Hear that giant sucking sound? No, it’s not jobs going south, as H. Ross Perot once put it. It’s the sound of the gavage machine going into overtime, with its pneumatic feeding tube ready to be inserted down the throats of ducks, ballooning their livers, and ultimately transforming said livers into the delicacy known as foie gras.
Once again, that sound is coming from California.
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On Wednesday, U.S. district judge Stephen V. Wilson ruled unconstitutional California’s foie gras ban, siding with plaintiffs who insisted the state law was invalidated by the federal Poultry Products Inspection Act, which allows for the force-feeding of ducks and geese for the purposes of making foie gras. Passed in 2004, the ban was fully enforced in 2012.
Of course some California chefs defied the law, serving the fattened liver in protest—they just weren’t charging for it. Or, as the legendary French chef Jacques Pépin once suggested, they served it under a different name, like the "special toast of the house for $35."
What’s the big deal about this particular delicacy? Five thousand years ago, the Egyptians discovered that ducks and geese, prior to migration, gorged themselves and allowed their livers to expand to several times their normal size. The French perfected this short but extreme boost in the birds’ diets, calling the process gavage.
And when those livers can’t get any bigger, it’s time for foie gras.
Mark Caro, the author of The Foie Gras Wars, writes that "unlike conventional duck, goose, chicken, or calf’s liver, foie gras is velvety and rich, like a mild, gamey flan. Eat it seared, and the crispy surface contrasts seductively with the melt-in-your-mouth interior, the flavor pronounced but not harsh, as if all the edges have been rounded off." Even cold, "it’s like butter you can enjoy in large, savory hunks."
Not everyone finds this appealing. The New Yorker’s Bill Buford described it to me as a "fat bomb" and "the swollen testimony of a goose that has lived a luxurious life, offered up as an inflated luxury to the people prepared to pay for it."
But you don’t have to be a foie gras fanatic to support culinary freedom. "Everywhere I go, when you’re a famous chef, the first thing they send you is foie gras," Michel Richard complained a few years back. Nevertheless, he continued, "We need, I think, the foie gras. First, foie gras is part of the gourmet tradition in France. They should leave the foie gras alone…. When you go to the farm, the ducks enjoy themselves. If they were suffering so much, how come when the duck sees the guy with the machine, he keeps coming, quack, quack, quack?"
There are just a handful of places in the United States that raise ducks for foie gras. One of them is Hudson Valley Foie Gras in New York State (a plaintiff in the California case). When I last wrote on the controversy for the Wall Street Journal in 2007, I interviewed Hudson Valley’s owner, Michael Ginor, who was adamant that his method of gavage was humane—it takes 5 seconds, 3 times a day, for 20 days. He also invited anyone with concerns to visit any time. Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain dropped by and, according to Ginor, said, "You know what, I came here already knowing that I wasn’t going to be anti-foie gras, but now I’m angry."
And you don’t want to make Anthony Bourdain angry. When I interviewed him (also in 2007) and mentioned that Wolfgang Puck was no longer serving foie gras, the Kitchen Confidential author shot back, "I think d—head should stop worrying about cruelty to animals and start worrying about all the customers he’s flopping his crap on at airports." He didn’t stop there: "Listen, he does a lot of business in California, he got squeezed and pressured and phone-called from all angles and like a German shopkeeper, you know, he folded, and sold out the people hiding in the cellar next door. I got no respect—it makes it all the more painful that he’s a chef of such stature and importance to American culinary history so it makes me want to throw up in my mouth thinking what a treacherous little c—sucker he is now."
Bourdain was right about the pressure from activists. "I don’t blame Wolf," said Jacques Pépin, "because he had people with placards in front of his restaurants for like a year and a half to two years. It’s a great deal of pressure. And you give in. I know a guy in California who was doing that kind of work and they practically destroyed his house. They poured cement into his water pipes. This is terrible."
The New York Times on Wednesday quoted Ingrid Newkirk, the president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, as saying, "Foie gras is French for fatty liver, and fathead is the American word for the shameless chefs who actually need a law to make them stop serving the swollen, near-bursting organ of a cruelly force-fed bird. A line will be drawn in the sand outside any restaurant that goes back to serving this torture in a tin."
Michael Ginor of Hudson Valley Foie Gras expressed some concern that "there are always extremists who might want to become heroes over something like this." But I would think twice about going after Ginor. Before running his duck farm, Ginor spent time in Israel where he learned about efficient gavage techniques. He also served as a captain and patrol commander with the Israeli Defense Forces.