Dining on Horseflesh and Other Cowboy Heresies

Basashi is easy to chew, and mighty tasty when dipped in a garlic-soy sauce. Deep red in color, well-marbled, sliced thin—in Japan, raw horsemeat is a delicacy. As I tried some basashi along with other unfamiliar dishes in a hot springs resort on the southern island of Kyushu, I reflected on the many mountain men who dined on horse and mule meat in the American West. They had no choice. When you have to eat your transportation, you know circumstances are dire.

The men of the Corps of Discovery, commonly known as the Lewis and Clark Expedition, ate more than nine pounds of wild game per man per day. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark had to negotiate other meals where the item could be either pet or meat. Dog. Meriwether loved the little puppies and threw a few live ones in the canoe, for a snack later. William did not favor the taste. Winston Churchill once said (though the quote is also attributed to Will Rogers), “The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man.” But sometimes the insides of a horse offer a different nutrition, one culinary if not necessary. In many countries, horsemeat as human food is a cultural choice, as we were reminded by recent headlines when horsemeat was found in cow-meat packages in European groceries. The English were appalled. The French offered the old Gallic shrug, and reached for the red wine that made the best pairing.

In over thirty years of museum work in six western states, I have had many occasions to interact with ranch men and women, and to experience North American cowboy and cowgirl culture. I have cooked dutch-oven meals for round-ups and calf sales in central Arizona, and I have written on the popularity and the satisfying poetics of cowboy poetry. (It’s not all “git-along little doggerel,” as one literary critic would have it.)

As a noncowboy and a nonhorseman among the saddle leather–and–snap button shirt crowd, I’ve also made my share of mistakes. While living on a hay farm in Sisters, Oregon, I got a job mending cattle-truck roads on a ranch in Brothers, Oregon, fifty miles away. (For the duration of the job I bunked in a single-wide in Brothers, perhaps making me the only one who has lived simultaneously in both sibling towns.) Every day at noon, after clearing big rocks and filling trenches, I drove the ranch jeep from the open range to the little Brothers café for burgers and black coffee. Mounted behind the counter was that famous specimen of western pseudofauna, the jackalope. Two ranch workers, Old Louis and Young Louis, his son, sat there, mostly ignoring me, until one day Old Louis lowered his newspaper, pointed his jaw at the antlered jackrabbit, and asked, “Have ya seen one of those up Pine Springs Canyon? I heard of a sighting.” I respected Old Louis, and wanted to get to know him better, but I couldn’t let him think I was that much of a greenhorn. “Yep,” I replied, “there was a small herd of them, hopping along so bunched up their antlers were clacking together and spooking the cows.” He didn’t care for my smart-ass response; he snapped his newspaper and went back to ignoring me. I lost a chance to learn more about ranching in central Oregon, and I stared dolefully at a burger gone cold, and a promising friendship gone colder.

I have filmed a branding near Wide Ruins on the Navajo reservation, where the generous cuts of beef for lunch were not familiar shapes found in the racks at Albertson’s. In Prescott, Arizona, I curated an exhibit exploring the fact that Indians are cowboys, too—herdsmen, even—if you allow that buffalo herds were managed ably by Native Americans for thousands of years until grossly mismanaged by the endless migration of target-happy palefaces.

To add a video component to the story, my cameraman and I also traveled to Hopi country, to shoot a round-up. South of Second Mesa, Max and his crew were setting up the portable corral and unloading their horses. As we prepared our equipment for videotaping, we were told to look in the distance. Wild horses were spilling over the horizon and away, horses that had been feral for decades if not centuries. The day’s work was to gather cows. “Those horses,” one man said, “you can’t catch ’em. They turn and fight.” In eastern Montana in the 1930s, feral horses were called “canners” and were caught to become ingredients in cans of dog food, after a short stay at Chicago slaughterhouses. These canners had such a fate due to the mechanization of the big wheat farms, where large teams of horses were no longer needed. They were just cut loose, their muscles no longer useful for power, but for protein further down the food chain. The iconic steed was no more, subject to the heresy of ruthless economics. When we spoon out ground horsemeat for our domesticated canines, do we shiver in disgust, or do we casually accept the Darwinian hierarchy?

When I travel to our seven Historic Sites, I take different routes now and then to make the long drives more interesting. Going from Santa Fe to Lincoln, I’ll head directly south to Duran, turn right on Highway 54, and on to Carrizozo. You pass tiny Ancho before long. From the highway, the rough terrain that embraces Ancho is right out of a Hollywood western. Having already driven for three hours, bored and alone, I imagine riding horseback into Ancho—and I don’t ride horses. (The last time was in a snowy forest outside Banff. No thanks.) I sit astride my imaginary steed and conjure up the West when it was full of lone riders, mysterious and menacing, with a Zen gleam in their eye and tobacco spittle in their whiskers, chewing on a cigar stub, a piece of jerky, or a smoky mastication of both, entertaining vague notions of some destination or other, and some mission to complete.

Horses and livestock are also on my mind when I’m at work, on Museum Hill. Adjacent to the Stewart L. Udall Center for Museum Resources is a life-sized sculpture by Sonny Rivera, Journey’s End. In one robust assemblage of people and animals, Rivera captured the exhaustion and the elation of traveling the Santa Fe Trail. Six mules struggle with the heavy wagon; one of them is about to give out. Two mounted muleskinners urge them on for the last mile down to the plaza. A Puebloan woman observes the commotion, uncertain of what all this means for her way of life. A settler’s kid and his dog romp excitedly. It is a vignette, a frozen moment of the thousands of moments that roll up into New Mexico history. It’s cowboys and Indians and latent heresies of time and place, coming together at a pivotal instant.

I often regard Journey’s End on my way down the paved Santa Fe Trail to my regular lunch spot, the silver Le Pod food trailer across from Kaune’s Market. I joke with chef Jean-Luc that he needs to prepare American onion soup—enough of this French stuff. I don’t ask him if he’ll ever put horse on the menu. In Santa Fe, he might get the crepe pounded out of him.

Richard Sims is the director of New Mexico Historic Sites. He has degrees in anthropology from the University of Oregon and English from Northern Arizona University–Flagstaff. He has managed museums in Arizona, California, Colorado, and Montana. Several of his weekly newspaper columns in Prescott, Arizona, were devoted to humor, enough so that he was the special guest on Michael Feldman’s NPR program, “What Do You Know?” some years back.