There are bullfights virtually every night of every day between May and October on Terceira in the Azores, a group of islands about 1,000 miles west of Portugal. The Azores are a part of Portugal, stunning and dramatic volcanic land masses in the North Atlantic. Athough the Azores share most cultural characteristics with mainland Portugal, they’ve developed a number of traditions of their own, including the bifana sandwich and the six-month season of bullfights.
The bifana is a popular street food in Terceira, and it’s basically a few slices of fried or griddled pork, seasoned with garlic, salt, pepper and vinegar (a very common ingredient in much Azorean food). Served on a bun, this sandwich is the go-to food for bullfight season (you can hold it in one hand and use your other hand to vault fences to avoid being beat up by the bull). At one fight we attended in the small town of Sao Mateus, perhaps half or more of the street vendors specialized in bifana sandwiches.
The bifana vendors had a good-sized crowd to serve. Mostly men, this crowd was there for the bullfights, which take place not in an arena but in a street, alongside residences and retail spaces, and the bull is not killed but rather teased until he attacks. The tormentors are, for the most part, young men (with a few older guys mixed in) who taunt the bull, run in front of him with umbrellas, and sometimes pound walls and shake fences to get the bull’s attention. When the bull has had enough, he charges, sometimes lifting people up on his horns, sometimes trampling them a little. The bull’s horns are covered in a protective plastic sheath, and damage done to humans is further minimized by teams of men in white shirts and Zorro hats who hold a rope that’s attached to the bull’s neck: if the bull gets too carried away, they reel him in.
Bulls hold a distinguished position in the history and mythology of the Azores: bulls allegedly repelled invaders from Spain (a traditional nemesis of Portugal) and they’re prominently featured on the islands’ coat of arms (I found the one pictured above on the wall of a hotel, Aldeia da Fonte, on the island of Pico). Bulls were also critical to the agricultural and economic development of the Azores, providing the muscle to move millions of tons of volcanic rock to make way for farmlands and vineyards.
Still, such rituals as bullfighting are understandably judged to be cruel. The bull is clearly being tormented…then he’s released back into his field to rest up for the next fight. No bulls may fight more than once every two weeks.
In Jonathan Safran Foer’s brilliant and insightful “Eating Animals,” the author makes a compelling case for vegetarianism, arguing that raising creatures to be killed and eaten is indefensible. I pretty much agree with that assessment. Still, I crave only one food: beef. I’ve made uneasy peace with the concept of raising cattle for my dinner table. On moral and ethical grounds, however, I can’t defend eating other creatures. And I’m guessing that the cattle raised on corporate feed lots – which accounts for much of the beef we eat in North America – have a much lower quality of life than the Azorean bulls, who lead a fairly peaceful existence until they’re called upon to entertain the people of Terceira (and perhaps even, dare I think it (!), enjoy themselves a little as they turn their horns on their tormentors).
My point is simple: if you eat meat, you have scant room to criticize bullfighting, particularly Azorean bullfighting, which does not end in the death of an animal that is historically — and currently — revered. From the top of the food chain, we do much to other animals that may be considered inhumane, so it seems a sort of selective morality — or willful blindness — to inveigh against one of those acts of inhumanity while actively supporting another, perhaps even more significant, and undeniably horrendous, act of inhumanness.
So, if you eat meat and get your nose out of joint about bullfighting, you’re not taking the moral high ground — you’re in moral limbo.
Of course, if you eat only “humanely raised” meat, which accounts for a small percentage of the animal flesh eaten in our country, then I will, somewhat reluctantly, give you a pass.
Travel note: There’s a very large Azorean population in Massachusetts, and there are now direct flights to the Azores from Boston. Carolyn and I went though a company called Azores Getaways, and it takes about as long to get to the Azores from Boston as it takes to get to Los Angeles from Chicago. So although the Azores may seem exotic and far away, they’re not actually all that far away.