Farewell to foie gras? Perhaps not

Gaggle of geese photo by Ag Canada

Sunday will be a great day for the geese and ducks but a bummer for many West Coast chefs and lovers of foie gras.

On July I, the practice of force-feeding birds by cramming grain through a tube inserted in their throats ends. Even though this technique – which dates back thousands of years – does increase the liver size by eight to ten times, in 2004, then-California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the ban into law making raising geese for this purpose illegal. No longer could farmers in their state use the feeding method to create the coveted, but controversial fattened fowl liver

Sunday marks the end of a seven-year grace period legislators gave farmers and cooks to find a way around the ban or pay up to a $1,000 fine.

“Not much has happened beyond identifying a handful of out-of-state and foreign suppliers for the liver,” says Sun Lee Moon, who works for a San Francisco food development firm.

The soon-to-be illegal liver was a subject of much mirth and debate among Moon and some other food scientists at this week’s massive Institute of Food Technologists conference and product expo in Las Vegas.

The rich, buttery, carefully seared piece of chunky organ was selling like wild in several restaurants around Napa last week, Moon said.

“People who had never tasted it were ordering it up because it soon won’t be available,” he said.

Mahmoud Singh, a menu creation specialist from the same firm, joked that some of the food wizards at the conference who build new food items from nano-particles and synthetic gizmos should try to fabricate artificial foie gras.

“Animal rights groups will fight for the rights to claim they designed it,” Singh said. “As long as looks fresh, doesn’t come in a can and can be well seared, it will sell faster than a new model iPhone.”

As it happens, PETA, the animal rights group that led the national opposition to goose liver, offered a $10,000 prize for its Fine Faux Foie Gras Challenge for a vegan version of the succulent livers. Two years ago, New York Chef Amanda Cohen of New York’s Dirt Candy restaurant won with her dainty Mushroom Mousse.

I called PETA to see if there was anyone who could tell me how much Cohen’s mousse tasted like real foie gras.  After being told something along the lines of “are you kidding me” at a PETA office on each coast, I realized they were the wrong people to ask.

PETA wins its battles defending the bird liver by waving the banner of cruelty, calling foie gras a “delicacy of despair.” It touts the painful choking to which the birds are subjected. However, ducks and geese, in fact all waterfowl, have no gag reflex and routinely swallow an entire fish in one long gulp.

The animal group also touts geese as cute, cuddly and lovable. Don’t be recalling the benign, gentle Mother Goose character of our youth. Ask the goose ranchers how nasty they can be.

I remember geese being used as fierce, feathered watchdogs around remote Special Forces camps in the jungled mountains of Vietnam. No one could sneak by them without their ear-piercing screeching warning of infiltrators or attacks. They were lifesavers and while Green Berets are known for eating everything, I never saw goose on their menu.

In 2006, PETA took credit for Chicago becoming the first U.S. city to outlaw foie gras. But within less than two years, chefs and well-heeled diners convinced the mayor to lift the ban.

Some California lawmakers are telling food writers that they might be receptive to doing the same.

Thomas Keller, owner of the French Laundry in the Napa Valley, echoes the views of many other restauranturers and says the government should not tell people what to eat.

Of the many comments made on this food fight, the statement that Keller gave the New York Times’ brilliant food columnist Marian Burros in 2006 did the best to sum up many concerns.

”If force-feeding a duck is cruel, then packing chickens in a cage is cruel, and then (there’s) veal and the beef. We are all going to be vegetarians soon if they have their way. We should probably start converting now.”






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