Engagements By Chidi Amuta
The United Kingdom, that bastion of genteel affectation of correctness in gastronomic and dining etiquette matters, has for the past few weeks been gripped by a strange epidemic. It all has to do with the infiltration of horsemeat into the supermarket driven food chain of Her Majesty’s kingdom. In a hype typical of post-industrial affluence and prodigality, the British media has been agog with reports of the spread of this apparent contagion. Mind you, the concern is not that anyone has died or been hospitalised from ingestion of horsemeat. It is just that horses and their collaborators had the impudence to infiltrate the iron curtain of Her Majesty’s food chain to emerge in well packaged dressing on supermarket shelves, pretending to be the real thing: beef. The news and the erring meat have even cross borders into other parts of Europe.
All manner of scientists, mad men and specialists on animal DNA have surfaced. Academics whose research on the DNA of correct food would never have seen the light of public discourse are being dusted and conjured up to proffer expert opinions on what may have gone wrong. It all sounds familiar. Recall the outbreak of the mad cow disease and its accompanying syndrome a few years back. The whole world was briefly conscripted into this viral conspiracy.
Parliament has devoted whole sessions to the latest impudent interruption of the party of post-industrial affluence. A high-powered investigation is ongoing. The food standards authority is up in arms. No one has told us for how long this horsemeat contagion has been on the loose. But suddenly, every piece of meat on the supermarket shelf is suspect. And people who may have unwittingly been eating this ‘horsemeat’ for quite a few months past have decided to stay off meat until the government investigation is complete and a few miserable meat handlers are put away. In a penny pinching culture in which people would rather go for a whole day with a cup of tea and no food, government interest in this horsemeat matter makes perfect economic sense.
Struck by this great discovery, quite a number of English ladies and gentlemen have feigned being shocked. It turns out that quite a few privileged palates may have been graced by horsemeat while believing that they were savouring real beef. Worse still, the farther afield this epidemic of horsemeat has travelled, quite a few unsavoury DNAs have shown up both in laboratories and on supermarket shelves on closer examination. Of all things, what was thought to be horsemeat has even proved to be a more appalling variant of the herbivorous specie: donkey meat!
There may in fact be a tinge of well-rehearsed political detour to the entire horsemeat palaver. The news broke at a time when Prime Minister David Cameron had just tabled his controversial proposal showing a clear preference for a referendum on Britain’s continued inclusion in the troubled Eurozone. The political heat was getting quite intense and if allowed to exceed boiling point could ruffle a few conservative business feathers. So, enter the horsemeat controversy. Political indifference becomes a luxury when the matter on hand is what enters every mouth. So, most sensible Brits chose to dwell on horsemeat and let the Eurozone dog lie for a while.
There remain a few puzzles though in this unfolding engagement between horse and man. I would not know if at some point in the British food chain, some Nigerian hands contaminated the purity of original intentions. For all you care, those who may be arrested for spoiling the party in honour of the triumph of mass production and industrial prowess with horsemeat may end up being unscrupulous Asians or ugly Nigerians.
The script may run somewhat thus: the food company had in all good intention ordered correct beef to be supplied. Along the line, some expatriate employees of the company decided, for reasons of personal profit, to swap the beef orders with a cheaper black market supply of horsemeat. This in turn was predicated on the discovery of huge populations of tired, retired and even dying horses all over the English countryside.
There may have been even more glorified sources. Quite a few English gentlemen who had made fortunes supplying horses for bets at races and jockey contests were getting troubled as to what to do with the old and useless horses. When they learnt of the possibility that the meat processing factories might be interested, they reached out and found ready buyers in unscrupulous expatriate procurement managers. After all horses that had seen better days as celebrities on race tracks deserve befitting exits from this world, even if through the guts of millions of hapless supermarket food patrons.
There are numerous conspiracy theories that border on vested interest afield. Someone, they say, is out to damage the British association of beef producers by substituting beef with horsemeat in the food chain. Yet another: someone is out to undo the pride of British landed gentry and the farmers they support by undermining a major source of their livelihood: beef. It may also be the Animal Rights people at work. No one knows exactly which animals’ rights they are out to protect on this matter. If you do not want horsemeat in the human food chain, it means you want to decimate the cows and spare the horses. Horses have higher animal rights than cows, then. All animals are equal! But some horses are more equal than all cows. In India that would be apostasy. Cows are gods over there and so enjoy high animal rights by Western standards. Curious logic in George Orwell’s very own country. The man’s spirit is restless in the grave over the indiscretion and poor logic of his modern day countrymen.
