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The last hurrah of foie gras 

Wistful chefs and relieved animal rights activists say goodbye to a delicacy in California

A liver is a private thing.

Most organs are, really. They sit under layers of muscle, fat, and skin, quietly synthesizing or pumping, contracting or firing, carrying out their respective duties in the blood-tinged darkness.

click to enlarge RAW INGREDIENT :  Benjamin La Pier at Artisan in Paso Robles works with foie gras, transforming large livers like these into dishes diners enjoy. - PHOTO BY BENJAMIN LA PIER
  • PHOTO BY BENJAMIN LA PIER
  • RAW INGREDIENT : Benjamin La Pier at Artisan in Paso Robles works with foie gras, transforming large livers like these into dishes diners enjoy.

So the act of removing one of these organs, one of these specialized components, from its larger system, the act of taking the hidden and bringing it into the light—not just displaying it, but cutting it, pressing it, shaping it, heating and cooling it, garnishing it and plating it—is an intimate one. To dip one’s hands, even metaphorically, into the viscera of another being and come up with a vessel devoted to the secret tickings and workings of the body creates a bond. It is life, or at least an agent of it, clutched in those wet fingers; it is life, ultimately chopped, sautéed, and perhaps drizzled with a ginger-scented port wine reduction.

Anyone who eats meat is, on some level, aware of this process. Once your canines come in, you’re at least cognizant of the fact that steak does not arrive ex nihilo, with right-angle grill marks and crumbled bleu cheese, on your plate.

We, as a people, eat animals. Yes, there are vegetarians and vegans among us, but humans on the whole consume just about anything that walks, flies, swims, crawls, jumps, slithers, and twitches. And to do that on the scale we devour living things as a planet—even a country—we have to raise them and kill them first. Mostly. (Sorry oysters!)

But how that raising and killing’s done is another matter. Most people are fine with the everyday care and slaughter of edible creatures. Even if the system isn’t perfect, there are people working to make sure cows are content, right up to the moment a slug enters their brain and they become beef. Humane treatment of our soon-to-be meals is in right now, especially thanks to people like author Michael Pollan, who raise ethical, moral, financial, environmental, and health-related questions about ranches and food processing facilities, feed lots and production.

And then there’s foie gras, something This American Life host Ira Glass called “the most maligned food out there.” While proponents argue that, like everything else, there are humane ways to harvest it—or at least more humane ways than are traditionally employed—opposition to the delicacy builds itself on a foundation of cruelty perpetrated against ducks and geese.

Foie gras is liver. Duck or goose liver. Before migrating, fowl gorge themselves on grain, which blows up their livers into fatty lobes that they can live off of on leaner stages of their journey. Or that humans can cook as is or whip into pâté or mousse. The trouble is, captive ducks and geese don’t tend to just pig out on their own—it’s not like they’re going anywhere when the weather takes a turn for the colder—so humans have to intervene. While some producers have reported success in promoting voluntary consumption, essentially tricking the animals into thinking they’re downing acorns and figs like crazy of their own accord, the traditional way to generate the raw ingredient is to force feed the bird with a tube. The French term for the practice is gavage, which, when said properly, sounds a bit like corn rattling around in your throat.

In 2004, California Senate Bill No. 1520 took foie gras off the menu for the state. The addition to the Health and Safety Code prohibits “a person from force feeding a bird for the purpose of enlarging the bird’s liver beyond normal size.”

The deadline for enforcement (penalties for disobedience include citations and fines of up to $1,000 a day per violation) is July 1, 2012.

The Fish Course

 

For two U.S. foie gras producers, something doesn’t smell quite right.

Helena Gonzalez, writing in an e-mail to New Times on behalf of Guillermo Gonzalez at Sonoma-Artisan Foie Gras in California, said they sold their product mostly to distributors, but could essentially count hundreds of restaurants as their clients. Since 1986, the farm has raised ducks, keeping the hatchlings in wood shavings as the babies develop feathers, then turning the birds loose into walnut orchards to grow for a couple of months. For the last two weeks of their lives, Helena explained, the birds move into roughly 30-square-foot pens in temperature-controlled barns, up to a dozen animals per pen, where they’re fed twice a day by the same feeder.

