This week, Congress very very quietly lifted a five-year-old ban on funding horse-meat inspections, which, essentially, means that within a month slaughterhouses can be pushing horse back to market for human consumption. Illinois actually was the last holdout on the ban -- it was legal to buy horse here until 2007.
Obviously, that's about to change, and Rob Levitt, owner/butcher of locally sourced The Butcher & Larder on Milwaukee, thinks the timing couldn't possibly be any better for it.
I gave Levitt (if his name sounds familiar, he formerly was with Mado) a call to talk about why he thinks that, how this is actually great for the restaurant scene, and the potential costs involved with stocking this strapping new revenue source.
Was I the one who actually broke the news to you about the horse meat?
Rob Levitt: I just heard something about how they're going to allow horse meat to be slaughtered for consumption again.
Right. What was your first reaction when you heard about it?
Rob Levitt: Oh, I think it's great. I know that when they outlawed it a few years ago -- because it hasn't been illegal for that long...
No. Just since 2007.
Rob Levitt: Yeah. But it was a big source of economy, especially in the Midwest. I think Southern or Central Illinois was one of the biggest producers for consumption of horse meat in the world. Not so much for this country, but they were exporting a ton of it. If that helps create jobs and generate revenues for small towns in rural areas, then that's great.
In a way, this really reminds me of the foie-gras thing here a few years back.
Rob Levitt: It's not uncommon for the government to sort of look down upon and make laws against things that foie gras or horse that a very, very small percentage of the population eats because it's easy to wipe that out. It's an easier battle than going up against Tyson, who feeds the masses. It's true. Why outlaw foie gras when such a small percentage of the population eats it? Rather than work to make it more humane, which it actually is than it used to be. They just decided to outlaw it and obviously that didn't work out too well in Chicago because we can eat it again.
But it's the same thing with horse. Cultures all over the world eat horse meat. It's really common in places as far away as Japan and Italy. You can get it as close to home as in Canada. There's a really cool restaurant in Toronto called The Black Hoof that's known for a raw horse dish they do. It's like an open-face sandwich, tartare kinda thing. It's locally raised horse meat, they serve it raw, and people rave about it.
Do you think it's possible that even when it was illegal people were served horse meat and didn't even know it?
Rob Levitt: Anything's possible. We've all read stories about the health department finding cats in freezers of restaurants. In fact, it happened up at a place near where my parents live up in Wheeling -- health inspectors came in and found cats. This was several years ago. You hear stories like that from time to time. Those are hopefully just really horrible exceptions, but you never know. I doubt it's very common.
What does horse meat actually taste like?
Rob Levitt: Full disclosure? I've never had it.
Rob Levitt: Sure. Why not? If you're gonna eat a cow, why wouldn't you eat a horse? I would eat it under the same stipulations that I'd like to eat any other piece of meat. I'd want to know how it's being raised, where it's being raised -- I'm not going to get a frozen horse tenderloin imported from California just to try it. If there's somebody close to home here in Illinois or close by in the Midwest that's raising good stuff just like the cows that I buy and the pigs that I buy, then I would certainly try it. From what I understand, though, it's a lot like venison. The meat's very, very dark and because horses are such muscular animals and get so much exercise, it's like those guys in Canada: You either have to mince it and serve it raw or it needs to be slow-cooked, like braised or stewed. If you do that, the muscles break down and get very tender. It's supposed to have a ton of great flavor. It's probably very, very healthy. We just don't see it as something to eat.
You mentioned it used to be a big part of contributing to the global economy. If horse meat could be available in the U.S. within a month, how do you see that rippling out into the local economy?
Rob Levitt: I think this is the perfect time for it, because in 2007 when the economy was still booming, as a whole the American culture wasn't in the mindset of eating something like horse because we were a wealthy enough country that we would go out and eat things like foie gras. [Laughs.] Now that the dining scene has changed significantly because the economy has crashed, chefs are no longer opening fancy, expensive, fine-dining restaurants. These very talented chefs are opening more casual places that do simpler food. As a result, I think they're interested in more interesting options. Whereas 10 years ago everyone was serving short ribs and filet mignon, now we're all looking for different cuts. So you see a lot more people eating things like offal, sweetbreads, shortbreads, kidneys, and I think if something like horse meat is available at a reasonable price, it's going to be different enough that'll be a viable option now. Whereas then it probably wouldn't have jived too well.
