Monday, 19 January 2009

I'll have the free range organic faux foie gras - with a side of guilt please

Dining with people you don’t know well – even dining with friends – can be a nightmare these days. We live in such an era of political correctness that no one hesitates to share their version of what is ethical with you, particularly when it comes to food. Years ago, not only was no one concerned about these things, but actually saying anything would have been considered quite rude, particularly in a restaurant. But today it is considered almost irresponsible not to enlighten someone with your opinion.

Restaurants cater for their clients and most do not worry about being politically correct. I was in New York recently and dined at many popular restaurants including The Russian Tea Room, The Rainbow Room and two of the Waldorf Astoria’s restaurants, The Bull and The Bear and Peacock Alley. Every single one of these restaurants had at least one dish made with Foie Gras on the menu and they all offered veal. A similar situation exists in Chicago, London, Paris and Rome. There is demand for these foods, so they serve them.

I have been to dinner parties where the hostess has slaved for hours preparing a lovely meal only to be subject to the third degree by a guest. In one case, she was asked where something came from and whether it was organic. When she replied to the negative she was then subject to about fifteen minutes worth of chastisement by someone she had invited to dinner! On another occasion, I listened as someone who had chosen not to eat meat explained to us all, in graphic detail, why we should not either. The hostess had prepared a separate vegetarian meal for this guest as well!

To be fair, I find it hard to keep silent when someone at the table orders foie gras. I would never, ever say anything but I do feel a compulsion to ask them if they really know how it is prepared. Do they realise the ducks and geese are force fed until their livers nearly burst? That most of the birds are not even free to roam around a bit? However, living in a glass house - as I do when it comes to veal -I really do have to restrain myself.

You see, I have a politically incorrect weakness when it comes to veal. I love the taste and often order it in restaurants. Veal Marsala, Veal Milanese, Veal Scallopini – you name it, I love it. This often causes me a bit of embarrassment. Despite the fact that veal crates have been banned in Britain, the European Union and many US states, veal still carries a stigma. If I am cooking veal at home, I source the ethically raised version, but there is no guarantee you are ordering ethically raised veal in a restaurant. This has led to many disapproving looks when I have been dining with acquaintances or colleagues. To their irritation, I pay little attention. My husband and I served veal to nearly 200 people at our wedding in the early nineties - and that was long before the banning of veal crates. Veal is my favourite food and I wanted to eat it at the most special meal of my life so far. Two of our guests actually made a fuss, refused to eat it and asked for vegetarian meals. I was staggered. Couldn’t they have just quietly eaten the potatoes and vegetables instead of upsetting me on my wedding day?

And then there is the issue of eggs. I would never, ever, buy a battery-farmed egg. I cannot cope with the idea of those poor chickens squashed in cages never seeing the light of day. However I often order omelettes in restaurants and I have no idea whether or not these are made with free range eggs. And that is before we even consider the baked goods I purchase. I’d never push free range eggs on my friends either. Many of them are on tight budgets, and I’d rather see them eating battery eggs than none at all.

Recent food scares have also led people to question to safety of many foods. BSE, Foot and Mouth Disease and Bird Flu have converted many people to vegetarianism, and those of us who are still practicing carnivores often feel concerned that we might be damaging our health. It doesn’t seem to stop us eating meat though, even when we are told about the pressure raising meat can put on the environment. That is because humans have been carnivores for thousands of years and being a vegetarian, whilst a laudable choice, is not a lifestyle we all can embrace.

And therein lies the rub. We all have a politically incorrect weakness. Sometimes the weakness is for reasons of economy - let’s face it, battery eggs cost less than free range – or honest ignorance of the facts. Sometimes it is because we choose to ignore the facts and sometimes it is just sheer stubbornness. We are all quick to share our views with everyone else when they contravene our standards – hence my urge to chastise those who eat foie gras – but woefully unhappy to accept other’s views when they threaten to compromise our choices – as I am with veal.

Maybe it is time we all gave one another a break. How many geese will I save by making someone else uncomfortable when they choose to treat themselves to foie gras? Not many. The fact is (or so I am told – I don’t eat it myself) faux foie gras tastes nothing like the real thing. The ethically raised version takes so long to produce it is quite rare and expensive so seldom available in restaurants. And if I were a vegetarian, would I really have a chance of converting someone to that way of life over dinner? Probably not. And is anyone going to stop me eating veal? Absolutely not.

Eating is meant to be a pleasure, not something to create guilt and anxiety.  We all have the right to choose what we eat so perhaps it is time for us to realise that sometimes being politically correct means saying nothing at all. Absolutely stand up for your beliefs when it comes to politics or how you conduct your business. (I’m thinking of people like Stella McCartney here – she lives her vegetarian values and conducts her business in a way that reflects that - but she doesn’t condemn carnivores. After all, many of them buy her clothes! ) But when it comes to polite conversation, maybe food issues should be a bit like religion and politics – something that you don’t discuss at the dinner table – especially in restaurants!

No comments:

Post a Comment

I love comments, so please let me know your thoughts. Thank you for visiting.