I was working my way through an article in the New Yorker called "Beastly Appetites" when I got a message from Mariah Bovee about something she saw on the menu of a Korean restaurant.
As you may have read in last week's Observer, Mariah has lived in Korea for the past three months, and she said this after a restaurant visit: It's not myth. Dog really is eaten in some regions of the world. And it's supposed to be quite tasty.
The subtitle of the magazine article was a perfect fit: "The animals we love too much to eat."
The author, Dana Goodyear, spoke with one of the producers of a movie called "The Cove" about the dolphin hunts in Japan. He heard about a high-end sushi bar in Santa Monica that will serve whale if a customer asks in the right way. There are national and international protections for whales, and the movie guy, Charles Hambleton, thought it would be interesting to expose the restaurant located in an environmentally-progressive community.
Hambleton has eaten whale before. For him, it's factory-farmed animals that are on his do-not-eat list. To each his own.
The topic of choosing which animals to eat comes down to something called the "meat paradox." It's well known to readers of "Charlotte's Web," Goodyear points out—the problem of loving animals and loving to eat them.
Where it gets strange is the way people decide what can appear on the menu and what is considered disgusting or cruel. For us in the Western Hemisphere, we wonder how someone could ever butcher a dog. Researchers have discovered that the choice is largely influenced by some arbitrary assignment of intelligence. Cows, for example, are seen as mentally inferior to dogs and cats, dolphins and whales, and horses.
As American culture developed in the 1800s, and as wealth grew, we ate more and more meat from fewer and fewer species. Rather than take nourishment from as many sources as possible to sustain ourselves—all of those items that are sold at a typical wild game supper—we narrowed the menu down to cows and pigs.
Ironically, there's a reversal underway now, Goodyear says. There are menus for adventuresome eaters that include a variety of "weeds," brains, insects, ears and other previously unthinkable items.
"The culinary taboos erected by prosperity are under siege," Goodyear writes.
Whale meat has an interesting history in the West. It's generally been rejected as unsophisticated and not very tasty, but in times of need whale has made its way onto the restaurant plate. During World War I it was seen as an inexpensive meal to bolster the national war diet. It was said to taste a lot like venison. Back then, chicken had not yet moved into its current prominence. Again, in World War II, "the greatest mammal whose pastures comprise the seven seas" was seen as a way to fill the nation's meat supply.
Int 1970, a marine biologist released "Songs of the Humpback Whale." Soon scientists discovered that several species of whale were nearing extinction and eventually the international protections came into being. Now it's tough to get a good slab of whale unless you're in Japan or Iceland. Japanese fishermen still harvest a lot of whale, but only for "research purposes."
What does whale mean to a midwesterner? Let's move on to a much touchier subject: the eating of horses.
Horse is eaten in France, but before you start calling them names, realize that it's also eaten in Belgium, Mexico, Canada, China, Italy, Japan, etc. I suppose England should be added to the list, although people weren't too happy to learn earlier this year that their beef from a major grocery store, that their Burger King burgers, that their IKEA meat balls all had traces of horse. For Tesco supermarkets, it was more than a trace. Some ground beef was 29 percent horse.
But why let all those calories go to waste? Are horses really that much more deserving than cows to be spared from the butcher? Yes, I know your answer, but chef Hugue Dufour disagrees: "We can't start burying horses with tombstones every time." Call horse meat "cheval" and it's much more palatable.
Admit it, your likes and dislikes, your lists of acceptable and unacceptable, are all in your head. Proof comes from an undercover eater that Goodyear wrote about.
She went to the sushi bar to get some whale and while there she also ate some horse. She found it disgusting, too gamey and pungent. She was ordered to collect small sample of the meat she was served so that DNA testing could determine if the whale was really whale.
It was, but that horrible horse turned out to be beef.