Knowing your customer base, would you serve it at your shop?
Rob Levitt: We would have to feel it out a bit. I definitely wouldn't be opposed to it. I would have to feel it out. We buy all our animals here, and I would guess that a side of horse is a tremendous amount of meat. I would have to make sure I would be able to make it work for my business. But I would definitely give it a shot, if I could find someone who would maybe sell my a quarter-horse to start with. That's a really odd thing to say. [Laughs.]
That's why I'm giggling.
Rob Levitt: [Laughs.] I've definitely got some customers that I know would get it. And since January I've had a couple of phone calls from people looking for horse meat. Like, two.
But still. There's an interest.
Rob Levitt: But still, that's two more than I would've expected.
If you can just charge them thousands of dollars, then you'd be all set.
Rob Levitt: Right. Offer it up to the highest bidder.
What demographic do you think it appeals to most? More adventurous eaters maybe?
Rob Levitt: I see this appealing to more adventurous eaters for sure. It's an interesting shift where all the cuts that used to be classically what poor people ate -- shoulders, shanks, and all the tough cuts -- this is what all the wealthy, foodie-types eat. The people for who going out to eat is a big deal, it's like their hobby. They're the ones eating all the odd cuts. What I see at the shop is people who are maybe in a lower tax bracket are seeing what kinds of steaks they can afford and buying maybe sausages. If I were to advertise that I have it, I definitely see a foodie sort of crowd going for it.
It's interesting, too, because since 2007, when it became illegal, we've seen the rise of the celebrity chef and the foodie movement. So in a way the timing might be perfect.
Rob Levitt: I kinda hope so. The main thing that I'm happy about is I remember reading about the economic impact on these small Midwestern towns that would raise these animals and export them, and that was a large part of the income. It was just taken away from them. It's not like you can do anything else with that farm. I mean, you can, you can turn it into corn and soybean.
But that's a huge investment.
Rob Levitt: To go from raising horses to raises cows or pigs, that's a big up front investment to these people who aren't making a ton of money. To take that away was pretty awful. Hopefully this will put something back into these economies of these small towns.
The Associated Press article about it says that since it was banned it's lead to "more neglect and abandonment of horses."
Rob Levitt: Domesticated farm animals depend on us. That's their nature. If everyone in the world stopped eating beef, then cows would go extinct. You don't really see any wild cows. [Laughs.] It just doesn't exist. I know people who are vegetarians who will say, "Well, that's horrible." And I know people who are vegetarians who say, "Well, then, let them go extinct. If that's what it takes, if people stop eating them, then let them go extinct."
Wait, wait, there are vegetarians who want animals to go extinct? That doesn't sound right. Does PETA know this guy exists?
Rob Levitt: [Laughs.] Yup. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, in the introduction for his book, The River Cottage Meat Book, explains theoretically, if the whole world stopped eating meat, then cows would go extinct. I was explaining it to a friend of mine and he said, "Fine. If that's what it takes." I was a little shocked.
For other butchers or restaurant owners reading this and might be interested in stocking horse meat, do you know the sort of costs people would expect to foot to stock, store, and prep it?
Rob Levitt: I have no idea. I would imagine it's not too far off from grass-fed beef, but I don't really know. Because horse has never really been a part of the American diet, but I don't know that much about the costs and prices of raising cows and pigs either. I know the stuff that I buy is more expensive than the factory stuff, but you get what you pay for. I would imagine it's not an inexpensive start-up thing, but it's probably not too far off from raising cows.
Does it have the same contamination issues as beef? Have you heard anything in that regard?
Rob Levitt: I have no idea, but I would imagine that the USDA standards are the USDA standards and they're going to inspect for the same kinds of things they look for in beef and pigs and other animals. I would imagine that raising livestock for consumption is pretty much a universal thing. The USDA has a certain criteria for what they're looking for.
David Wolinsky is a freelance writer and a lifelong Chicagoan. In addition to currently serving as an interviewer-writer for Adult Swim, he's also a columnist for EGM. He was the Chicago city editor for The Onion A.V. Club where he provided in-depth daily coverage of this city's bustling arts/entertainment scene for half a decade. When not playing video games for work he's thinking of dashing out to Chicago Diner, Pizano's, or Yummy Yummy. His first career aspirations were to be a game-show host.