Per her description, the bulk of a fated bird’s life is idyllic, simple. Picture webbed feet padding around, sleek feathers dappled by sunlight filtering through gnarled and gently swaying branches. Even a duck’s last days are shared with its fine feathered friends.

“We do not believe that foie gras farming, when done correctly, is harmful or hurtful to a duck,” Helena explained. “Since the original deal (in which the state was to assign funds for research to ascertain the ideal conditions for raising ducks for foie gras) was not honored, there was no study performed in California, and therefore, no way to exonerate our business and the only viable method for producing foie gras.”

click to enlarge PLATED: :  A slice from a terrine of foie gras is strong enough to be served on its own, accompanied - by greens and a toasted baguette round. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PLATED: : A slice from a terrine of foie gras is strong enough to be served on its own, accompanied by greens and a toasted baguette round.

A letter from Guillermo Gonzalez, encouraging then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to support the ban, noted that doing so would give scientists several years in which to prove foie gras can be humanely harvested. He wrote: “… I have been attacked by the same groups sponsoring and in favor of the bill, which have used all means imaginable to make our lives miserable and put us out of business.” His hope was that a ban on the books would stop the legal volleys and “continued onslaught of legal expenses.”

John Burton—then a state senator, now California Democratic Party chairman—authored the bill that banned foie gras, but didn’t respond to an e-mail from New Times asking for comment about the issue, specifically in regard to promised funding for research into the possibility of humane gavage.

Critics say the practice—tubes rammed down birds’ throats, the livers swelling like a growing sense of doom amid other panicked ducks—is inhumane no matter how you slice it. And they don’t like the conditions in which some fowl have been found, pointing to testimony from people infiltrating foie farms as evidence of the foodstuff’s horrible manufacture. Covert videos—such as those available at stopforcefeeding.com—show bedraggled ducks wobbling unsteadily in dark pens; birds with beaks agape, panting laboriously; ignored carcasses lumped in feathery piles or draped over railings, sinuous necks dangling above bloody spots on dingy floors.

But supporters say such arguments and tactics trade more on emotion and on spotlights focused at spotty problems in the process than they do on science and the fine record of the day-to-day norm. And many chefs and foodies have written essays and arguments denouncing violent rhetoric coming from animal rights activists, including threats of physical harm and litigation against foie gras farmers, preparers, and fans.

In foie’s defense, Helena cited several journal articles and studies saying “foie gras has been recognized as a non-pathological and non-harmful product.”

“We believed then, as we believe today, that our farming techniques would be considered humane under any unbiased scientific studies,” Helena wrote.

She argued that science ultimately wasn’t given a chance to play a role in California’s great foie gras debate; instead, she said, an anti-meat-agenda special-interest group imposed its morals on everyone else.

As for the ban itself, Helena stated that it will close “a successful family business that for over 25 years has provided the highest quality duck products with utmost respect to animal husbandry practices, created employment, paid taxes, and contributed to excellence in the culinary world of California and across the nation.”

On the opposite coast is Hudson Valley Foie Gras, where Marcus Henley is operations manager. He’s also secretary of Artisan Farmers Alliance, a group that aims “to defend the rights of consumers to make their own decisions about food”—primarily when it comes to goose and duck liver.

Henley was doing “just ducky”—yes, he went there—when I called. Despite the impending California ban, he was confident of his place in New York, saying he was “absolutely not” worried about diners losing access to foie gras elsewhere in the United States. He said there was a rush to use California as a model after 2004, but a dozen state and city efforts to duplicate the ban have fallen flat, aside from a Chicago foie blackout that was overturned after two years.

Foie gras consumption has proceeded unabated otherwise. Tubes slide in, and the corn flows. Henley attributes this ongoing fattening to the alliance’s work; members go state to state—wherever a ban threatens to keep foie gras off plates—and present testimony, veterinary observations, research papers, and whatever else they can find as proof that the delicacy of the day isn’t the product of cruelty, as far as that can be measured by science.

“How much does a typical duck eat?” Henley asked rhetorically.

That his group has to mount a cross-country effort to support foie gras at all irks Henley, in that California seems to be trying to regulate businesses in other states. His farm, he said, is operating under New York and federal law, is a facility he invites people to tour, is doing everything it’s supposed to do. But as of July 1, it won’t be able to sell to California—and will thus take a $2 million hit.

