The acquired taste for horsemeat

By Chris Waller

I’ve been trying to rationalise just why I’ve been enjoying the ongoing horsemeat affair so much in the recent weeks and I am fairly sure it’s not the flowering economy of horse puns that one could easily mistake as the reason for the ongoing prevalence of this story. Alongside the serious need to be able to trust in the industry that provides us with the necessities of life and the clear breach in trust that has effected many homes in the UK  there is a very organic sense of rejoicing that this event carries with it. With each new finding I have found myself desperately scanning the list of products to determine whether I can be part of the joke. The middle-class foodie in me is crying out to say that I’ve tried horse, and yet it seems that my class is exactly the reason why I am left yearning. Though the only people who seem to be outraged by this affair are the politicians, I think that if we are to risk taking a serious tone in these encouragingly farcical events then it should be along the lines of class.

Simply put, there has been a huge division in the quality of food consumed between low income and middle-class households in the last 30 years with the emergence of convenient, low-cost, processed-foods. This uptake reflects changes in family structures and labour which mean amongst other things that the time and inclination to make food from scratch is just not available. This point continues to be made by many more qualified commentators than myself but it is worth noting because I think in an inverse way it explains why the horsemeat scandal seems to be propelled so much by its inherent humour.

Firstly, horsemeat as a concept is already fairly well established as classification for suspicious foods. Off-brand products and fast-food outlets tend to be subject to speculation of this sort by existing outside of our normal practices. Distinguishing ‘the good kebab shop’ tends to say more about the limitations of our experience than of our connoisseurial approach to kebab consumption.
Secondly, this reaction is a somewhat cathartic response to an ideology in British food culture over the last decade that reflects a poorly masked smugness in relation to produce and cooking. In the past, for better or worse, food programming concerned itself with middle-class audiences and their taste for haute-cuisine or exotic dishes from across the world. As ideology began to attach itself to food, the middle-class sensibilities prevailed but presenters began to make clear judgements as to what was to be valued. With his good intentions and outcomes taken into account, Jamie Oliver’s School Dinners was amongst the first and most important of this breed of value laden food television. Soon a host of celebrity chefs began involving themselves in this cause with the predominant aim of making the nation cook like diligent and responsible middle-class people. With economic and environmental causes being added to the list of concerns the notions of locally and sustainably sourced produce began to fill our screens with chefs and politicians alike praising British produce as amongst the best in the world. This may well be true, but world class produce for the most part takes a well trodden route straight to world class restaurants and rarely to supermarkets or homes.

The result is that the food programming and the culture surrounding it puts pressure on us to conform to its morally framed expectations. The presentation of a dish is normally married with an acknowledgment that we’re ‘all so busy’ and that food shouldn’t be stressful. The food is prepared before segueing into a montage where the presenter enacts some instance of their bleakly food-centred lifestyle before returning home to serve a vibrant and delicious meal to a tellingly transient group of friends. The format varies but the message does not; ‘good food is easy to make; there are no excuses.’

Aside from its good nutritional value and its status as a delicacy in many parts of the world this is surely another reason to relish horsemeat. The joy of this story and the reason for its continual strength is that it deflates this sanctimonious attitude that the food industry has deployed to its benefit in recent years. This base and somewhat medieval saga is exactly the antidote to an ideology which has long lost its focus and legitimacy. We should take this as an opportunity to think pragmatically about food as a necessity rather than an elusive constellation of moralistic sentiments that ultimately sells strawberries to those that can afford them and horse to everyone else.


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