Honk If You Love Foie Gras

Duck and Cover

Blum is one reason there are bills pending around the country to ban the production, sale, and, in one case — unbelievably — the "possession" of foie gras. The bills specifically target foie gras produced by the 3,000-year-old method of gavage — but let's be clear, there's no other kind of foie gras, and it doesn't look likely that there ever will be. Such a bill has passed in California, where it won't take effect (on the state's lone producer) until 2012. But laws are currently being debated in New York, Massachusetts, Washington, Oregon, Hawaii, and Illinois, along with a city bill in Chicago that would ban the sale of foie gras in all restaurants. To put this in perspective, such laws will mean that the country's greatest chefs, geniuses like Thomas Keller of the French Laundry and Per Se (who serves it with apple purée, brioche, and cipollini onions) or Wylie Dufresne of WD-50 (whose version includes anchovies and cocoa powder) or Daniel Boulud or Eric Ripert or dozens and dozens of U.S. chefs acclaimed throughout the world, would be legally prohibited from using an ingredient that has informed and transformed their art for decades. It's a bit like telling Picasso that blue paint is now illegal. But sure, he can still make pictures. The war is on. As yet, the battle is only beginning to heat up in Florida, where Johnny Vinczencz has removed foie gras from his menu at Johnny V on Las Olas, as has Miami chef Giancarla Bodoni at Escopazzo, whose foie gras was a runaway favorite with diners. And according to Len Falls at the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida, so has, "unofficially," George Telles at Lauderdale's upscale Black Orchid Café (a restaurant known for its exotic meats like ostrich, venison, and buffalo), although I couldn't reach Telles to confirm this. Falls admits that ARFF's campaign against foie gras — which mostly involves trying to persuade local chefs not to serve it — is strategic. "I think we focused on foie gras as a practical matter," he says. "It's a place we can make an impact, because it's served in high-end restaurants, and it's a very fancy appetizer. I'd agree that the suffering of animals on egg farms is a much bigger problem — there are millions and millions of chickens in Florida. And we're not planning to push for foie gras legislation in Florida yet — we have other issues we're concentrating on."

This war, let's be frank, is a class war and a culture war too. The French, after all, are mostly responsible for America's budding love affair with foie gras. The stuff is eaten mostly by the rich (although any middle-class schlub can forego a couple of MacMeals and go for the foie instead, as plenty of French cabbies and cops have done for years). I can't think of many food issues as emotionally loaded as this one — touching as it does on the sins of gluttony, prohibitions against animal cruelty, personal "freedom," artistic expression, and political expediency.

And good sex, apparently, at least according to celeb chef Anthony Bourdain. Bourdain is convinced that the "bad guys will win," one state at a time — meaning that in the not-so-distant future, we'd better say farewell to foie gras. When Chicago chef Charlie Trotter announced publicly last year that he'd decided to scratch the foie from his repertoire, Bourdain and other national chefs went ballistic. "[Trotter] cooks like a guy who's never been fucked properly," an exasperated Bourdain told the Hartford Advocate. I asked La Cigale's owner, Francis Touboul, who's worked his way around the Palm Beach restaurant circuit over the years, no doubt serving plenty of engorged duck livers, if he'd taken any flak about his foie gras — but he seemed nonplussed. "Non, non," he assured me in his clotted Marseilles accent. "The customers here, they love it. It's one of our signature dishes. We have had not one complaint."

I'm not complaining either. This debate would settle down considerably if the country's two foie gras producers consistently put out a product using the highest standards of humane treatment (and I strongly suspect that animal rights activists have already made a substantial impact on their husbandry practices). In the meantime, as I tuck into these expensive blobs of bliss (and I plan to eat many of them before the revolution comes), I'll do it with all the reverence I can muster. As Fisher wrote in her introduction to How to Cook a Wolf, "There is no more shameful carelessness than with the food we eat for life itself. When we exist without thought or thanksgiving we are not men, but beasts."

This little duck liver is, in its way, a conjugation of the verb to live. I consider them both a blessing.

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