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A Cook's Tour
by Anthony Bourdain
cookbook reviewsa cook's tour by anthony bourdain
A Cook's Tour by Anthony Bourdain
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Portugal

From the very moment I informed my boss of my plans to eat my way around the world, another living creature's fate was sealed on the other side of the Atlantic. José had called his mother in Portugal and told her to start fattening a pig.

I'd heard about this pig business before. "First, we fatten the pig ... for maybe six months. Until he is ready. Then in the winter — it must be the winter, so it is cold enough — we kill the pig. Then we eat. We eat everything. We make hams and sausage, stews, casseroles, soup. We use" — José stressed this — "every part."

"It's kind of a big party," interjected Armando, the pre-eminent ball-busting waiter and senior member of our Portuguese contingent at Les Halles [the New York restaurant where Bourdain is executive chef].

For my entire professional career, I've been like Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II, ordering up death over the phone. When I want meat, I make a call, or I give my sous-chef, my butcher or my charcutier a look, and they make the call. Every time I have picked up the phone or ticked off an item on my order sheet, I have basically caused a living thing to die.

What arrives in my kitchen, however, is not the bleeding, still-warm body of my victim, eyes open, giving me an accusatory look that says, "Why me, Tony? Why me?" It was only fair, I figured, that I should have to watch as the blade went in. I'd been vocal, to say the least, in my advocacy of meat, animal fat and offal. I'd said some very unkind things about vegetarians. Let me find out what we're all talking about, I thought.

José Meirelles comes from a large family that, like its prodigal son, loves food. He went to New York, became a cook, and chef, and then made a rather spectacular success in the restaurant business. But you've got to see him at his family's dinner table, eating bucho recheado (stuffed pig's stomach), to see him at his happiest and most engaged.

He talked continually about the pig slaughter — as if it were the Super Bowl, the World Cup and a Beatles reunion all rolled into one. I had to take his enthusiasm seriously. Not just because he's the boss, but also because along with all that Portuguese stuff that would mysteriously arrive at the restaurant came food that even I knew to be good: fresh white asparagus, truffles in season, Cavaillon melons, fresh morels, translucent baby eels, Scottish wild hare, gooey, smelly, runny French cheeses, screamingly fresh turbot and Dover sole, yanked out of the Channel yesterday and flown (business class, I think, judging from the price) to my kitchen doors. José knew how to eat. If he told me that killing and eating a whole pig was something I absolutely shouldn't miss, I believed him.

So it was with a mixture of excitement, curiosity and dread that I woke up on a cold, misty morning in Portugal and looked out of the window of my room at orderly rows of leafless grapevines. On the day of the slaughter, we drove to the Meirelles farm, a stone and mortar farmhouse with upstairs living quarters, downstairs kitchen and dining area, and adjacent larder. Across a dirt drive were animal pens, smokehouse and a sizable barn. José's father and cousin grow grapes, from which they make wine, and raise a few chickens, turkeys, geese and pigs.

It was still early morning when I arrived, but there was already a large group assembled: José's brother Francisco, his other brother, also Francisco (remember the wedding scene in Goodfellas, where everybody's named Petey or Paul or Marie?), his mother, father, assorted other relatives, farmhands, women and children — most of whom were already occupied with preparations for two solid days of cooking and eating. Standing by the barn were three hired assassins, itinerant slaughterers/butchers, who apparently knock off from their day jobs from time to time to practise their much called upon skills with pig killing and pork butchering.

Cousin Francisco positioned a sequence of bottle rockets and aerial bombs in the dirt outside the farmhouse and, one after the other, let them fly. The explosions rocked through the valley, announcing news of the imminent slaughter — and the meal to follow.

"Is that a warning to vegetarians?" I asked José.

"There are no vegetarians in Portugal," he said.

At the far end of the barn, a low door was opened into a small straw-filled pen. A monstrously large, aggressive-looking pig waggled and snorted as the crowd peered in. When he was joined in the confined space by the three hired hands, none of them bearing food, he seemed to get the idea that nothing good was going to be happening, and he began scrambling and squealing.

I was already unhappy with what I was seeing. I'm causing this to happen, I kept thinking. This pig has been hand-fed for six months, fattened up, these murderous goons hired for me. Had I said, when José first suggested this blood feast, "Uh no ... I don't think so. I don't think I'll be able to make it this time around," maybe the outcome for Porky here would have been different. Or would it have been? Why was I being so squeamish? This is Portugal, for Chrissakes! This porker was boots and bacon from the second he was born.

