David Sutton, the Symposium’s Treasurer, investigates the increase in the consumption of horsemeat in 1890s France
The nineteenth-century campaigners who advocated increased consumption of horse-meat, especially in France, give a good illustration of the exaggerated belief in the importance of protein. Until 1815 eating horsemeat, like eating cats and dogs, was primarily associated with sieges, periods of shortage or famine, and (most of all) difficult military campaigns.
French soldiers were always reluctant to eat their loyal companions, and, what is more, to popular French taste pre-1815, the lack of fat in horsemeat made it unattractive and dull. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, this same lack of fat began to interest nutritionists, medical theorists and food writers, and the advocates of hippophagie saw it both as a way of combating food shortages and as a way of improving the diet of the poor, by increasing their access to protein. There was sustained and continuing popular resistance to horsemeat, though, even when it came disguised in saucisson, pot-au-feu or mixed mincemeat. (It was notoriously easily detected in pot-au-feu.) The first boucheries chevalines were opened in the 1860s, in a utopian spirit, as part of a campaign which was reminiscent of vegetarianism. Horsemeat was believed to taste rather better if the live animal had been castrated, but there was a reluctance to castrate the loyal companion, especially for this purpose. The widespread consumption of horsemeat during the sieges of French cities in 1870-1871 was a setback rather than an advance for the advocates of hippophagie and the nutritional benefits of horsemeat. The sudden rise of boucheries chevalines in the 1890s (each with a proud gold-painted horse’s head facing the street) therefore requires particular explanation. In previous accounts, it has been strongly linked with changing food preferences and a rise in interest in healthy eating – the first stirrings of nouvelle cuisine – and these were undoubtedly factors. Madeleine Ferrières, however, convincingly argues that the precise dating from the 1890s must be linked to the rise of the motor car, and hence to the change in the status of horses in urban areas. There was the disappearance of a taboo. No longer a close companion, more like a farm animal, the horse could be reclassified as an animal that was appropriate for eating. The horse in France between 1895 and 1905 left the company of dogs and cats, and joined the company of cows and pigs, as a new source of protein, achieving the distance from the everyday life of humans which is necessary for a source of meat.