Would Chicago chefs serve horse?

RestaurantsDining and DrinkingMedia IndustryTravel Channel (tv network)Rod BlagojevichKevin Pang

On the Facebook page of "The Butcher & Larder," the Noble Square butcher shop, owner Rob Levitt posted a link Wendesday to an article about Congress lifting the ban on funding horse-meat inspections. The implication was horses could once again be slaughtered for human consumption in the U.S.

The reaction, not surprising for fans of a butcher shop, leaned in support of lifting the ban. 

"Meat is meat is meat," one commenter wrote.

Still, many others found the idea of eating horse sickening.

"This is the most disgusting and reprehensible thing I've ever heard of," one wrote.

And where does Levitt stand in this debate?

"People have a hard time eating Trigger but not a hard time eating Wilbur (from Charlotte's Web)," Levitt said Thursday. “As long as the horses are responsibly raised, I would try it if there was a demand.”

The 2006 federal ban was lifted on Nov. 18 as part of a temporary spending bill signed into law by President Barack Obama. Still, easing of the ban does not mean additional money would be allocated for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which would need to fund inspections within its budget as federal spending is expected to be trimmed next year. But animal activists say new slaughterhouses could be opened in a month.

Currently there are no horse slaughterhouses in operation in the U.S. — DeKalb's Cavel International was forced to close in 2007 when then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed the Illinois Horse Meat Act, banning the slaughter of horse meat for human consumption.

While eating horse meat is not explicitly illegal in Illinois, the law is written in a way that all but discourages possession (except, as stated in Section 2.1 of the Illinois Horse Meat Act, for ground or chopped meat no “greater than 3/4 of an inch in any dimension”).

Not that it makes a difference, as eating horse meat in the U.S. remains a cultural taboo, even though it can be found in restaurants as close as Toronto and in supermarket cold cases in French-speaking Canada.

"Horse meat not looked at as food is uniquely American. The rest of the world eats it," said Andrew Zimmern, host of Travel Channel's Bizarre Foods. "The reason I’m very excited about this (ban being lifted), is that people eating donkey or horse means less feedlot cattle being consumed. We could literally change one meal at a time the bad parts of the food system."

Many chefs in Chicago share the “meat is meat” philosophy, saying they would be open in serving horse meat if there was customer demand.

"Public perception might be off-putting in the beginning, but I think people are open in tasting it," said Ryan Poli, executive chef of the forthcoming Tavernita restaurant. "I’d be excited to come up with creative ways to serve it."

Said Merlin Verrier, executive chef of Graham Elliot restaurant: "As a connoisseur of food, 100 percent I’m intrigued by what it tastes like. But obviously we can’t put something on the menu that will upset customers."

What does horse meat taste like? Poli was cooking in Spain when he first tried pony.

"I thought it was beef, with this wet hay flavor," Poli said. "If you walked into a meadow after it rained, that’s the only way I could describe the taste."

Zimmern said he prefers horse and donkey to most grass-fed beef.

"The meat has a very nutty and mineraly quality that I adore. I think anyone with an open mind would want to make it a regular part of their meal."

kpang@tribune.com
Twitter @kevinthepang 

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