Original Caption: Women line up outside a butcher shop to buy meat in North Cheam, Surrey, England, on April 17, 1942 during World War II. (AP Photo)
World War II brought rationing and deprivations on both sides of the conflict, but horse meat was not rationed. An extract from the BBC website WW2 People’s War:
Strange things on the dinner table
Over-riding all these trifling discomforts was the non-stop foraging by the housewife to provide some variety in her family’s meals. I cannot recall ever being literally hungry, but the country had been reliant upon imports, which were now impossible because of the sea blockade. Everything was scrupulously rationed and we ate some strange things to supplement our diet.
Tea tablets were used to make the tea look stronger; babies’ dried milk or ‘National’ milk was added if it could be obtained; and saccharine was used as a sweetener. Some even resorted to using honey or jam. What a concoction – but we drank it. Bread was heavy and a dull grey colour, but it, too, was rationed – so we ate it.
Sweets were devised from a mixture of dried milk and peppermint essence with a little sugar or icing sugar if available. Grated carrots replaced fruit in a Christmas or birthday cake, while a substitute almond paste was made from ground rice or semolina mixed with a little icing sugar and almond essence. Dried egg powder was used as a raising agent, and this same dried egg could be reconstituted and fried, yielding a dull, yellow, rubbery-like apology for the light and fluffy real thing – but there was nothing else, so we ate it.
Bean pies and lentil rissoles provided protein to eke out our meagre meat ration, and the horse-meat shop, which previously had sold its products only for dogs, now bore a notice on some of its joints occasionally, ‘Fit for Human Consumption’. This horse-meat was not rationed, but it did have to be queued for and sure enough eventually it appeared on our table. It had to be cooked for a long time and even then it was still tough. Nevertheless, it did not get thrown out.
In complete contrast, one highlight for me was the coming of spam from America. It was an oasis in our desert of mediocrity; an elixir in our sea of austerity. It seems to me that it was meatier, juicier, and much tastier than it is now. (Tricks of memory again, no doubt.) We ate it in sandwiches; we ate it fried with chips; cold with salad; chopped in spam-and-egg pies, until, of course, it ceased to provide the variety we longed for, but I never tired of it.
Whale meat – completely inedible
The benefits of eating fish were widely proclaimed, but again it was very scarce. Fishing was a dangerous occupation in mine-laden waters and the pier was a prohibited area, so fresh fish was a novelty and a luxury.
The ultimate came, however, when the government hit on the bright idea of combining fish and meat and urged us to eat whale meat. Where, or how, the whales were caught and brought to England I do not know. There must be a limit to how much whale one ship can carry, and one whale alone would provide a lot of whale steaks, but newspapers and the wireless told us how to prepare and cook the stuff, and sure enough, in due course, it appeared in the shops. From there, inevitably, it found its way onto our table.
It had been soaked overnight, steam-cooked, and soaked again, then blanketed with a sauce, but still it tasted exactly what it sounds like – tough meat with a distinctly fishy flavour, ugh. Just this once the next-door’s cat ate it!
Yes, we laugh about it all now, yet after all these years I still cannot bear to see good food wasted or thrown away – but I think I could make an exception with whale meat.
We lived in Switzerland for about 6 months back in the 80s. In Boudry, a small suburb of Neuchâtel, there was a boucherie chevaline (horse butcher) just down the street. I wish I had gotten a picture of it, but you can see some lovely ones at the website of Boucherie chevaline de Préville in France.
My kids had some when we visited friends, and they enjoyed it, if I recall correctly what they said. I’ve had horsemeat, and find it sweeter and more savory than beef, but not as gamy as venison.
Here in the USA, horses were so much a part of our history – especially with regards to the colonization of the West – that eating them was virtually taboo, and in the eyes of many remains so today. From an article at Slate:
Why don’t Americans eat horse?
Because we love our beasts of burden. As with many food taboos, there’s no settled explanation for why most Americans are perfectly willing to eat cows, pigs, and chickens but turn their noses up at horse. Horse-eating, or hippophagy, became popular in Europe in the 19th century, when famines caused several governments to license horse butcheries. Today, horse meat is most widely available in France, Belgium, and Sweden, where it outsells mutton and lamb combined. While Americans have occasionally consumed their equine friends during times of scarcity, the practice just didn’t catch on. It may be that so many Americans forged intimate relationships with horses during our founding and expansion that eating the creature seemed morally wrong by the time of the nation’s major food shortages of the 20th century.
I noted with interest that many articles like this one that conjure up images of horror regarding the last hours of your daughter’s beloved Blossom are written by folks who would think nothing of trotting down to their local Piggly-Wiggly for a nice T-bone steak.
If horse meat ever shows up at my grocery store, I’ll probably buy it on occasion in the same way we stock up on lamb when it goes on sale. For me, meat is meat. Although the description in the extract above about whale meat is enough to put me off trying it, even absent the ecological considerations.
The Old Wolf has spoken.