Week In Bovines

by by David Adler & Barry Elkinton

There's Something About Dinner

HORSEMEAT IS—secretly, quietly—everywhere.

Monday, British food regulator finds horsemeat in Taco Bell products in the UK. The same day, horsemeat traced in Leicestershire school dinners. Last Thursday, Polish authorities find horse DNA at beef warehouses. Before then, Ikea recalls its Swedish meatballs. Burger King, too, is horsed.

All over Europe, it’s index fingers: Sweden blames France, France blames Romania, Romania blames Ireland, and Ireland blames the Poles. The Poles. It turns out the story actually begins in Ireland, and it’s relatively straightforward. Ireland has the highest per capita number of horses (19:1000) in the European Union, but when the economy collapsed in 2007, many owners could no longer afford the maintenance. 2,000 horses were slaughtered in 2008; 25,000 in 2012. So there’s just way too much horse, and it’s cheap, like real cheap—a kilo of horsemeat for $0.66; a kilo of beef for $3.95.

The money part makes a lot of sense to me, but the logistics of the operation sound far more challenging. The traces of horsemeat detected in the European beef samples were at around one percent. How do they get little itty-bitty pieces of horsemeat into hamburgers? I like to imagine some giant Meat Machine—bring all your types of livestock and leave with a medley. It feels more democratic that way. The Great Meatqualizer.

Anyway, Europe is terrified. Secretary of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs Owen Paterson took the floor of British Parliament to declare an “international conspiracy” on the matter. Clive Black, an analyst at London firm Shore Capital, thinks there has been “substantial rogue activity,” which I read as a few men in ski masks dicing the horse parts into small little cubes and adding them (They’ll never notice!) to the beef parts before making their escape.

For what it’s worth, they really do look the same, beef and horse. Maybe the horse is a bit darker, more chunked. It seems delicious from the pictures, at least. Viande Chevaline, as the French call it, a lighter, richer, sweeter taste. The Italians have always loved horse salami; the Japanese, their equine sashimi.

Over here, Congress’s ban on horsemeat has just expired, and the United States Department of Agriculture is expected to approve the first horse slaughtering plant since 2007 in Roswell, New Mexico. Exactly 60 years earlier, aliens crashed their spaceship on a ranch in Roswell. Now they will slaughter horses for sale at your local grocery store, which, when I think about it, just sounds really difficult, since it’s such a bony animal and so tall, too. Still, Peter McAndrews, chef/owner of a handful of Philly’s hottest restaurants, is excited to have horse on his menu, even though he receives bomb threats daily for doing so. “It’s not a good feeling, you know what I mean?”

I’m really not sure why we care, cow or horse or buffalo or ox. I guess it’s about deception. We have a right to know what we are eating! Then again, I think it’s almost better when it’s a surprise, like when you do all the work only to find out the deadline has been extended. Did I just eat human? Oh well, then, now I’ve eaten human! —DA

Yak Facts

ON FEBRUARY 24, Tibet’s Ta’er monastery revealed over 1,500 pounds of sculpture made mostly of yak butter.  The showing, held annually, honors February’s Lantern Festival.

“The auspicious yak butter sculptures will bring our family good luck,” one resident of a nearby town told China’s Xinhua News Agency. Others seem to agree: the exhibition drew over 100,000 visitors this year.

Yak butter sculptures are a long-standing Tibetan tradition. The art form is said to have originated around 640, when a statue of the Buddha was brought to Lhasa. Lacking the customary offering of fresh flowers, devotees chose instead to model gifts from yak butter. Typical statues depict floral arrangements, scenes from the life of the Buddha, and notable moments in Tibetan history. Monks at Ta’er have been sculpting dairy since the early 17th century.

Yak butter melts at room temperature, so exhibitions like the one at Ta’er are typically held in the winter. Lamas dip their hands in ice water to maintain the dairy’s firm plasticity. Mistakes may not be licked, and anyway, the final product is painted with an unpalatable mineral dye.

The world domestic population of yaks is healthy. 14 million of ‘em—that’s more yaks than there are people in Belgium. The butter, which has a cheese-like texture, can be used for food, tanning hides, and ceremonial lamps. So though the 100-statues are not for eating, there’s still plenty of yak butter left to go around.

Alas, the number of craftsmen skilled enough to create the sculptures is waning. This year, about 40 monks worked on the Ta’er statues; in past festivals, over 100 were involved. As older monks have left the monastery, younger lamas have proven unwilling to get their hands messy.

In an apparent effort to curb this decline, China’s State Council listed Tibetan butter sculpture as a national intangible cultural heritage in 2006. Intangibly valuable, perhaps—but with a malleable and tangy mouthfeel. —SE

Bovine Inspiration

THERE'S SOMETHING SPECIAL about chasing cows. As a teenager I spent my summers ambushing the free-range cows that wander the forests of New Mexico. My goal was to touch one, preferably the biggest cow in the herd. But this was a lot harder than it sounds, and I was never actually able to pull it off. Well, there was one time when I separated a terrified calf from its mother and cornered it against a cliff, but I’ve spent the last six years telling myself this didn’t actually happen. That never happened, okay? This was the topic of my college application essay.

Last Tuesday I discovered that I’m not alone. Meet Pastor Bo Wagner from the Cornerstone Baptist Church in Mooresboro, North Carolina. A couple weeks ago, Dr. Wagner was driving down the road, finishing his daily visits and heading back to church to prepare for the Wednesday evening service and youth meeting. As usual he was late; in his regular column for the Gaston Gazette, Dr. Wagner describes himself as “both hyper and a poor judge of how much activity I can fit into a given day.”

Things got trickier when Dr. Wagner found the road blocked by a dozen or so cows, which he recognized as belonging to his neighbor. Being a good citizen, Dr. Wagner raced up his neighbor’s driveway to let him know the cows were on the loose. His neighbor made aware, Dr. Wagner scrambled back to the car, the evening’s still-unplanned service weighing heavily on his mind. But then a moment of revelation! Right there in the driveway, Dr. Wagner says in his Gazette column, he felt the presence of the Lord, who said to him: “Oh no you don’t! You know he can’t get all those cows back in by himself... go chase cows.”

And so, wearing khakis, a polo shirt, and his trademark black leather jacket, Dr. Wagner joined his neighbor and chased the cows. This was no easy task, as any experienced cow chaser can attest. “The cows seemed to be mooing with both consternation and laughter,” writes Wagner in the Gazette, “as we ‘he-ayyed’ and ‘giddyapped’ them out of the gullies, back through the trees, down the road, whoops, one just doubled back, hurry and loop around behind him, there we go, all straight, now go right back down the dirt driveway, into the fence, close the gate.” All told, it took the two men a good half hour to corral the rogue cattle.

Finally arriving at church, Dr. Wagner had almost no time to prepare for the evening’s services and meetings. But having chased some cows, Dr. Wagner felt the spirit was now with him. “Despite my not having as much prep time as I would have liked, everything went just fine that Wednesday night,” says Dr. Wagner in the Gazette. “In fact, we had one of our best services ever.”

Six years ago my particular experience chasing cows left me in a deep state of ethical disrepair. Why did I let myself settle for the smallest and most helpless member of the herd? I still don’t have an answer, but it’s nice to know some cow chasings have happy endings. -BE