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    Eat & Swig

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    This story originally appeared on on April 28, 2017.

    By Hannah Rego

    I come from a long line of cowboys. As in, I’ve seen great-great-great-uncles’ names scrawled in half-legible census records with their occupations filled in as pineapple farmer or cowboy. As in, my dad’s dad’s ancestors left the Azores islands of Portugal to become cattle ranchers in Hawaii. As in, my grandfather talked of riding bareback in the hills — before Pops joined the Marines, before he worked for the rest of his life at Ford, in, of all places, Kentucky. A world of another kind of horse.

    As a snootier Louisvillian at least half-resistant to all things Derby or otherwise loved here, I have spent a long time denying that my proximity to horses really matters. Perhaps this is why, in Portugal — where I worked on an archaeological dig site for a month last summer — my ears perked up when someone said, “We could go to that place in Fatima with the horse steak…”

    On the dig, 20-or-so weirdos — experts, graduate students studying zoo-archeology or soil make-up or cave topography, field school students like me and “returners” who dream all year about the dig and what it means to work it — labored 10-hour days for weeks. Each day, we hiked up a mountain, crouched face-to-square-meter-of-dirt taking down topographical layers 10 centimeters at a time, hauled buckets of rocks out of a cave on shoddily made dirt steps, shook arm-span sized screens to sift out dirt from lithic — or, more often, 30,000-year-old rabbit bone — and hiked down the mountain with bags of sediment on our backs. Although no one that whole month ever said so, we were hungry enough to eat a horse.

    Human beings have known that kind of hunger for thousands of years. Despite the myths of popularized evolutionary science that circulate in the broader culture, human ancestors and early modern humans were opportunistic omnivores who were more likely to be hunted game than to attack wild animals. And in the wider culture’s mental gap of human history between “cave men” and city slickers, people built agricultural and social systems out of the resources they had. Before global-scale industrial revolutions, and certainly before the advent of agribusiness, human beings found a lot of different ways to eat dinner.

    Many people in the West, particularly in Kentucky, consider horses companion animals built for work and sport. But according to anthropologist Marsha Levine’s paper, “Eating horses: The evolutionary significance of hippophagy,” there are communities throughout Eurasia that have depended historically on horse milk or horse meat as a food source. In the 19th century, the French legalized horse consumption, and many believed horse meat to be a useful medicine. Before and since in pastoral communities in northern Kazakhstan, fermented horse milk, or kumys, was central to friendly visits among villagers, and any surplus horses not needed for transport were often slaughtered at the start of winter to be stored and eaten. Horse meat continues to be valued as a high energy food, and this Kazakh common sense has been confirmed by chemical analyses of horse tissue. Horse meat is high in protein, low in fat and higher in polyunsaturated fats than other fats. Equids, including zebras, contain essential fatty acids that are crucial to human brain development and that are hard to come by in grassland habitats. And horses carry few diseases that are communicable to humans, which is why, in some spots in Tokyo today, you can safely eat horse sushi.

    Dig down into a Eurasian archaeological site about 12,000 years, and you’ll notice more horse remains than you’d find in older earth. This could point to the origins of horse domestication. Or to the origins of horse consumption. The evidence for either reality is sparse, as the fossil record confirms only our proximity to those dark-eyed beasts. Why we hung around them all those years ago is debatable.

    What I wonder is how it feels to hold a horse bone that old in your hand. To brush dirt from a femur shorter and wider than your own and think, It’s past noon, when the hell is lunch? After digging up Paleolithic bird bone after rabbit bone after rock after rock all day, and then eating the worst parts of what seemed like the same pig at the same restaurant in nowhere, Portugal every night, we were doubly hungry. For food and for newness. We were exhausted from the rote nature of picking apart nature for the truth.

    When we took a long drive in the vans through the hills to Fatima, we knew it would be worth it for more than the sunset ride home, full and half-sleeping, half-wanting more wine. At the restaurant, servers in white dress shirts seated us at a long row of tables with tablecloths and menus and differently sized plates. This place was nicer than our nightly dive filled with flies.

    Other than my vegan roommate who recalled, of eating horse in Puerto Rico as a child, through disgust tinged with awe, “I remember… It’s a little bit sweet,” I can’t remember who didn’t order horse. Some of us got average cow steaks, and the only real difference was the size. The horse steaks were huge slabs, but thin and tender. I messed up — not by ordering a horse steak, but by not ordering it bloody, and by agreeing to swap half for half of someone’s lasagna. My plate set in front of me, I had only one thought: Dad. The plate was simple and simply arranged. Other than the swirled pockets of fried mashed potatoes in one corner of my plate, there was just broccoli, and then one steak that smelled so good I never wanted to eat it. It was like my favorite night growing up, when my dad would portion out for me a grilled steak, boiled broccoli — because when you work hard, you have to eat well — and rice. The steak was kind of sweet, but not sweet like sugar. Sweet like easy. It melted away. It was exactly like my dad had cooked it. Except it was better: It was horse.

    Cover Image: Flickr, Internet Archive Book Images

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