Lately, there has been quite bit of conversation revolving around the humane treatment of animals as it relates to my industry. And now, horses have found their way into this discussion.
"Who wants to eat such a handsome, intelligent animal as a horse? I mean, horses are the smartest animal."
Well, actually -- and here's where one of those pesky scientific facts some people choose to avoid comes in -- pigs are more intelligent than horses. That's how pigs and boars thrive so well in the wild. They also have great personalities, and can understand fear and pain. But we can't ride a pig. Our kids can't hop on a pig and ride them like they can a pony. We can't pump them full of steroids until their bones can't even hold up their muscles and watch them run around a track really fast. We can't train them to hop over hurdles, and run after little calves that we'll rope up and then throw our hands in the air like we've done something monumental. Hell, we can't even attach a carriage to them and ride them through the streets of Philadelphia. They're just a dirty, rolling in the mud, dumb old pig ... clearly not as important as the horse.
It sounds to me like the Hollywood of animal selection. Tall, thin and beautiful people are fawned over like they walk on water, but if you're fat and homely, stay away, it's just not gonna happen for you -- you're not special enough. It seems to me that the animals we deem to be stronger, more regal, and frankly, cuter, get preferential treatment in our society. Sounds like discrimination to me, and I'm not sure who gets to be arbiter of what's good and what's bad, and what's allowed and what's not.
Unfortunately, these are very small indicators of a much bigger, more global problem. It seems that while everyone is talking about being humane to animals, they are forgetting a very crucial and basic principal of ethics in society today. What about being humane to humans? I respect the choice of every one of our restaurants' guests, and potential guests, to choose what they will and will not eat. Why is it ok for them to disrespectfully disagree with me even if I am conforming to law and to self-imposed high-quality standards? It's because we encourage debate and discourse, not threats and fear-mongering.
I see occasional picketing outside zoos, and alongside the horse carriages in historic Philadelphia, however, it never seems to gain traction. Now, the mere mention of a chef possibly serving horse tartare or horse filet with Roquefort wrapped in bacon -- double whammy -- or even foie gras, has them coming out in droves with a vengeance threatening to shut it all down, picketing relentlessly, and of course, there's always the pleasant threat of "Watch your back, Cheffy," with a video shot through your window of you playing with your two-year-old son in your own home. Never mind that as Americans especially, we tend to judge others by our own values, all the while ignoring the distinct cultural customs and norms that exist outside of our society.
Separately, I find this vitriol directed toward farmers and chefs to be a bit odd. In the course of worrying and fighting about what's happening to these animals, we've forgotten about what's happening to our own children. Why aren't we picketing and fighting with the same vigor for their well-being and health? It's the ultimate hypocrisy. In this country, obesity is at epidemic proportions, and showing no signs of slowing. We feed our children junk like high fructose corn syrup, and animal products artificially injected with hormones, additives and preservatives. Now, that's if we even feed them at all. Seventeen million American children are food insecure. The fact of the matter is if we worried about our children as much as we worried about horses and ducks, we would be able to annihilate many of these issues.
The fact is that chefs strive to be true champions and students of ecology, sustainability, the environment and the humane treatment of animals. We care. A lot. Do you really think any self-respecting chef, who remains at the forefront of sustainability would serve anything that was less than the best possible product? Is there a chance that any of us would threaten our own integrity by doing so? We visit with all the farmers who provide us our produce and raise our livestock. We watch their process. At any turn if there was ever a corner cut, we'd know it, product would suffer and we wouldn't be keen to serve it. We're vehemently opposed to the disrespect and disregard of animals that happens daily in conventional agriculture and mass producing slaughterhouses. As chefs, it's our duty to involve ourselves in the entire process. I have watched calves being born, fed them, nurtured them and assisted in a humane slaughter. An animal's life is never something to take for granted, and never something to become complacent about. Experiencing this gives you a connection and a sensitivity that many people go without.
In his 1980 book, About Looking, John Berger, wrote: "A peasant becomes fond of his pig, and is glad to salt away its pork." What is significant, and is so difficult for the urban stranger to understand, is that the two statements in that sentence are connected by an and, and not by a but.
It's a statement to think about whether you eat meat or not. It is also probably one of the most profound dichotomies that there ever was. Yet, at the same time it's healthy to have the discussion. We should never become complacent about eating meat, and always remember where it came from. It gives the life of the animal purpose, and a life with purpose is really what we are all seeking. Funny thing, I never had any intentions of putting horse on my menu just for the sake of it. If I were to find a livestock farmer who was raising them humanely, I would consider it. But until then, I'll keep investigating all sides of the matter, unlike the people calling for my colleagues' and my heads on a platter.
Horses are beautiful loving, intelligent animals. And so are pigs, cows, lambs, goats, deer and all of the others. Yet, they can also be sources of food, and an important part of the natural food chain of ecology. I'm happy to discuss this with anyone who disagrees -- or agrees -- with me, provided you give me the same respect you believe should be accorded to the animals. It's the humane thing to do.