And as sure as he is of foie gras’ safety in the rest of the 49 states, it’s not like he’s thrilled that a door has been closed, even if it’s just in California.

click to enlarge IN THE KITCHEN: :  Laurent Grangien welcomed a Sun writer and photographer into his kitchen, where he sliced foie gras for sampling. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • IN THE KITCHEN: : Laurent Grangien welcomed a Sun writer and photographer into his kitchen, where he sliced foie gras for sampling.

“It sets a bad precedent,” he said. “If we were, if we were harming animals … compared to other processors, there’s justification for taking some kind of action … but you have special interests that are presenting information that they don’t even understand, and it becomes emotional, and decisions are made without a lot of investigation … .”

Though Henley admitted that getting Sacramento to overturn the ban would be an uphill battle, the Artisan Farmers Alliance maintains an online petition that reads, in part: “The core American value is freedom of choice. … The state of California has allowed biased animal rights activists to interfere with free market trade and consumer choice by banning foie gras entirely. We question the sensibility of allowing political agendas to dictate what we can eat, and worry about how this will impact other freedoms and rights. We would like to reserve our right to eat foie gras. Please repeal SB 1520 and allow the people of the state of California to keep producing, selling, cooking, and most of all, eating foie gras.”

 

The Main Course

 

Erich Koberl of San Luis Obispo’s Koberl at Blue said he stopped serving foie gras three days before I called in late May. They were launching their summer menu anyway and decided to axe the dish in advance of the deadline.

The restaurant’s website still listed the popular item for weeks after its disappearance, the afterimage of a now-ending epicurean era, like a wine stain on a napkin, the lingering echo of forks and knives clinking against china. Diners whose mouths watered at the sight of “seared foie gras of duck seasoned with fleur de sel de guérande”—served with huckleberry waffle, caramelized onion, and that aforementioned port wine reduction—would have to keep salivating.

Or look elsewhere as the clock ticked down.

San Luis Obispo’s Sidecar offers a foie gras terrine with bacon brioche, zucchini jam, and vanilla salt. Artisan in Paso Robles lists the meaty “charcuterie: foie gras torchon, salumi, pâté maison.”

Benjamin La Pier, executive sous chef at Artisan, said foie gras can stand up to beef, but he feels it should be highlighted as the sole meat on the plate.

“I have the proclivity to use brioche, arugula, and whatever fruit may be in season as accompaniments,” he wrote to New Times. “Quite often it requires sweet and acid and a crunch to carry it through.”

click to enlarge COOKING WITH LAURENT: :  Bistro Laurent owner Laurent Grangien said foie gras is irreplaceable on his menu, and he believes there’s a way it can be humanely farmed. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • COOKING WITH LAURENT: : Bistro Laurent owner Laurent Grangien said foie gras is irreplaceable on his menu, and he believes there’s a way it can be humanely farmed.

La Pier first tried foie at New England Culinary Institute (“… unmistakable,” he wrote, “often it may have a wet dog smell, taste a little bitter, even [have] coffee and chocolate undertones when seared. Oh, and then the ridiculous rich, silky fattiness that no other food contains.”).

“Some years ago, I worked a party in DC for the Jean-Louis Palladin foundation,” he wrote. “I think we served 80 people; two chefs had one dish where whole lobes of foie were seared, sliced, and plated next to a torchon. After the plates had gone out, we all flocked to cutting board—so many chefs fighting like gulls, grabbing the salt from each other, slurping down the scrap pieces.

“We ate well, and it was delicious.”

Despite foie gras’ apparent ambrosia-like qualities, La Pier believes most people in this area have never tasted it. Still, he wrote, “I think the ban is bullshit.” He said it was pushed by people who shouldn’t be able to tell him what he can or can’t eat.

“Many Americans are removed from their food production in general; people are shocked just to see brussels sprouts growing on a stalk. They also get upset when they find a live bug in their salad, but that says its fresh—and most likely organic,” he wrote. “My point is the public, by nature of life, doesn’t know much about the food they consume, nor how it’s produced. … Ban chicken nuggets—you think those animals led a good life? Then you are blind to reality. Ban mechanically separated chicken; that is a disgusting process. I would much rather see high fructose corn syrup banned. We should go after the corn industry for force feeding the public.”

All he wants—besides access to foie—is a fighting chance. Why not limit production? Or ban production in California, but still allow sales?

