Horsemeat scandal – an 18th century version

The continuing scandal about horsemeat being sold as beef is nothing new. Whilst working on an article for BBC History, I came across this passage in Voyages and Travels through the Russian Empire, Tartary and Part of the Kingdom of Persia, published by John Cook in 1778, which throws a wonderful light on the modern reaction to the problem. John Cook was a doctor, and for many years worked for the Imperial Russian Government, attached to the Admiralty in the frontier city of Astrakhan. Amongst his many observations about what one could eat there – Antelope, for example, was plentiful but rather too rich to eat more than twice a year – he made the following observation about wild horses:

“…There are wild horses in Astrachan as I was informed, but I never saw any of them alove, they are run down and hunted like other wild animals, and it is said, they are excellent food, which I believe to be true. I have eaten what was called wild horse, but it was much preferable to any beef.

“At an entertainment, my wife being with child, Mr Thomson, our landlord acquainted me, that there was to be a dish of horse-steaks, and desired I should acquaint Mrs Cook, lest, if she got notice afterwards, it might prove of bad consequence to her: I did so, she did not eat, but I did, our company numbered nine, and except Mrs Cook, every one ate plentifully, and declared they never had eaten so good beef in England, for they imagined it was beef. One Mrs Bell, who loved what was good very well, declared that she never had eaten such beef in Northumberland, where she was born, but after she was informed that it was horse flesh, she soon turned such, and threw it up; but I imagine this proceeded neither from the bad quality of her constitution, but truly from the quantity she had eaten, which was not the most moderate”. (vol 1 p. 318-9)