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Does a Duck Have a Soul?

How foie gras became the new fur.


Food styled by Martin Ramin.  

Every Friday afternoon, round about 12:30, there’s a line of protesters in front of Union Square Cafe who come to raise their voices, if a little quietly, against atrocities that beggar their imagination. Not war overseas, but violence on our own shores—violence against ducks. Emboldened, if a little meekly, by pending legislation in the New York State Assembly, the activists gather to rail against the velvety duck-liver delicacy known as foie gras.

Outside the café, the weather isn’t so much a drizzle as a refreshing mist, nature’s reward to those who take up the Cause. Twenty-one people stand along 16th Street, facing the restaurant’s windows, as well-appointed patrons shuffle in for lunch. Along the curb, there are animal-rights advocates of every stripe: disaffected students, not-for-profit lawyers, a registered nurse on his day off. Some have arrived with non-poultry-related baggage. One woman tells me, rather improbably, that “everyone here also thinks about migrant workers.” Another is decrying the evils of dairy. But, in the main, the cadre is focused on the plight of the ducks. “This is just the result of French chefs with too much time on their hands,” says a dour screenplay editor. “Foie gras is not a staple—even if you’re French.”

Many brandish signs reading the truth about foie gras, which feature photos of ducks in their final agony: some lying dead with cornmeal clotted in their bills, others staring upward at a long metal tube about to be jammed down their supple throats, and still more splayed in blood.

Presiding over the ceremonies is an even-tempered woman named Anandah Carter. For the past nine months, while not doing voice-overs for PBS documentaries or radio work, she has coordinated the protests for a group called In Defense of Animals (IDA). At 32, she has large, empathetic eyes that scan the protest for any sign of overzealous campaigning. It’s her job to ensure that things don’t get too intense; she knows from experience that people are put off by radicals. “You have to know how to channel the energy,” she says, eyeing one hyperkinetic sign-shaker down the line. “We don’t want to shame people. They have to choose.”

Keeping legally clear of traffic outside Danny Meyer’s flagship restaurant, the protesters disseminate glossy leaflets titled “Cruelty Revealed.” The pamphlets declare that foie gras is “the diseased tissue of a tortured, sick animal,” that “birds have literally exploded” as a result of force-feeding, and repeat the words “vomit” and “feces” as often as possible.

The protest is anything but a spectacle, however. No tall man in a duck suit, his chest riven by burgundy cloth, waves his cotton wings; there are no unified chants. Only a few in the line seem to have met one another, so they spend as much time ogling other protesters as they do their targets—the people who have come, mostly in a state of blissful ignorance, to consume the offending item on the café’s menu. For there it is, listed so innocently alongside the mulligatawny soup and raviolini: the “seared foie gras with roasted asparagus, mâche, Sauternes vinaigrette and pistachio oil,” all at the blood-money cost of $16.

The sole bit of theatrics is offered up by a fiftyish nutritionist named Phyllis Roxland, who is holding a platter of one large clump of dough and a smaller, browner clump. The props are meant to represent duck livers—the larger of which is about the size of a human brain, illustrating how absurdly the organs are distended by the force-feeding process. Roxland has brought the items from home. The freakishly big “liver,” created for shock value, is shot through with specks of red and green. When I ask what the spots are, she says “blood and bile,” until I explain that I’m asking what they actually are, at which point she brightens and says, “I use ketchup for the blood—and the bile is made from some green beans I had.”

Even eight feet from the café’s door, many of the activists’ rebukes are barely audible to anyone entering the premises. Their gentle cries of “Choose compassion” can sound like “Shoes of fashion” to passersby. The loudest grievance of the day comes as Roxland scurries down the line, worriedly announcing, “I lost my livers!”

The protest, like any protest, is a war marked by lonely victories. The vast majority of patrons glance at the “torture” photos with a perplexed look. There is the 4-year-old girl dressed all in pink who stares at the signs without blinking, momentarily traumatized or fascinated; the purse-lipped matron who cryptically intones “I am aware”; the russet-haired lady who stops and tells the activists that she’s eaten foie gras many times, then breaks down and says, “I had no idea what was going on. You make me want to goddamn cry!” Most civilians employ the city’s no-eye-contact-with-anything-unusual technique or simply wave off the intruders. Some offer watery promises acceding to the group’s demand that patrons “ask the café to remove foie gras from its menu,” then vanish inside with all speed.

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