And he’s not concerned about bans on other foods, barreling down a slippery slope greased with pâté.

“I’m not worried about the veal industry; veal is a by-product of the dairy industry,” he reasoned. “Cows have to give birth before they can be milked. Big Beef and Big Chicken have too much money invested in the government to really take a hit.

“Americans also love beef and chicken the way the French love foie.”

 

- A LIVER RUNS THROUGH IT:  Artisan in Paso Robles is offering “a full foie menu” for its snackbar program on June 27, the last Wednesday before the ban. For more information, visit artisanpasorobles.com or call 237-8084. -
  • A LIVER RUNS THROUGH IT: Artisan in Paso Robles is offering “a full foie menu” for its snackbar program on June 27, the last Wednesday before the ban. For more information, visit artisanpasorobles.com or call 237-8084.

The Salad Course

Opponents of foie gras don’t describe the stuff in the glowing terms that pour from chefs’ mouths. Animal rescue and advocacy group Farm Sanctuary reports: “The process causes the birds’ livers to become diseased with hepatic lipidosis and swell up to 10 times their normal size. The birds are then slaughtered, and the diseased, engorged organ is sold as foie gras.”

Not so appetizing.

For every World’s Poultry Science Journal article foie gras supporters tout, opponents have materials that show its production is not so upstanding. And they point to a dozen countries that have banned production or sale—including Israel, once a major producer.

The Humane Society of the United States reports: “Substantial scientific evidence suggests that force-feeding can cause pain and injury from feeding tube insertion, fear and stress during capture and handling, gait abnormality due to distended livers, pathologies in liver function, and increased mortality. Force-feeding birds to produce foie gras is detrimental to their welfare.”

Jeannine Wade, president of Orcutt-based Central Coast SPCA, agreed with me when I theorized that her group’s main concern is companion animals—the dogs, cats and assorted rodents, fish, and birds that share our homes and hearts.

“That said,” she wrote, “of course we are supporting the bill to ban foie gras in restaurants. We stand against any form of animal cruelty, with ALL animals, not just companion pets.”

Peggy Koteen, as the San Luis Obispo-based director of the local Animal Emancipation group, has more specific interest in farm animals. Her typical causes involve fur ranches and rodeo activities; she was in Santa Maria a few weeks back to protest the bull riding and bronc busting that happens each year courtesy of the Elks Lodge.

“We want to end animal exploitation in general,” she said.

Koteen admitted that she’s often considered approaching local restaurateurs to discuss foie gras and its ramifications, but didn’t feel a super-pressing need to do so because of the forthcoming ban. That’s not to say she’s less-than direct when she talks about the subject.

“If you just imagine what the animals go through and eat that product, it’s pretty revolting,” she said. “I guess I shouldn’t say it’s ‘pretty.’ It’s damn revolting.”

She described foie’s production as “incredible, barbaric cruelty,” adding that the food seems to have a small support base. She commented later: “I mean, how many people are excited to eat it?”

She cited burst livers and premature duck death, as well as discarded ducklings left to suffocate, while condemning the process on a global scale, saying she gets information from other groups’ research and gleans it firsthand from trade journals and the like.

Not surprisingly, Koteen’s distaste for foie gras extends to all meat. Her group works mainly in outreach, handing out pamphlets and aiming to educate the public about what goes on on factory farms “and how you can align your general values with how you eat by going vegetarian.”

“We can have wonderful, healthy, enjoyable, fantastic, creative meals without using animal products,” she said, describing a creamy vegan product from a company called Tartex.

Koteen said she grew up “eating very high-quality New York liverwurst.” She cut animals out of her diet in the ’80s, for health reasons, and has continued with the selective diet as she’s learned more about the factory farming industry. So she was startled, she said, when she tried the veggie pâté: “The first time I had it, it reminded me a lot of food I grew up with. It was a little tricky to eat it.”

 

The Cheese Plate

I would not have been able to identify the slab in front of me as foie gras. It’s grayish, sort of like the color I’d expect brain matter to be, and marbled with darker veins. Clouds of yellow bloom here and there, like melted and re-solidified Colby jack.

I’d been talking with Laurent Grangien, owner of Bistro Laurent in Paso Robles, asking him to describe foie’s flavor, its texture. By way of explaining my curiosity, I admitted that I’d never tasted the subject of my article for myself. His mouth quirked up on one side.

