PORTO, June 2017—The area around the city of Porto in Portugal was one of the very first places I ever made a television show—back in Cook’s Tour days. I had no idea what I was doing, so I reached out to a friend, José, my employer at the restaurant Les Halles. He was born and bred in the area, had family there, and a great deal of pride in his homeland, his culture, and especially his cuisine.
It was an enlightening experience in many ways. I learned a lot about José and his family. I learned a little bit more about the strange and unnatural practice of making television, and, for the first time after nearly three decades as a cook and chef, I learned—really learned—where my food came from.
I had never seen an animal die before. I had never looked my dinner in the eyes as its life drained away. Sure, I had picked up the phone thousands of times and ordered meat—in boxes, in plastic bags, in neat, relatively bloodless sections, unrecognizable as the living, breathing creatures it had once been.
José and family threw me a traditional pig feast, which in cultures all over the world—cultures as disparate as Sicily, Borneo, Romania, and rural Louisiana—is a cherished celebration involving whole communities, a joyous occasion where people come together to cook and eat and drink. It invariably involves the killing of an animal. And I will tell you: It was a deeply unsettling experience.
I am often accused by animal activists of “celebrating” or “promoting” the killing or torture of animals. I have been accused of doing so for profit—as if the disturbing and ugly death of any living thing could be either enjoyable or the sort of thing likely to increase viewership.
What I do on my show is show how people live. How they eat. And where that food comes from. Oftentimes that is not a pretty picture. Whether it’s people struggling to feed their families in oppressive political or military situations or the chillingly dispassionate way people kill chickens, pigs, game—usually in the regions where they live closest to those same animals.
I do not take pleasure in the death of any living thing. Anyone who would is frankly, in my view, a monster.
But I will unapologetically show you how people live around the world. I will try, always, to empathize or understand or at least try and see things from their point of view. And I will let you, should you choose to look, make your own judgments.
Portugal is a very old and very beautiful country. The Portuguese were a nation of explorers, navigators, seafarers. And their music, their culture, their cuisine, and their embrace of saudade—their word for a sense of longing and sadness and nostalgia—reflects that.
We should know the past—and the present—before we attempt to judge it. Do we choose to eat meat now that we know where it comes from and what’s involved?
That is up to you.