The Foie Gras Wars: How a 5,000-Year-Old Delicacy Inspired the World's Fiercest Food Fight by Mark Caro
Most of us have never tasted foie gras. If you're among them, I'm here to tell you that there is nothing like it, and that, if you love food, you must try it. When prepared properly, the taste is unforgettable.
But the delicacy has been at the center of a controversy that has given it a bit of a bad taste. So I came to Mark Caro's book hopeful that he would answer the question for me: Is the way they make foie gras cruel?
Caro is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, and when, out of the blue, the Chicago City Council, decided to ban the serving of foie gras, even though many members admitted to never having heard of it, no less tasted it or studied its production, he was assigned to cover the story. It grew into a fascinating tale that weaves together Chicago politics, animal husbandry, physiology, Philadelphia politics, history, culture, California politics, the animal rights movement, new age farming, New York politics, food fights between chefs, and cooking. And he does it well, with more than a few chuckles along the way.
How can the livers of geese and ducks be so controversial and interesting? It seems that, as long ago as 5,000 years, hunters discovered that geese and ducks, when preparing to migrate, gorged on food to build their fat reserves for the long journey, and at that point in time, their enlarged livers were spectacular tasting. Rich, complex, not like any other liver, more akin to eating a stick of the richest buttery cream cheese imaginable. They wanted it year round, so they came up with a method of replicating the process on their farms. The took a funnel, stuck a tube on the end, and inserted it in the mouth and down the throat of their geese and ducks. Then they poured in the feed.
French farmers became experts at the technique, where it is sold in groceries and gas stations. In the US, at one time, the dish was served only in fancy French restaurants, but in recent years, it's popularity has grown slightly, showing up on upscale menus, and even occasionally in unsuspecting places, like embedded in hamburgers.
Despite the fact that very little of it is made and it is sold only to the wealthy, animal rights activists, especially vegetarians, saw foie gras a low hanging fruit, an easy target for advancing their cause. They declared the method of feeding, called gavage, to be torture, made some video of the birds being fed, and started showing it on the web and to politicians.
Caro gets to know the animal rights activists and introduces them to us, as well as the farmers, the chefs, importers, physiologists, and the politicians, and weaves their fascinating personalities and tales into a fine story. He visits farms in California, New York, Minnesota, and even stays on a farm in France, where he is allowed to observe the process.
So, is gavage as painful? Alas, if you come to this book hoping that Caro will give you a simple answer, you will be disappointed. There are only a handful of legitimate studies, and the results are inconclusive. Among them, there are documented cases of animals coming towards the feeder willingly, while others shy away. Scientists point out that the throats of ducks and geese are a lot different than ours, and they have no gag reflex. Remember, they swallow spiny fish whole. Caro reports these studies and more in detail.
Early in the book he tells us how superstar chef Charlie Trotter quietly, without fanfare, decided to stop serving foie gras. Caro mentions this to another star, Rick Tramonto, who calls Trotter's decision hypocritical. "Either you believe in eating animals for sustenance or you don't." Ouch.
Caro asks Trotter for a response and gets this: "Rick Tramonto's not the smartest guy on the block. Yes, animals are raised to be slaughtered, but are they raised in a way where they need to suffer? To then be slaughtered for pure enjoyment? He can't be that dumb can he? You should quote me on that. What's up with that? It's like an idiot comment: 'All animals are raised to be slaughtered.' Oh, OK. Maybe we ought to have Rick's liver for a little treat. It's certainly fat enough." Touché!