“Do you,” he asked, “want to taste?”

I hesitated, but he insisted, noting that I should experience what I’m writing about. He led us into his restaurant’s kitchen, photographer Steve Miller and me, and pulled a loaf of something from a fridge.

Like I said, I wouldn’t have been able to identify it. My first thought was of meatloaf, an idea that quickly embarrassed me, because come on! This is fancy foie gras!

Grangien casually unwrapped the cellophane and sat the lump—about the size of a discolored block of cheese—onto a countertop. He slid a knife through one end and deposited a slice onto a plate. A member of his staff provided some bread at his request, and suddenly I had in my hand a morsel of cold duck liver atop a round of toasted baguette.

I smelled it, hoping to detect some delicate aroma I could use as a fantastic descriptor, and Grangien seemed to mistake my mental note-taking for hesitance. He encouraged me to eat. So I did.

Here’s the thing about foie gras: It tastes like butter. Like butter with a very, very slight metallic tang.

Photographer Miller chewed his portion thoughtfully. “It tastes like butter,” he said.

I didn’t detect the walnuts of the Sonoma farm from which this liver came. But I did get a hint of what its fans are wild about.

Grangien explained that this foie gras was served as a terrine, a traditional way to prepare it, named after the dish in which it’s set. The liver is made into something like a pâté, though he doesn’t like to use that word to describe it. The chef described his cooking process with his hands, pressing them together to demonstrate how he flattens his creation to allow the excess fat to run off. He seasons it simply, with salt and pepper, a little port or cognac—not that the rich dish needs much help in the flavor department. Then he cooks it slowly at a low temperature.

As a French-born chef, Grangien has an almost genetic fondness for foie gras. But he doesn’t let simple DNA dictate his standards; he wouldn’t sell something he didn’t believe in, he said. And he believes there are humane ways to produce the beloved dish of his homeland.

“There’s no reason it cannot be done, you know?” he said with a Gallic shrug, registering his disappointment that the state simply quashed foie gras without attempting to regulate its manufacture, to find the humanity in the dish that dates back to ancient Egypt and before.

Bans, he said, lead to people trying to work around bans. He wryly compared today’s situation to Prohibition and alcohol.

“So we could be looking at bathtub foie gras?” I asked.

He smiled, joking that some diehard foodies could end up with more of a garage gavage operation, which would be worse for the birds.

In reality, he’s going to miss foie gras—and everything that comes with it: “It’s also the rest of the duck,” he said. “The breasts are unbelievable.”

He’s going to serve foie gras on and off up until the ban. And what’s he going to replace it with?

“It’s not replaceable,” he said. “It’s one of those things. There’s nothing like it, you know?”

 

The Sweet Dessert Course

“Maybe karma will bring me back as a moulard, and then I will live fat and happy.”

So go the duck-induced dreams of executive sous chef La Pier—and perhaps many people devoted to the delicate delights and surprises this world can serve up, provided we prepare them properly. And legally.

And that is what devoted diners are left with in California: dreams, perhaps of foie gras dishes gone by, perhaps of gustatory marvels yet to come. Hudson Valley’s Henley is loosely holding onto a dream of change: “I still have hope that people working on legislative efforts will be successful,” he said, “and foie gras will come again in California.”

Bistro Laurent’s Grangien has a similar idea. He wants to keep serving it: “I hope the decision’s going to change. I really believe, deep inside, it can be right and it can be regulated and it can survive.”

Activists, on the other hand, are finding their own dreams realized in the state—and are holding out for backers of previously unsuccessful bans to mount new efforts in other areas.

“There’s still hope,” said Animal Emancipation’s Peggy Koteen. “There’s lots of places that things have been tried over and over again, and finally enough information gets out to the public, and there’s success in compassionate laws getting passed.”

No matter on which side of the foie gras debate locals fall, they can be reminded of the issue with every soft-angled V overhead this fall, with every distant call that bounces down from the shortening evening as fowl fly off to their winter homes, crops filled by nothing more than their own appetites.

Sun Staff Writer Kristina Sewell contributed to this story. Contributors Kathy Marcks Hardesty and Wendy Thies Sell also lent a hand. Executive Editor Ryan Miller wrote about a shark fin ban in California in New Times; June 30, 2011, issue. Contact him at rmiller@newtimesslo.com.

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