Have you ever seen a cattle feedlot?
The Foie Gras debate is rearing its ugly head again because the city of Chicago is talking about banning Foie from being served within the city limits. I can't figure out what upsets me more -- people arguing about torturing animals while Cheney argues to torture humans, the anthropomorphizing of yet another animal based on zero actual biological fact, or Charlie Trotter being the poster boy for this cause.
The reason people have fattened ducks livers for the last 5000 years is that, at some point 5000 years ago, some genius realized that the livers of ducks and geese killed in late fall tasted much better then they did the rest of the year. With hindsight and current biological understanding, we know that this is because the fowl themselves would fatten their livers in preparation for their long migratory flights.
Once fowl were domesticated, people realized that if you overfed them, much as they overfeed themselves in autumn, you could always produce this fatter, better tasting liver. Since these birds evolved with no gag reflex (so that they could engorge themselves when the time was right), and the lining of their throats is more comparable to a fingernail than a soft palate, it meant you would do no damage by putting a tube past their esophagus and overfeeding them (a practive called gavages).
Now I have heard stories of geese buried up to their necks in sand and force-fed to the point of bursting, but this makes no sense in today's reality. Feeders are penalized for feeding to the point where a duck dies simply because it's bad business, leaving one less duck for sale at market. The reality is that Hudson Valley Foie Gras loses 3.5% of its ducks a year, which is right in line with the 3% Tyson claims annually in chickens, and the ducks get the privilege of keeping their bills and not having the duck that lives in the cage directly above them shitting on them all day. All of the duck is used, at least at Hudson Valley, the feathers for down, the breasts served in restaurants, etc. At the moment Del Posto is planning a pasta dish that will have duck testicles as a main component.
I have no comprehension of how we can live in a world where, in the interest of national security, we have a VP arguing for the torture of humans, and people dehydrating on rooftops while bureaucrats preen in emails, yet Foie Gras is such a subject of public policy.
What is happening to our world is that we are legislating good, small, successful businesses out of work, in response to critics who have not bothered to look into the science of the practices beyond the childish argument that "if I was a duck I would hate it." Dr. Elliot M. Katz, the president and founder of In Defense of Animals, likes to show pictures of mishandled ducks in France to people on their way into restaurants, as if he were scaring a thirteen-year-old girl on her way to an abortion clinic out of what he considers to be a bad choice. That is his right, and I say power to him and his group. If those tactics can work on someone who believes a picture is worth a thousand words, and can shame them out of a dining choice with little more than uninformed claims, so be it. To paraphrase Paula Wolfert, I would rather be one of [Hudson Valley Foie Gras'] Michael Ginor's ducks then a Tyson chicken, or even a Simplot potato.
I see this as the political cause version of the rather-than-fail courses in college. Who is going to come out in defense of overfeeding animals in an America currently dealing with how much it overfeeds itself? Alderman Joseph More is saying things like ''our laws are a reflection of our culture, and in our culture it's not acceptable to torture small animals." The fact is we torture all kinds of creatures and support far more detestable practices then gavages. If you look at these farms, compared to every other level of acceptable farming practice -- milk cows, Perdue chickens, fur farms - American Foie farmers are models of what people should aspire to to help free us from the holes we have dug ourselves with mass agriculture today. These councilmen are picking on the little guy (the amount of ducks fatted in America every day is infinitesimal -- Hudson Valley Foie Gras raises 250,000 ducks a year and that is 60% of the market) because it is easy. If these people really want to do some good and change food in America for the better, they should write letters to their elected officials about the ridiculous raw milk policies.
Back in '94, when I was just out of school and saving money for a six-month European backpacking expedition, I was working as a waiter in one of New Jersey's many "Bistros" (think un-franchised Fridays that dotted the country back then). In the kitchen was a recent graduate of the CIA, so when I was headed to Chicago for a weekend to visit Bestfriend, I asked him where we should go. He told us "there is this guy out there named Charlie Trotter everyone is talking about," so off we went to Trotter's. This was my first real exposure to fine dining and started me down the path that leads me to rant on and on about cuisine on this very blog. I went on to make periodic, pretty much yearly visits to Trotter's every time I could get the money together, for about eight years. I remember his stab at a red wine menu and have gone out and attended cooking classes Charlie hosted. I am what you could call a fan. That all ended in '03 when I finally brought Wife, (then GF).
The first time I happened into Trotter's I had no idea what to expect, along with no idea of what fine dining could cost. When I explained to the waiter that we may have bitten off more then we could chew, and wanted to enjoy the experience as much as possible while keeping it on the cheaper side of what I expected they were used to, the amazingly talented server went on to sell a glass of wine from a bottle she expected would pair up with our first four courses to a regular at another table and sold the remainder to us for a deep discount since she figured it would not sell again, not being on the list of glass offerings. We got off cheap and they earned our 10-year allegiance. That's good business.
On another visit, I remarked to my waiter that I noticed Sister had three slices of antelope tenderloin on her plate while Bestfriend had four and I had six. She explained that the waitstaff report to the kitchen on how dinner is progressing and the portions are adjusted so that everyone will be able to see their way to the end of the twelve courses. I have many stories like this and, in addition to the food, was continually wowed by Charlie's innovative and original solutions (such as having his servers wear double-sided tape on their shoes to pick up grey lint on the dark carpets without distracting diners during service). I was always very impressed.
That all ended one night when I finally brought Wife (then GF), to Trotter's, and the service some how seemed off the whole evening. Our waiter was much more proud of his association with the respected greatness of Trotter's than in possession of the passion for fine food that had seemed to pervade every inch of the place on past visits.
The whole problem can be summed up in the exchange over our Triple Seared Beef. When I asked what type of beef it was the server went on to explain, "you have heard of Kobe??? Well this is from a smaller Japanese island. The cow lives its whole life confined to a very small area, never being allowed to walk, being constantly massaged by young women and fed nothing but rice and beer in order to fatten it nicely." Which put Wife right off it, and consequently the whole meal. What is so frustrating is the meat was red, so obviously at some point it had been fed something containing chlorophyll and not just his described diet.
Wife has had a tour of Hudson Valley Foie Gras Farms and sees nothing wrong with their treatment of the birds, so it is not like she is against processes that make food taste better. The irony is that Charlie Trotter, the guy now calling Foie "grisly" had an employee of his flagship restaurant erroneously touting the torture of Japanese cows because he thought it would add to our dining experience.
In all of the meals mentioned, Foie played a role in Charlie's Grand Menu. The guy is a genius, no one doubts that, and he may have moved on from Foie because he no longer sees a need for it on his menu. But that is because he has done everything he can imagine to do with it, not because he has had some epiphany. I think the chef likes being a "benevolent" authority now, in spite of the fact that when he was making the gamble to open a two menu, all or nothing, restaurant in the middle of the "brat" town, he leaned on Foie for its role in fine dining and used it for all it was worth.
If I lived in Chicago right now, rather then choosing topics easy to debate because no one bothers to understand the reality of the processes involved, I'd be calling a re-vote of the entire council for wasting time on such a silly, inconsequential subject, and tell the next set to pay attention to things that actually effect people every day, like the city's exorbitant sales tax. Maybe they could be at 9.5% if they weren't wasting time debating things settled 5000 years ago.