Inside California's foie gras ban

What the polarizing 2012 ban means for chefs, restaurants, and the way we think about food

Seared Foie Gras with Ginger Cream

James Carrier

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I love foie gras. I love foie gras on toast and I love foie gras seared. I love it stuffed into hamburgers and, most of all, I love it poached in the French form known as torchon. Like an excellent steak or ice cream, buttery luscious foie strikes my palate as a fundamental human ecstasy, revealing something undeniable about our physiology. So I will dearly miss eating foie gras—which means “fatty liver” in French, and typically comes from ducks or geese—if a California ban goes into effect as planned on July 1.

I will not, however, miss the controversy surrounding it, which creates a moral headache for home chefs like myself, or for anyone who cares in equal measure about sheer deliciousness and the ethics of what we eat.

Most of the time in the West, these two concerns align gorgeously. The organic produce at a good farmers’ market is tastier and easier on the earth than industrially grown fruits and vegetables. Pasture-raised chicken and eggs, along with sustainably raised meats, are simultaneously healthier, more humane, and better tasting than their factory-farmed counterparts. In other words, all you’ve got to do to feel virtuous is find the best ingredients you can.

With foie, it’s not so simple. When I signed up for a foie gras dinner at Alexander’s Steakhouse in San Francisco—part of a statewide series to fund efforts to amend the ban­—I hoped to get some clarity on the issue and bid one of my favorite foods farewell. The beneficiary of the evening was the Golden Gate Restaurant Association and its new pro-foie advocacy group, CHEFS—Coalition for Humane and Ethical Farming Standards—which supports the creation of stricter farming standards for foie gras instead of a ban. Before I even got inside the restaurant, though, I realized that foie might not fit neatly into my culinary worldview. 

Start with the protesters on the sidewalk from PETA—People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals—who waved photographs of the farming technique on which foie gras production depends. Known as gavage, the French word for “force-feeding,” it requires pushing a tube down a duck’s or goose’s throat two or three times a day for the last few weeks before slaughter, inserting food directly into its stomach.

There is a farm in Spain that manages foie gras production merely by creating a cageless paradise for geese—a kind of avian Land of the Lotus Eaters, where birds can feast on acorns and figs. Migratory geese apparently fly to this farm unbidden, discover everything they’ve ever wanted, and then stay, gorging themselves and never leaving, despite the total lack of confinement. But this farm does not yet export, and although some have tried, nobody has successfully replicated their methods. For all practical purposes, therefore, foie gras equals gavage. Taking a position in the foie gras controversy, by extension, means taking a position on force-feeding.

So as I stepped between the protesters and descended the staircase into the private dining space at Alexander’s Steakhouse, it was impossible not to feel rattled, and I learned that other diners felt the same way.

 

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