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,"
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 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
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
Here to Buy It On Line!