I’m at Publix, shoving my cart past rows of canned vegetables at a speed that will register as several minutes of exercise on my Fitbit. I’m starving and irritable, which are the worst possible emotions when it comes to deciding what to eat for dinner, because that combo supposedly makes you more likely to make poor food choices. For someone like me, whose diet is already made entirely of foods advertised on the sides of Sprint Cup cars, it doesn’t matter.
I’ve walked the entire unsatisfying length of the meat display case, picking up and putting down two different Styrofoam trays while prodding several others with my fingertips. I made accidental eye contact with the butcher, so I’m debating whether to haggle over price tags and expiration dates, telling him that these pork chops have already expired in Australia. I just can’t decide what I want, mostly because what I really want isn’t for sale on Miller Street, and it hasn’t been for sale in the United States for several decades.
I had the best steak of my life two winters ago in a modern Icelandic restaurant in central Reykjavik. (I can’t remember the name and, even if I could, my keyboard doesn’t have the right special characters to type it out.) The special that night was an adorably named combination called the Sea Horse that — based on the other animals I’ve seen listed on Icelandic menus — made me wonder how many sea horses you could eat in one sitting. But, in neatly italicized English, it explained that the combo was an Arctic char starter, followed by a horse tenderloin. A land horse.
I’m terrified of horses, and never had that fanciful attachment to them that most girls seem to unwrap on their 10th birthdays. I didn’t daydream about starring in a National Velvet reboot, and the My Little Ponies I inevitably accumulated were just reluctant stand-ins for Battle Cat, when He-Man had to hitch a ride back to Castle Grayskull. I didn’t immediately rule out the steak, is what I’m saying.
When the waiter drifted to my table, I asked him about the horse. “What about it,” he said, with a practiced shrug.
“I mean, like, what kind of horse is it?” I asked.
“It’s Icelandic horse, which is raised as a food source here,” he said, quickly adding, “It’s not like her name was Bluebell and we had to put her down this morning.”
He also told me to imagine the best steak I’d ever had in my life, and then to immediately forget about it, because these 10 ounces of medium-rare tenderloin were going to be the best I’d ever had.
I ordered the horse — and he was right. The memory of the best cut of meat I’d eaten, at a Miami steakhouse a decade earlier, was immediately shoved into the bin of Things I Don’t Need to Think About, along with algebra and the size of my pores.
I didn’t have horse again until last month, in Padua, Italy, when I wandered into some kind of culinary festival that stretched throughout the Prato della Valle public square. It was barely noon, but there were dozens and dozens of food stalls, each flying a different European flag. I went full Carmen San Diego, racing from country to country before stopping at a row of stands that seemed to represent northern Italy. The wooden sign on the center stall had the silhouette of a horse mid-canter, underneath the words Carne Equina — horse meat.
My Italian is pure garbage (I’m not even sure how to say that in Italian) but could understand that it was a father and son who ran the business, and they’d traveled to Padua for the day. They stood side by side behind a small counter, alternately gesturing to the two-item chalkboard menu or the small baskets filled with horse and donkey sausages. Through a series of hand gestures and grammatically mangled questions, I learned they served either a horse burger or horse ragu over gnocchi, and both cost a fiver.
I ordered the gnocchi and am not exaggerating when I say it was the best meal of that weeklong trip. “I ordered horse meat from a street festival,” I typed in my inevitable Instagram post. “Please mention this in my obituary.” If the day had been several hundred degrees cooler, I would’ve ordered a second bowl.
As I stand in Publix, picking up and putting down another package of colorless chicken thighs, I wish I’d eaten a dozen bowls of that ragu. I came back from both of those trips raving about those meals, and was met with either tentative curiosity or flat-out rage. (At least one person stopped speaking to me shortly after Iceland, and I haven’t ruled that tenderloin out as the reason why.) Eating horse is technically legal in the US, but you’ll have to prepare and provide your own horse: The last horse slaughterhouses were closed — and banned — 10-plus years ago, and the USDA does not and will not inspect any facilities related to horse meat.
Despite attempts to slide it onto US plates — mostly when other meats were rationed during both World Wars — Americans never seemed to develop a taste for it, whether because of our feelings for horses as companions or work animals or because of sociological perceptions about eating their meat. (In a well-researched recent piece, The Atlantic said that in the 19th Century, newspapers wrote of horse as the food of “poverty, war, social breakdown, and revolution” none of which seemed to make anyone’s stomach growl.)
Last month, a James Beard-nominated Pittsburgh chef collaborated with two Quebecois chefs and served a one-night-only tasting menu that featured horse tartar. The reaction was predictably understated, involving increasingly angry complaints, frantic Yelp reviews asking whether he’d start serving humans next and at least one death threat from a commenter on the website News of the Horse. And, several years ago, a Philly chef who’d considered adding horse to his menu got near-daily bomb threats until he promised to only serve the other farm animals.
So no, it’s not popular, but it is unbelievably tasty. I fully intend to eat it again when I see it on a menu in Canada, Scandinavia or the handful of European countries where it’s still served with any regularity… but I still don’t know what to cook tonight.