One James Beard-nominated chef found out the hard way.
Photo by Flickr user Karsun Designs
I was in Padua, Italy last week and bought a styrofoam bowl of gnocchi and horse ragu from a street vendor. It was €5 and was, hands down, the most satisfying entree of the week, besting six-course tasting menus in Venetian restaurants where the table linens were higher quality than anything hanging in my closet. I have also had horse in Iceland and, as I chewed the final bites of both meals, I had the same thought: "Why can't we have this in the United States?" The easy answer? Because people will lose their shit.
Cure, a James Beard-nominated restaurant in Pittsburgh, learned that lesson earlier in the week. Chef Justin Severino—himself a four-time James Beard Award nominee—hosted a $95 'Cure'ated' dinner that featured two Toronto guest chefs, Scott Vivian and Nate Middleton. The menu was a celebration of Quebecois cuisine, featuring razor clam poutine, elk tourtiere, and a horse tartare.
That last one, called Le Cheval on the event menu, has caused near-hysterical levels of outrage, with complaints, empty promises from people who live thousands of miles away, and at least one death threat from a commenter on NewsoftheHorse.com. "Would not surprise me if human fried thighs would be on their menu soon," one critic wrote.
A photo of the menu on Cure's Facebook page isn't faring much better. "You should be ashamed of yourself," one woman said. "You putting Hipster Tartare on the menu next?" another added. (The restaurant smartly removed the ratings section from its Facebook page—although that hasn't stopped the causeheads from hitting Yelp, suggesting that the meat was not fit for human consumption or—worse—that it serves therapy animals for dinner.)
Joy Braunstein, the former executive director of the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society went one step past poorly punctuated comments, launching a Change.org petition asking Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf to ban horse meat in all restaurants in the state. "This is a wake-up call to everyone who loves horses and who cares about food security," she wrote. (As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette pointed out, Braunstein knows the power of Change.org: more than 1,500 people signed a petition calling for her termination after she paid $1,000 for a purebred collie puppy. She resigned after being placed on administrative leave.)
Actually eating horse isn't illegal in the United States, although the government has created enough red tape to lasso anyone who wants to, say, serve it in restaurants. The last horse slaughterhouses were closed—and banned—a decade ago, and the USDA does not and will not conduct inspections on any horse meat facilities. "In Nov. 2011, Congress decided not to extend a ban on USDA horse meat inspections. Over the five years prior to that, Congress banned the USDA from using any taxpayer funds for horse slaughter inspections through its annual budget appropriations for the department," ABC News wrote. "And since the Federal Meat Inspection Act requires the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service to inspect animals for slaughter, carcass by carcass, there was no way for horses to make it to American dinner tables."
Back in Pittsburgh, Chef Severino is trying to point out that, no, he's not grilling My Little Pony on the reg. "On Monday night we hosted a collaborative dinner with chefs from Canada, a Quebecois feast," he said in a statement. "One of the courses included horse tartare, which is traditional Quebecois. It was sourced from a sustainable horse farm in Alberta, Canada. This dish was available for one night only and it is not part of the Cure menu."
If it were, though? I'd be on the next flight to Pittsburgh.