To most Americans, what passes for adventurous eating is serving duck instead of turkey for Thanksgiving dinner. But what about dining on alligator, crickets or kangaroo? Meat-eating Americans will typically stick with chicken, beef or pork both at home and dining out. TV shows such as Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern are more popular than ever but there is still a stigma behind eating certain meats. As exotic foods are making appearances on TV screens and restaurant menus more often, perhaps Americans will drop the taboo and open their minds and mouths to exotic animal-based proteins.
Ikea, the Swedish furniture store, was accused in 2013 of putting horse meat in their Swedish meatballs in Europe, leading to customer backlash all the way in America. The companies Nestle and Birds Eye had a similar problem when they were forced to recall prepared meat products after horse meat was detected in their ravioli, lasagna and chili con carne. Of course customers want to trust the transparency of the products they are consuming but there is a double standard in Western countries when people are willing to eat certain animals but not others.
Although horse meat is eaten in many European countries, including Italy, Sweden, and Switzerland, it is off-limits for Americans. Christy Blum, 28, has confronted her food stigmas first-hand after moving from California to Zurich, Switzerland and seeing horse meat served all over the country. “My [Swiss] colleagues are always cornering me asking, ‘What’s the difference between horse and cow? Why do you eat cow but think horse is disgusting?’” says Blum. “My husband has cooked it and put it on my dinner plate several times without telling me upfront just to prove a point, which is so mean!” Blum admits that she can’t tell the different in taste, but she tries to avoid eating horse on principle.
Perhaps Americans don’t like to eat anything that is considered a pet. After Whole Foods began selling rabbit meat in select locations during the summer of 2014, thousands of people were outraged. There was even a petition on Change.org with over 57,000 names against the grocery store, saying that bunnies are pets, not food and that Whole Food’s farming methods were inhumane. Whole Foods stopped the sale of rabbit meat last October, citing low sales volumes as the cause. Yet rabbit meat is still served in restaurants and even food markets across New York.
The head chef of The Thirsty Koala, an Australian restaurant in Astoria, Queens, has encountered a similar resistance to the kangaroo meat on her menu. “The aboriginals have been eating kangaroo for meat for thousands of years, it’s not new but it’s not for everybody,” says Katherine Fuchs. Most of the customers ordering it have usually had it before in Australia but there are also a lot of curious people who inquire about it and others who try it for the first time at the restaurant. “When people don’t want to eat it, it’s usually because they think kangaroos are furry and cute and people are grossed out by eating them,” says Fuchs. “When people tell me they don’t want to try it because they feel bad, I say, ‘Do you feel the same way about cows, lamb and pork? They’re cute too.’”
Kangaroo is a healthy and lean meat, like other exotic animal proteins, including alpaca, llama, and elk, all of which act as nutritious alternatives to beef, a much fattier option. Fuchs explains that kangaroo is 98 percent protein, two percent fat, and high in iron and B vitamins, making it a nutritious option for those who are trying to be health conscious. “It’s a great meat and it’s really not so different than chicken or beef. In fact, it’s even healthier than beef and I tell this to the customers.” It does well on the menu but Fuchs doesn’t try to push it on people – they either want it or they don’t.
Another benefit of kangaroo is that it’s an extremely environmentally-friendly meat, leaving behind a minimal carbon footprint that is much lower than lamb, beef and pork. The concern for using eco-friendly meats is growing – environmental sustainability is number six of the top 20 food trends in the National Restaurant Association’s “What’s Hot” culinary forecast for 2016. Bret Thorn, senior food and beverage editor of Nation’s Restaurant News, says, “Cricket is gaining traction among environmentalists who are looking to eat more sustainable protein.” There has been an increase in cricket flour and cricket protein powder, marketed for health and nutrition stores. They are even served in a chain restaurant, Swayback Burgers, in the form of an Oreo-cricket milkshake in a limited time offer last summer. “I’m told it sold pretty well,” adds Thorn.
According to the National Restaurant Association, 20 percent of Americans fit under the category of adventurous diners who like trying new dishes. Thorn says that it is these adventurous diners who tend to go for exotic meats. “Not many Americans have tried exotic meat before, and probably won’t try it more than once, simply because the taste isn’t that different from more mainstream meats, which are easier to come by and less expensive.”
Although Americans are more adventurous eaters than they used to be, they tend to stick with foods that are familiar, which explains the popularity of chicken, beef and pork. Thorn explains that people tend to be a little bit afraid of new foods, which might just be plugged into our biology. “In pre-historic times new foods might have been poisonous or dangerous. Sticking to food you know is safer,” says Thorn. He predicts that exotic meats will become a bigger trend in American restaurants and grocery stores, but it might take a while to catch on. “It takes a long time for Americans to embrace a new type of animal protein, but once they do, it tends to become popular quickly.”
The 2015 Power of Meat study, published by the Food Marketing Institute and the North American Meat Institute, found that the top meat purchasing decision is price, followed by local availability and freshness. The majority of shoppers are looking for the best price per pound and are willing to buy different types and brands of meat based on lower prices. Because exotic meats, such as kangaroo and snake, are not as common to find in America, the prices are higher than chicken, beef and pork.
Pedro Franco, 55, is a butcher at Los Paisanos meat market in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, where they sell snake, llama, camel, alligator and kangaroo meat alongside more traditional options. Franco says that customers don’t ask for the exotic meats often – only about one out of every hundred people buy it. The customers who buy it have almost always had it before, or they are buying it for their kids to taste for the first time. Franco says that these meats are more expensive than the more traditional options that Americans are familiar with.
Other trends impacting purchases include meat that was ‘Made in the USA,’ according to the Power of Meat study. The National Restaurant Association’s “What’s Hot” report confirms this; locally sourced meats is the number one trend in the culinary forecast for 2016. Although some exotic meat options sold by meat purveyors do come from the U.S. – at Los Paisanos meat market, the alligator is sourced from Florida and the snake is sourced from Colorado – it doesn’t come directly from New York farms like the beef, chicken and pork more often do. Freshness is important in the customer’s purchasing decision as well, which may be a factor that prevents people from buying the exotic meat options because those meats are usually sold frozen at the butcher’s shop, while the chicken, beef and pork are not.
With the popularity of food shows, ethnic restaurants and butchers, and health conscious and eco-friendly adventurous diners, the trend of exotic meats continues to grow. In the show Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern on the Travel Channel, viewers find delight in all the outrageous meals that Zimmern eats while traveling the globe. Yet in all his travels, including Vietnam and China, dog meat is never mentioned once. Even celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, who is known for his tough guy persona and huge appetite, draws the line at eating cat and dog, acknowledging that it is hypocritical of him. On the Food Network, Food Channel and Travel Channel, the topic of eating dog is always avoided, suggesting that some meats are just too taboo for American culture. When it comes to non-traditional meat options, pets remain off limits.
Published in NYU Magazine 1/24/16