If you are a foie gras lover and live in California, you have just about three weeks to enjoy it legally. And there is no shortage of restaurants that will indulge you, from the Michelin starred Melisse to Animal.
On July 1, a law that was passed in 2004, and signed by then Governor Schwarzenegger, will come into effect, banning the production and consumption of foie gras in California. Some prominent chefs are working to present a proposal to the Legislature that would aim at repealing the ban, by proposing more humane treatment of the geese and ducks whose livers we have been feasting on for centuries.
But how did foie gras (literally “fat liver”) even come to be? The Egyptians were the first to recognize the advantage of force feeding birds to fatten them up and then eat them, although this didn’t necessarily involve consuming their livers – or, at least, we can’t tell from their hieroglyphs. In the first official cookbook, the Romans’ Apicius, fattened liver makes an appearance so it’s clear this practice has been going on for millennia. Nowadays, foie gras is protected and codified by French law and, to qualify as such, the birds have to be force-fed with a process called gavage.
If you imagine geese and ducks, necks stretched, with funnels rammed down their throats for hours at a time, you are both right and wrong. Several times a day, for three weeks, a tube linked to a funnel is inserted into the birds’ esophagus and the allotted amount of corn feed is inserted. The whole operation lasts 2 to 3 seconds and, I am assured, the animals do not have a gag reflex but whether they enjoy the procedure, it’s another kettle of fish.
Animal welfare associations, recently seen coming out in droves picketing restaurants across California, contend that, beside the emotional aspect, the swollen liver leads to impaired function, the expanded stomach makes breathing harder and the accidental scarring of the esophagus can lead to death. It is indeed true that the mortality rate among birds submitted to force-feeding is higher than in animals raised for just braising or roasting.
The company I work for forced us to stop making foie gras quite some time ago, to the chagrin of many chefs. Have I consumed foie gras ever since? Yes, I have. It’s not a food I crave but, if put in front of me, I can see the attraction. And its versatility – because of its consistency, foie gras can be used in a variety of inventive ways, which I believe is the thrill for high-end chefs.
My views on animal husbandry have evolved over time and it’s interesting that I have become a lot more active and vocal on how animals are treated since I resumed eating meat. While not advocating for a vegetarian or vegan world just yet (although my personal meat consumption is extremely low), I believe that humane treatment of the animals we feast on should be a must, even at the cost of reducing the meat output on a global scale. While I can’t imagine force feeding is fun for any creature, I view it on a par with cage stacking, hormone injections and the poor quality of life that most mass consumption animals are forced to lead.
I am happy to give up foie gras for a cause but this cause needs to be pushed further – stopping at a small percentage of birds is simply not enough.