"If you eat horse meat, Daddy, I'm going to throw up right in front of you."
So decreed my 14-year-old daughter this month as we sat across from one another in a restaurant in Iceland.
I'd never tasted horseflesh before. But over the years I've written quite a bit about the debate in the Illinois General Assembly on whether to outlaw horse slaughter. Fifteen years ago, Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed the legislation ending the practice.
I've long been curious: "What exactly does horse meat taste like?"
I grew up on a hog farm. My father was a farmer and a livestock veterinarian. And I showed cattle at fairs, knowing that eventually they would end up on someone's dinner plate. And mind you, those calves were companions. They came when they were called, loved to be petted and were taught to walk beside me better than any dog I've ever taken on a leash.
I can remember eating steaks at the dinner table with my folks and my dad would ask for the platter of meat by saying, "Pass Charlie over here, would you please?" Yep, our food had names.
When you are a farmer, you live close to what you eat.
Growing up, he taught us not to exhibit prejudices against foods because of their origins. He brought this lesson home when I'd help him castrate cattle. The testicles would be taken back to the house, battered up and fried for dinner. We'd dine on something we'd seen hanging on the backside of a bull only an hour or two earlier. I never had a problem with the origins of "mountain oysters," just with their taste.
The waitress who stood over me in the Icelandic restaurant cooed, "You have to try horse, sir. It is three times more tender than beef, and it tastes so good."
At this point, my three daughters were eyeing me suspiciously. And my wife and sister in-law wouldn't make eye contact. I picked up the menu, pointed to an item and gave the server a nod. She smirked.
"What did you order, Daddy?"
"I ordered a tenderloin."
When covering the Illinois horse slaughter debate, I was perplexed. At the time, state Rep. Bob Molaro said horses should be protected because they are beautiful. (So are deer, but you'll find plenty of venison in area freezers.) For that matter, sheep look adorable, but I enjoy lamb chops.
With the swipe of Blagojevich's pen in 2007, 40 people at the Dekalb slaughterhouse lost their jobs and the market for old or otherwise unwanted horses dried up in the Prairie State. Unfortunately, many horses suffered in the wake of the passage of this law.
Owners quit paying their stable rent, leaving stable owners with the unwanted animals. Irresponsible farmers allowed unwanted horses to wander away.
Shortly after the law passed, Riverton farmer Randy Krone adopted an elderly horse found wandering in Sangamon County. The owner said he didn't want it anymore.
"Of course, the responsible thing to do if you are a horse owner is to make sure the animal is put down humanely. But not everyone is responsible," Krone said. "When the slaughter plant closed in Illinois, an affordable option was eliminated. Some people just allowed their horse to wander away. There were reports of people letting horses loose in Shawnee National Forest."
For a veterinarian to euthanize a horse, the cost is about $175, an Illinois equine practitioner said. And then it can cost an additional $200 for a backhoe operator to bury the carcass. If cremation services are sought, it can cost another $400.
Even a few years ago, when the United States had three horse slaughterhouses (one in Illinois and two in Texas) none of the meat was for domestic human consumption. Some was used for dog food, and the remainder was exported to Europe and Japan where horse meat is routinely eaten.
When legislation forced those plants to close, more American horses were shipped to Mexico and Canada for slaughter.
The Illinois law is an example of legislation grounded not in public policy but in sentiment. The bill passed because of a cultural taboo. American workers lost their jobs and mostly elderly horses had longer rides to foreign abattoirs. Others remained behind and suffered from abandonment.
Sitting in the Icelandic restaurant waiting for my meal, I didn't know what to expect.
Whenever I travel overseas, I like to try cuisine not readily available at home. In the Caribbean I ate goat (loved it). In Latin America I ate tripe, a stew made from cattle stomachs (it was "offal").
So, what would horse meat be like? I was anxious to find out.
The server came out, placed the plate before me and announced, "Here's your 'beef' tenderloin, sir." She didn't wink when she said "beef," but with the inflection of her voice she might as well have.
So how was it? It was fabulous – one of the best cuts of meat I've ever tasted. It was more tender than any steak I've eaten. And the flavor, while similar to beef, was sweeter and just a bit gamier.
A couple of days after that delicious meal, I was riding horses with my family in the backcountry of Iceland. The trail boss rode beside me and remarked, "You seem to have a special bond with your horse."
I couldn't help but smile and think, "Yes I do; don't believe the neighsayers."
Scott Reeder, a staff writer for Illinois Times, can be reached at email@example.com.