About four years ago I was working on a landscaping project on a horse farm in West Tisbury. Word quickly spread around the farm that a horse had lain down and died in its stall that morning. There was somberness in the air on that hot summer day, with the humidity promising a thunderstorm in our near future. Horses are not small creatures, and a front-end loader was brought in to extract the animal from the barn. The scene became quite loud as chains were rigged this way and that and the engine on the machine was revved for more power. Finally the loader emerged from the barn with an enormous horse strung up on the bucket like so many of us have seen deer in our backyards during hunting season. The operator then slowly made the journey across a long, dandelion-filled field toward the horse’s grave, creeping along at a snail’s pace as to not lose its precious cargo. My friend and I leaned on our shovels and watched this journey as the sun began to disappear behind the tree-lined horizon and the sky turned orange.
I was building a vegetable garden that day, and food was on my mind. But in our current culture one would never ever consider eating horse meat, and as I watched the horse make the long journey towards its final resting place that day, I never thought to myself that there was a thousand pounds of wasted meat cruising past us. The only contemporary reference to eating horse I have come across recently was in the cookbook published by a restaurant in Montreal called Joe Beef. It was an interesting recipe, but I quickly moved on for the simple fact that horse meat is not available or acceptable to eat in America. In the country that celebrates the triple crown and Seabiscuit, it would be culinary suicide to put horse on a menu.
The only time I have eaten horse was at a restaurant in Italy. It was a small outdoor space where we ate cured pork fat that came from the mountains where Michaelangelo procured the marble for some of his greatest sculptures, devoured simple pastas, drank Lambrusco wine that was cold, red and effervescent and finished with a grilled steak from a horse. It seemed to be a skirt steak and was cooked just over rare, was juicy, well-seasoned with rosemary and garlic, and one of the best pieces of meat I have ever had. It was flavorful like beef but didn’t quite have the fatty finish we are used to, with a slight tang that was masked by its herbal marinade. As with any eating experience the setting and journey to the table added to the romance of the meal.
Just as I can imagine someone unfamiliar to the Vineyard would be overcome with the beauty of weaving down North Road in Chilmark on the way to Menemsha for the best soft-serve ice cream cone of their life at The Galley, that meal was influenced by the one-lane road lined with grapevines and irrigation ditches that we traveled to reach this tranquil setting. I have driven our Island hundreds of times and am still overcome by the beauty of our oak and beetlebung-lined roads — and after all, that is why we choose to live here or visit. The beauty of dusk on summer days can be lost sometimes in the familiarity of our routine commutes from home to job site and back. And I would be lying if I said I, too, fail to absorb the beauty of it all after a long day in the sun — the beauty of the oxen at Brookside Farm, or the great old oak tree across the street from where Humphrey’s bakery used to crank out doughnuts and cookies. I’m sure Skipper Manter lost some perspective the other day when coming face to face with an aggressive swan and its herd in front of the Mill Pond in West Tisbury.
As traffic backed up in all directions, Sergeant Manter calmly herded them across the street while the beautiful mother puffed out her chest, hissed and repeatedly threatened to attack him. From afar he looked like he had his gun drawn, but on closer inspection he was holding his radio, probably ready to call in back-up as needed. I thought I was going to witness my first man-versus-swan battle, and was not sure who would walk away from it once I realized he did not have his gun handy. Swan is another meat not frequently eaten in the states, but would be more likely served than horse. Brian Athearn of Lambert’s Cove, who hunts, farms and fishes with as much enthusiasm as anyone I know, told me about hunting swans out West. The picture he painted of these massive birds soaring above him, and once shot, gliding ever so slowly to the ground, was memorable. He never filled me in on how the meat tasted, but he certainly had a memorable experience plucking them out of the sky, which probably added to his pleasure when he finally enjoyed them.
Last weekend I drove to Lobster Cove in Gloucester to visit a friend’s restaurant that sits above the water on long stilts. We drove through this little vacation sanctuary and I felt, for the first time in a long time, the comfort of a small New England town. We made our way over bridges with boats lining each side on tranquil inlets. We drove past stone walls and woods, just like the Vineyard. But it felt different, it was new and watching families tiptoe barefoot from the beach in their swimsuits was somehow powerful. Before sitting down to slurp oysters and eat the best bouillabaisse I have ever had, we parked our car and took an hour to jump off a bridge into freezing-cold water with a group of screaming, hormonal teenagers. We swam, shivered and cursed the fact that no one had a towel. We sat on the railing as day became dusk and I felt like a child again.