Eating Dobbin - fine by the French, foul for the British

Joe Bennett is an English-born travel writer and columnist who lives in New Zealand with dogs. His columns are syndicated in newspapers throughout New Zealand.
Joe Bennett is an English-born travel writer and columnist who lives in New Zealand with dogs. His columns are syndicated in newspapers throughout New Zealand.

What's the difference between a horse and a cow, asks Joe Bennett.

No idea? Well, I wouldn't send you to place a bet. (Pause for slapping of thighs and delighted cries of, "that's a good one".)

But as the delight dies down, I repeat the question. What is the difference between a horse and a cow? They are far more similar than they are different. Both are four-legged. Both eat grass. Both are farmed by human beings. Both would be smaller if we hadn't farmed them. Both kill people from time to time, though not very many and rarely on purpose. Both can be ridden. And both can be eaten.

Moreover, they taste similar, as the British housewives who bought Findus Frozen Beef Lasagne have just discovered. For Findus Frozen Beef Lasagne was made with horse meat. (The meat was apparently Romanian, but I don't think that makes any difference. A horse is a horse is a horse.) No-one has died from eating the horse lasagne, nor has anyone grown a tail or started whinnying. So you might think that the British would be pleased to have inadvertently extended the range of the national menu, especially since horse meat is cheaper than beef. But not a bit of it. The uproar has been so ferocious that it's rattled the rafters all over the world.

The horse has been a boon to mankind. The same could not be said the other way round. Until about 1900 any horse born around people could expect a life of incessant heavy haulage followed by a one-way trip to the knacker's yard.

If the horse was particularly unlucky, it went to war. When a soldier mounted a horse he doubled his height, trebled his speed and quintupled his mass and thus he became the most potent force on the field of battle.

The plays of Shakespeare are crammed with terrifying images of soldiers on horseback, and when the authors of the Bible wanted to instil fear of the apocalypse they put horsemen in charge of it.

Genghis Khan's mounted hordes conquered most of the known world and in the following 600 years cavalry won almost all the battles now considered glorious. But only the people got the credit. If the horses survived they got a bag of oats.

The last war in which horses played a major role was World War I. It was the machine gun that did it for them. Hundreds of thousands of horses were shot.

Others were gassed to death, or simply got stuck in mud up to the belly and were left to starve. I feel sorrier for them than I do for the men. It wasn't the horses' fight.

If the worst thing to happen to horses was people, the best was the internal combustion engine.

Because of it, horses no longer need to go to war or work down coalmines or shift the stuff that we want shifted.

Today horses are either kept as expensive pets or as even more expensive racers, the purpose of which is to separate fools from their money. But that still doesn't explain why the British, and most of the places they colonised, don't eat them.

Dietary taboos are to be found all over the world. Neither Jews nor Muslims eat pork (suggesting a shared origin of faith that seems to have got lost) and Hindus won't touch beef. But Great Britain is an ostensibly Christian country and there is nothing in the Bible forbidding horse meat.

The taboo is stranger still when you consider that the Brits have only to cross 25 miles of grim water to see horse being eaten with gusto. I used to live in France and there was a horse butcher a few doors down from my flat. I tried his sausages. They were fine.

I have heard it said that we don't eat horses because they are noble creatures. But nobility is a human concept.

A horse is no more noble than a cow or a cockroach. The nobility rests in the bloke on the horse's back. A knight, by definition, is a nobleman on a horse, as is a French chevalier or a Spanish caballero.

In the 18th century the French sent most of their nobility to the guillotine. Does that perhaps explain why they eat horses and the Brits don't? Is a plate of cheval an expression of liberte, egalite and fraternite? Whereas for the English, eating Dobbin is like chowing down on the House of Lords?

Because otherwise I can see no difference between a horse and a cow.

The Southland Times