Wednesday, 1 October 2008

To Foie Gras or Not to Foie Gras

We are planning a visit to New York over the New Year to celebrate the 21st Century Teenager’s sixteenth birthday. This is a very special occasion, so we have booked into a very special hotel – a historic hotel which shall remain nameless. As we arrive on New Year’s Eve, we have planned a rather quiet celebration since we will be tired from the flight. Of course, this hotel does not do quiet celebrations on New Year’s as the celebrations there are the stuff of legend. As for us, we are saving ourselves for our very big celebration a few days later. When my husband corresponded with the concierge about whether it would be possible to have a low key small evening meal on the 31st, the concierge replied with a list of three wonderful parties they are having, all of which sound brilliant. The only flaw is that there is a very real risk of me falling asleep in my soup and at a minimum of $275 a plate that is something I really do not care to do. When I spend that much on a meal, I want to be completely alert whilst eating it. However, we did read the menus while considering our options and as we did so, a strange pattern emerged. Every menu in every restaurant included a dish containing foie gras. From Lobster and Foie Gras Ravioli to Foie Gras Royale and Foie Gras Terrine, the selection seemed never ending. So we decided to try to find another restaurant outside the hotel so we can indulge in a relatively light early evening meal. Six of the nine restaurants I have checked out also have quite expensive, heavy set menus for New Year’s Eve, and seven of them include foie gras on their menu for the evening.

Of course one is not obliged to order a dish containing foie gras, but it amazed me to see it as such a prevalent ingredient. For me, the question of to foie gras or not to foie gras is an easy one because I simply do not like the taste of it. This goose (or duck) liver pate is far too rich for me and I don’t like the texture at all. So I am not just objecting to foie gras on principle, I have tasted it. I adore my husband and he is a wonderful man, but if you are going to tell him you don’t like something, he’ll make darn sure you’ve tasted it first. This is, you understand, just to be sure you have not made a mistake and that you really don’t like it – particularly if it is something he enjoys. Which is not to say he enjoys foie gras, as he tends to avoid it and only eats it if it is served to him. I have never seen him order it, nor a dish containing it, in a restaurant. But he will eat it when, say, a friend or family member includes it in their menu. This happens relatively frequently as my husband and his family lived for several years in France, where foie gras is almost a staple part of the diet. Having said all that, we have never really discussed the ethics of its production and I’m pretty sure that he simply does not think about it very much. I have to confess, the first time I tasted foie gras I was totally uninformed about how it was made. I simply did not like the taste. But my reluctance to try it again, is, I confess, partly because of the method in which it is obtained.

Most people know how foie gras is produced, but if you are one of the innocents who do not, I will enlighten you. Frankly, I think you’d rather be un-enlightened, but here goes. Foie Gras is a goose (or sometimes duck) liver pate made using a process called gavage. Gavage is the process where the animals are force fed grain through a rather large tube that is stuck down their throats in order to make their liver swell to many times its normal size. This makes the liver turn white, become fattier and lose its bitter taste. When the livers are so big they nearly are bursting, the geese are slaughtered and foie gras is made with the swollen organ. Not a nice picture going on in your head now, is it?!

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those folks who thinks about everything I eat in terms of how it is produced. I do buy organic produce, and I refuse to buy battery eggs, but I have eaten veal my whole life, even before there were ways to obtain it ethically. We even served veal for our wedding meal – causing two of our guests to request alternative meals actually at the wedding, much to my confusion. When it comes to veal I’m a bit like the auntie in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. “You don’t eat meat? I’ll cook lamb then.” How could someone not like veal? Okay, okay, I know about the crates, I just don’t think about it that much. But back to the foie gras issue.

I’m intrigued by the absolute proliferation of dishes containing foie gras that New York chefs are planning to serve on New Year’s Eve. I can’t figure out the fascination. Maybe it is because of the threat of foie gras being banned as unethical. Chicago recently repealed a ban on the serving of foie gras in restaurants which was put in place in 2006, but is the California statute that will prohibit the production or sale of foie gras by 2012 in that state causing New York chefs to worry the same might happen there? Or are they ex-Chicago chefs who have missed using it for the last two years?

Please be assured, I am not condemning anyone who does enjoy foie gras, living as I do in my glass house when it comes to veal, nor am I suggesting that a ban on it is necessarily desirable. I live far too close to France to suggest such heresy. But what has caused this foie gras fascination in New York restaurants?

Whatever the cause, I’m still struggling to find somewhere for a nice light New Year’s Eve repast in the Big Apple. Maybe we’ll just order room service and a nice bottle of Veuve Clicquot. Actually, that sounds like a really lovely way to bring in 2009. Perhaps we’ll go with that – and I’ll just stop thinking about the foie gras. It’s making my head hurt.

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