It may even be a conspiracy of Vegetarians Without Borders. Quite a logical position to take: let us make every variety of meat suspect so that more people will join the vegetarian league. But then, deforestation might follow and lead to global warming and terrible flooding in unlikely places like Nigeria.
In this contest between horses and cows for human attention and governmental acceptability, there is not likely to be a clear winner. Come to think of it, in a free and fair contest, no reasonable cow dares look a prize horse in the face. Neither would a sensible horse dare go near a dinner table where ladies and gentlemen of refined taste are deliberating on the Pope’s sudden resignation over mouthfuls of well-bred beef and choice red wine.
No one has yet said with any certainty that horsemeat is poisonous or injurious to human health or constitutes an assault on civilised gastronomic indulgence. All we have so far are conjectures and spirited gesticulations in parliament by partisans sweating profusely in three-piece suits. These are mostly gentlemen who have merely hidden their partisan carving knives under this heap of rejected supermarket horsemeat.
Labour MPs insist the Conservatives know a few more unprintable things about this horsemeat epidemic. Conservatives on the other hand are ready to accuse Labour of plotting to ground production at meat factories by smuggling in horsemeat into what should be decent labour relations at a time of high unemployment.
For me as a Nigerian of yesterday, this controversy is baffling and even ludicrous. Imagine a whole modern sensible society seized by a frenzy over meat. This is not about its scarcity; not its cost to the average household budget. It is not that the public supply of meat is contaminated by some evil hand. Just plain prejudice against one animal and a preference for another animal. If you love cows, eat beef. If you love horses, do not kill them. Stroke their mane in admiration and move on.
Those who wanted to drive home the horsemeat blackmail have gone ahead to find donkey meat in some consignments in some carefully chosen European countries. Even then, donkey meat is not that bad. I recall the good old days of my childhood when the railway system in Nigeria used to work. Quite a few traders on the North-South route made a living ferrying dried donkey meat from Maiduguri to the cities in the South where they were sold alongside other bush meat by well-meaning market women. The damned thing was quite tasty and full of infectious aroma that lingered and travelled far. Those of us who ate donkey meat soup are now variously eminent professors, distinguished senators and even remarkable newspaper columnists! That is how far up the ladder lowly donkey meat can propel a country boy. But you only come this far if you do not come to the table with silly stiff nose prejudice and Sunday school arrogance.
On this matter of horsemeat, then, I volunteer that the British can do with some of the expertise of their former subjects: we Nigerians. Transfer of culinary technology and gastronomic etiquette, you may want to call it! I suspect that the trouble with the British on this horsemeat matter is one of post- industrial haste and affluent indulgence. There is even a bit of arrogance in the whole thing. Those who are wont to toss their meat into microwave ovens for two minutes have no business being found in the places where real meat is eaten. Worse still, a culture that insists on asking people whether they want their meat raw, half raw, undone, half done or well done is bound to discriminate among meat.
That is not all. When the half raw meat is ready, the waiter dumps the bleeding mass on the plate in front of you with a certain detached ceremony. We will have none of that nonsense. Meat is meant to be cooked, boiled over a respectable fireplace of hot coal or firewood and served with a level of respect that does justice to the dignity of the animal in question.
So, if we Nigerians were to be confronted with this horsemeat conundrum, we would simply laugh in ceremony. We would even offer a free cook book: Boil the meat very hard. Season it with real pepper. Discipline it with more spices from the African bush. Fry the meat in hot oil. Palm oil is best. Serve it to all and sundry in palm wine or burukutu accompaniment. Mouth some incantations ahead of the eating just in case there are still any surviving bad spirits in the meat that could cause anyone indigestion. Just imagine what excruciating purgatory your favourite kilishi has undergone before settling into your plate to await baptism with palm wine.
For me, the horsemeat palaver in England is the business opportunity I have spent a life time seeking. Real wealth is knocking at the door at last! I want to import all the offending horses into Nigeria to feed my hungry compatriots most of whom have not had meat for months running. I recall what a feast we made of an unfortunate dead whale that was washed ashore the Lagos Bar Beach some years ago. It was a festival. Everyone came to the feast with long knives. So, to the British I will post a familiar sign at our ports of entry: bring me all your sick and dying horses, retired and tired horses. Do not leave out the donkeys.