Still, he was my pig. I was responsible. For a guy who'd spent 28 years serving dead animals and sneering at vegetarians, I was having an unseemly amount of trouble getting with the programme. I had to suck it up. I could do this. There was already plenty in my life to feel guilty about. This would be just one more thing.

It took four strong men to restrain the pig, wrestle him up on to his side and then on to a heavy wooden horse cart. It was not easy. With the weight of two men pinning him down and another holding his hind legs, the main man with the knife, gripping him by the head, leaned over and plunged the knife all the way into the beast's thorax, just above the heart. The pig went wild. The screaming penetrated the fillings in my teeth, echoed through the valley.

I'll always remember, as one does in moments of extremis, the tiny, innocuous details — the blank expressions on the children's faces, the total lack of affect. They were farm kids, used to the ebb and flow of life, its at times bloody passing. A passing bus or an ice-cream truck would probably have evoked more reaction. I'll always remember the single dot of blood on the chief assassin's forehead. It remained there for the rest of the day, above a kindly, rosy-cheeked face. I'll remember the atmosphere of business as usual that hung over the whole process as the pig's chest rose and fell, his blood draining noisily into a metal pail. And I'll never forget the look of pride on José's face, as if he were saying, "This, this is where it all starts. Now you know. This is where food comes from."

The horse cart, with the now dead pig aboard, was wheeled to a more open area, where his every surface was singed with long bundles of burning straw. Suddenly, and without warning, one of the men stepped around and, with the beast's nether regions regrettably all too apparent, plunged his bare hand up to the elbow in the pig's rectum, then removed it, holding a fistful of steaming pig shit — which he flung, unceremoniously, to the ground with a loud splat before repeating the process.

The animal's belly was now split open from crotch to throat. Have you ever seen Night of the Living Dead, the black-and-white original version? Remember the ghouls playing with freshly removed organs, dragging them eagerly into their mouths in a hideous orgy of slurping and moaning? That scene came very much to mind as we all sifted quickly through the animal's guts, putting heart, liver and the tenderloin aside for immediate use.

It was time to eat.

There must have been 30 assorted family members, friends, farmhands and neighbours crowded into the stone-walled room. Every few minutes, as if summoned by some telepathic signal, others arrived: the family priest, the mayor of the town, children, many bearing more food — pastries, aguardiente (brandy), loaves of mealy, heavy, brown, delicious Portuguese bread. We ate slices of grilled heart and liver and tenderloin, a gratin of potato and bacalao (salt cod), and sautéed grelos (a broccoli rabe-like green vegetable), all accompanied by wine, wine and more wine, José's father's red joining the weaker vino verde and a local aguardiente so powerful it was like drinking rocket fuel. This was followed by an incredibly tasty flan made with sugar, egg yolks and rendered pork fat, and a spongy orange cake. I lurched away from the table after a few hours feeling like Elvis in Vegas — fat, drugged, and completely out of it.

Lunch the next day was cozido, a sort of Portuguese version of pot-au-feu: boiled cabbage, carrots, turnips, and confited pig's head, snout and feet. Dinner was a casserole of tripe and beans. Ordinarily, I don't like tripe much. I think it smells like wet sheepdog. But José's mother's version, spicy, heavily jacked with fresh cumin, was delicious. I mopped up every bite.

Portugal was the beginning, where I began to notice the things that were missing from the average American dining experience. The large groups of people who ate together. The family element. The seemingly casual cruelty that comes with living close to your food. The fierce resistance to change — if change comes at the expense of traditionally valued dishes.

I learned a lot about my boss in Portugal, too, and I had some really good meals. I learned, for the first time, that I could indeed look my food in the eyes before eating it — and I came away, I hope, with considerably more respect for what we call "the ingredient". I am more confirmed than ever in my love for pork, pork fat and cured pork. And I am less likely to waste it. That's something I owe the pig.

Check out a video clip from the television series of A Cook's Tour as Tony takes a nibble on the heart of a cobra. (more)

© Anthony Bourdain 2001. This is an edited extract from A Cook's Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal, by Anthony Bourdain, published by Bloomsbury at £16.99 in the UK and $18.61 in the US.
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