Foie Gras fascinates me. I don’t like the taste of it, but it intrigues me nonetheless. The emotions it evokes, the passionate hatred or love of the stuff; I find it amazing.
I’ve been researching and writing about the foie gras debate for some time. As part of my research, I have a Google alert on the words ‘foie gras’. On any given day, at least three articles about this iconic pate show up in my email inbox. I don’t think there is any other food that evokes such controversy. There are incredibly strong feelings on both sides of the debate. Is fois gras a delicacy so delicious it justifies the cruelty of its production? Or is it a terrible ingredient that should be outlawed?
As most people know by now, foie gras is produced using a technique known as gavage. Tubes are put down the throats of geese or ducks and they are force fed in order to make their livers swell. The animals are then slaughtered and their livers made into foie gras. It’s not a pretty picture, and it really is hard to think of it as anything but cruel. However, even though I’m a carnivore, I do have to admit that slaughtering animals for food is cruel no matter how you do it. Just because we have done it since the dawn of man does not make it any less so.
And therein lies the rub. Foie Gras is a delicacy, perceived as something the rich eat, not something many of us put on our tables regularly. Most of us won’t even miss it if it is banned. So it is easy to demonize foie gras production, because standing up against it probably is not going to affect what one eats on a day-to-day basis. However if you protest against another sort of cruelty, like the intensive farming of say, chickens or pigs, then that is going to affect what you eat, and how much it costs you on a pretty regular basis. So are the folks who do protest against foie gras doing it just because it is considered to be elitist and they would not miss it if it was gone?
It’s really hard to say. There are some very rich and famous people out there lending their names to the fight against foie gras. From Phil Collins to Roger Moore, there are lots of stars willing to put their names to the cause of banning it. Even Albert Roux, the Michelin starred French chef, has said foie gras “should carry a health warning” and called for it to be produced more humanely.
And this is the interesting part. You can make foie gras without force feeding the ducks and geese. If they are allowed to gorge themselves naturally (which they will do at certain times of the year in preparation for migration), they can then be slaughtered and their livers made into foie gras. The trouble is, it’s more expensive to produce it this way, you cannot make as much and purists say it just does not taste as good as the ‘real thing’.
So the debate rages on – and it is getting nasty. While polite – if sometimes slightly scandalous (one involved topless women) – demonstrations against the sale of foie gras take place outside the famous London department store Selfridges, up and down the country and around the world, other protesters are actually becoming violent in their protests. In April, a restaurant in the British county of Cheshire had windows smashed and the words “foie gras” painted all over the walls. Similar things have happened all over, from New York to California, and even in Europe. Protesters have been known to harass diners going into restaurants that sell foie gras. Other restaurants have had to suffer crowds of protesters making threatening gestures and shouting outside while diners attempt to enjoy themselves inside. Some go even further than this. In Canada, one of Ottawa’s leading restaurateurs Steven Beckta and his staff were subject to a long and exhaustive campaign by the Ottawa Animal Defence League. They were who bombarded with abusive and threatening phone calls, protests were held outside restaurants and at one point protesters allegedly threatened commercial sabotage. Surely this is going too far, but sadly this kind of extortion sometimes works. It did in this case, as Mr Beckta did remove foie gras from his menus.
And yet, sometimes the protests backfire on themselves. I have spoken to restaurateurs who say that if there are protesters outside, patrons inside who had no intention of ordering foie gras may do so just to spite them. One reported a diner saying “If they are going to try to spoil my dinner, I might as well taste what all the fuss is about”.
The city of Chicago banned the sale of foie gras for two years. The ban was recently lifted, and in June of this year, Chicago Chefs for Choice celebrated the anniversary of the repeal of the ban with a Foie Gras fest, offering $10 foie gras dishes at their restaurants. That is a very good price if you are the kind of person who enjoys this delicacy, and cheap enough to tempt the curious to try it if they never have before. It may even have created some new fans. In California, where a ban on the production and sale of foie gras goes into effect in 2012, many restaurateurs are deciding to keep it on the menu while they still can, and worry about the ban when it comes into effect. It is entirely possible they may do as many Chicago restaurateurs allegedly did when the pate was banned there and serve it anyway. It brings to mind visions of 1930’s speakeasys and gin in teacups, but apparently if you wanted foie gras in Chicago during the ban you could definitely get it, as long as you were in the know. It is suggested by many that this is probably what will happen in California as well.
Meanwhile, the debate rages on. Protesters continue to protest. Mark Caro’s book ‘The Foie Gras Wars’ has won awards from the James Beard Foundation and the Association of Food Journalists and continues to sell well. The organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have announced a $10,000 competition, the Fine Faux Foie Gras Challenge, to encourage the development of a purely vegetarian replacement for foie gras. A mini controversy arose when the wife of the British Prime Minister politely declined foie gras at the NATO summit banquet in France in April, and when President Obama dined with his wife in Paris speculation that they might have eaten foie gras was rife. (To be fair, as someone who regularly travels to Paris I have to say it is hard to avoid eating foie gras in France, it is such a staple part of their cuisine.)
So where do we go from here? I have to admit I find it appalling to think of the way in which foie gras is produced but as I really do not like it, it would be easy for me to say I think it should be banned. Having said that, I only buy free range, ethically produced meat, so I’m not being a hypocrite by saying foie gras should be produced more humanely. Or am I? Is there anything humane about eating animals, even if they have had a nice life?
It’s an interesting story to watch, and as developments unfold, the debate really does raise some very uncomfortable issues. We may deplore the violent protesters and chuckle quietly at the civilized ones (especially those who take their clothes off), we may choose to eat foie gras or we may choose to refuse to, but when push comes to shove, how far are we prepared to go to stand on our principles? As far as I’m concerned, if you eat intensively farmed chicken or pork, or buy eggs that are not free range, it is just as bad as eating foie gras. Are the protesters prepared to give up those things too?
One thing is for sure; the debate is going continue for a long time. In the meantime, I’m very grateful to be one of those fortunate souls who don’t like foie gras. I deplore the taste and texture of it, and I see no need to cook with it. But do I think others should be prevented from eating it? I’m not sure. I certainly do not approve of violent protests or harassment; hurting people to protect animals does not make sense to me. But do we have the right to tell other people what they should and should not eat? That question opens up a huge ethical dilemma, involving personal liberty and all sorts of other very tricky issues.
I think I’ll stay firmly on the fence, refusing to eat or cook with foie gras myself, but not actively seeking its abolition. Sometimes it is the quiet, dignified, individual protests that have the most effect, and convince others to come over to your side of the debate. It may not be the bravest choice I have ever made, but it is definitely the right one for me.