Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Accounting for Tastes

It has been interesting to watch the reaction in Ireland to the discovery that there has been horse meat mixed into some burger patties sold here.

Of course, there is always cause for concern when something shows up in your food which wasn’t meant to be there. The idea that the authorities cannot tell you for sure what is in your food and where it came from is, to say the least, worrisome. On the other hand, there is something reassuring that authorities did, in routine inspections, manage to pick up on what seem to be traces of non-beef DNA.

But the concern and outrage went beyond quality control procedures. As I heard one fellow on the radio argue it, many people consider it immoral to eat a horse. For a lot of people, it is as distasteful as eating a dog or a cat is for most westerners.

The contamination also extends to the United Kingdom, and I can truly understand the upset over there. The English nearly worship their horses, as you can tell from watching equestrian events at the Olympics and movies set in the English countryside.

Personally, in the case of the Irish, I suspect that it also has to do with the idea that, when horses wind up on the dinner table, there are fewer of them around to wager on.

I confess to being just a bit amused by the brouhaha. It brings back memories of the year I spent in Bordeaux as a student. In the student cafeteria, we got served horse meat about once a week. It wasn’t half bad and was prepared not unlike a burger patty. In our self-conscious student Franglais, we Americans dubbed them cheval burgers.

I ate a lot of things in France that I hadn’t been accustomed to previously. I never warmed up much to cow brains, tripe or blood sausage. I used to envy the Moslem students on the days they served us boudin, as the sausage was called. To accommodate their religious beliefs, they were served ravioli instead. I asked to get the same thing, but the imperious food staff wouldn’t serve anyone ravioli if they couldn’t make a credible case that they were Moslem or Jewish.

One thing that most of the other Americans couldn’t stomach was cow’s tongue. For some reason, the very idea of it put them off. Maybe it was the sight of the taste buds on top. Me, I had no problem with it because, by that point in my life, tongue was one of my favorite things. It was a regular appetizer at the Basque restaurants I used to frequent in East Bakersfield with my family and with my best friend Eric.

The Basque tongue I had was always sliced very thin and pickled. The tongue I had in Bordeaux was cut thicker and had a completely different, thicker kind of sauce over it. It was different than I was expecting, and that disappointed me. But I happily ate all of it, which disgusted the other Americans.

Basque food was one of the two types of cuisine I missed the most during that year abroad. The other was Mexican. I could find Basque restaurants in Bordeaux, but the food was nothing like the food I had had in Bakersfield. Mexican food, on the other hand, was nowhere to be found. During the entire year, I found only two self-described Mexican restaurants in Europe. One was in Madrid, and all I remember about it was the food was extremely dark and hot. The other restaurant was in London, and it was actually a bit better than the Madrid one, but not by much.

In the 1990s, when I went back to Paris after many years, I was amused to find there were actually Mexican-theme chain restaurants. The best Mexican restaurant I have found in France to date is in Cannes.

Mexican food was not the only thing I was missing during my student year in France that I found in Madrid. Following rumors, some American friends and I sought out a bar that had the feel of a speakeasy. It had something we had not been able to find anywhere else in France or Spain: root beer. The rumors said that it was illegal in Europe and had to be smuggled in. I doubt if that was true, but it made the root beer taste even better.

That’s a memory that came back to me last year when someone turned me on to the new “American shop” in Galway. Mainly a sweet shop, it has a section catering to homesick Yanks. There on the shelf I found—next to the Froot Loops, Hershey chocolate syrup, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese and Libby pumpkin pie filling—was good old A&W Root Beer.

I had forgotten I was even missing it.