In my graduate-school days, we used to say that such juxtapositions eating foie gras while mulling over starvation diets was a recipe for "cognitive dissonance." But any plate of foie gras these days is bound to create mental, spiritual, and gastronomic frissons that can't easily be reconciled. At La Cigale (which I'll review fully next week), Moroccan-born chef Farid Oualidi slices the duck's liver into two half-inch-thick ovals, sears them quickly in a very hot pan until they develop a bittersweet, caramel-flavored crust, and sets them gently on a toasted, buttered slice of brioche. Then he ladles on a few spoonfuls of cassis reduction and adds a handful of fresh raspberries. When your waiter carries this sumptuous treat to the table, along with the glass of Muscat you've asked for, he'll set it down with a proud and amused expression: He knows you're going to take one bite and melt faster than a glob of duck fat on a red-hot skillet.
This $18 appetizer is the most popular and sought-after delicacy at La Cigale, winning kudos for Oualidi and dollars for the coffers. The same is true for other local restaurants that serve foie gras: L'Escalier, Bice, Café Boulud, Café l'Europe, and Chez Jean-Pierre in Palm Beach; and Le Bistro and Café Maxx in Fort Lauderdale, among others. And that's just the problem. Foie gras, my friends, is a huge headache for celebrity chefs, for duck farmers, for city councilpersons, for animal rights activists, for restaurateurs, for Arnold Schwarzenegger, for you and me. And you can bet it's one big bellyache too for the 250,000 ducks processed every year at Hudson Valley Foie Gras, the New York company that produces about 60 percent around 220 tons of all the foie gras eaten in the United States, including what's on my plate at La Cigale.
There is only one, rather unfortunate, method for producing this luxury item; the polite term is "gavage," and it involves pumping pounds of corn mush into the gullets of Moulard ducks three times a day for several weeks, until their livers swell to the size of a large man's fist, up to ten times their normal circumference (the fattened liver literally protrudes from beneath the animal's belly). It's a practice about as awful as many of the things we do to animals to make them taste good or to economize; the difference is that you can stop nailing a chicken's feet to its cage and still make a succulent bird, you can give a pregnant pig sufficient room to turn in her pen, but you can't produce foie gras without gavage. Let your ducks range freely, build them a nice little pond to cavort in, but at the end of the day, you're still going to have to force-feed them, just like slaves and farmers did in ancient Egypt and Rome. After two weeks of this, the duck's liver is 80 percent delicious fat, which accounts for the gastronomic high you get from eating it, the way it seems to melt away to nothing but an intensely pleasurable memory on your tongue, the very flavor of yearning. You can't eat foie gras without admitting that it's one of the world's supremely beautiful foods (embattled Caspian caviar, dark chocolate, and the increasingly rare and expensive truffle being others). And you shouldn't eat it either without silently giving thanks to the miserable fowl that produced it.
Had any foie gras lately? If you snooze, you're gonna lose.
A couple of years ago, in the middle of the night, a 26-year-old PhD student named Sarahjane Blum led a group of animal-rights activists onto the property at Hudson Valley Foie Gras to "liberate" some of the ducks being held prisoner there. Blum, who runs the website GourmetCruelty.com, managed to get out with a half-dozen of the worst cases, ducks purportedly bleeding from open wounds, too bloated to walk, some being nibbled on by rats. Blum and other animal libbers who run sites like stopforcefeeding.com, stopgavage.com, and nofoiegras.com have been called "idiots" by superchefs like Chicago's Charlie Trotter, even as he removed foie gras from his own menus last year. She's been called much worse by those who lump her with radical groups like Animal Liberation Front. ALF took credit for destroying Sonoma Saveurs in 2003, a California foie gras restaurant owned by Guillermo and Junny Gonzalez, who also run the only other foie gras farm in the United States. ALF apparently secretly videotaped and threatened chef and Saveurs co-owner Laurent Manrique and his family at their home too. But Blum doesn't look or sound a bit dangerous. She's brave and passionate and full of heart. And when she speaks or shows the video footage she surreptitiously took at U.S. foie-gras farms, our politicians sit up and listen.