next restaurant, M. Wells Steakhouse, which is set to open in June, he envisions a “meat temple,” where he will serve a zoo’s worth of birds and beasts, and forgotten cuts of familiar animals.
“When I call my butcher I ask for whatever people don’t want, what’s cheap, and make it nice,” he said. His plans call for a wood-fire grill, next to a concrete trough filled with lobsters, trout, sea urchins. “Everything crawling and live,” he said. “I grab and butcher them real quick and grill them really quickly.” From time to time, he hopes to have exotic meats like rattlesnake and lion, which he imagines serving in a black peppercorn sauce. “I would have loved to do horse,” he said.
As the foodie movement asserts itself, its conflicts with animal-rights and environmental groups, and with established notions of what constitutes “American” eating, are becoming starker. Broadening, though a good survival value generally, may sometimes fail in its particulars: the horse could be contaminated, the whale might be endangered. (In Iceland, it had not even occurred to me to ask the species, which was dumb—though asking would’ve been so rude.) But the outrage over foodie eating often strikes me as sentimental. Most people hold back some species or another from consideration as food, and the reasons can seem arbitrary. One former Hump regular I spoke with said he refuses to eat anything too smart, but, when it comes to pigs, he just avoids thinking about it, because he loves eating them so much. “In a perfect world, I’d be a vegetarian,” he said. Diana Reiss, a leading cetacean researcher and the author of “The Dolphin in the Mirror: Exploring Dolphin Minds and Saving Dolphin Lives,” strenuously objects to cetaceans being used for food, on the basis of their intelligence and social awareness, but acknowledges that this line of argument is slippery, especially since she herself still eats poultry (bothered, she gave up red meat). “Different cultures have different accepted animals to eat,” she says. “How do we grapple with that?” When I told Vidor, a snake- blood-drinker and a scorpion-eater who closed one of his restaurants after admitting to serving an endangered mammal, that I had eaten dog in Vietnam, he looked appalled. “See, I wouldn’t eat dog,” he said, withdrawing self-protectively, as if I might bite his hand. Maybe the only way to eat meat and not be a hypocrite is to eat everything, from the sea squirts to the whale.
"Food editors need people like [Dana Goodyear]. Anyone who can write so wisely and entertainingly about eating rarities is a rarity herself."—Slate
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