In the restaurant’s front window, seated at what must be the least-preferred table in the place, a fair-haired couple take small, unhappy bites of their salads. Their chairs are carefully angled away from the glass, but they occasionally look over their shoulders anyway and crinkle their noses, as if their Chardonnay is corked but they’re too embarrassed to complain.
Foie gras, the buttery, soul-melting, engorged duck liver that thrills the palates of Those Who Know, has become the focal point of nothing short of a culinary culture war. In the sixties, the stuff was sufficiently rare in America that it was something people mainly heard about in wistful discussions of French cuisine, an astonishing bonne bouche I experienced over there. Only in the past fifteen years, with the advent of production in the States, has foie gras become a medium for the great Manhattan chefs, from Jean-Georges to Daniel to Mario and all points radiating outward. It has become a symbolic cousin to cashmere and caviar, an emblem of wealth and refinement. Suddenly, New York is awash in the stuff. At Per Se, diners are offered sautéed foie gras with sunchokes, confiture of kumquats, garden tarragon, and a Banyuls-vinegar gastrique. At BLT Steak, one can indulge in a Kobe steak–and–foie gras sandwich. WD-50 has its own twist: foie gras–grapefruit–basil crumble with nori caramel. Braised, seared, even transformed into ice cream—foie gras is everywhere.
At the same time, the strife between those who abhor the stuff and those who adore it is coming to a flash point. Foie gras, depending on your point of view, is either a particularly brutal form of animal cruelty or a fête gastronomique that foodies would rather die for than surrender. In September, the state of California passed legislation to ban all sale and production by 2012, with similar bills introduced in Oregon, Illinois, and Massachusetts. Now, New York is on the front lines of the fight. A bill banning foie gras production passed out of the agricultural committee in the State Assembly on June 1. Though the law would stop short of halting sales, all production would end in ten years. Two of the three farms in the country that produce foie gras, Hudson Valley Foie Gras and a company known as B & B Poultry, are in upstate New York. Sixty percent of the foie gras produced in the U.S. comes from Hudson Valley. And Americans now buy 420 tons of the stuff; it is a $17.5 million business.
The controversy has arisen not over the mere slaughter of poultry but over the way foie gras is, and by definition must be, created. (Literally, the term means “fattened liver.”) Foie gras is that most Catholic of delicacies: paradise attained through suffering. The process generally involves a twelve-week stage in which ducks are allowed to roam free in a yard—then a four-week period of force-feeding, known as gavage. Two or three times a day, the birds have a tube jammed straight into their esophagi, at which point a few pounds of cornmeal are injected. Eventually, their livers expand to many times their normal size, at which point the birds are dispatched, and their innards served up to aficionados. It’s this method that makes foie gras so singularly rich and silky: By the time the ducks reach the end of the line, their livers consist of no less than 80 percent fat.
Protesters claim that, even by factory-farm standards, gavage is an abomination. They denounce it as a grueling process in which ducks are crippled, terrified, and beset with all manner of neurological and gastric diseases, including the actual rupturing of livers. Producers, on the other hand, say that gavage inflicts lower stress levels on ducks than the ducks would experience in the wild. One side describes the food as an elitist luxury born of abject cruelty, the other as a legitimate, if extravagant, lifestyle choice. Everyone calls everyone else a liar. Foie gras, in other words, is the new fur.
The Egyptians were force-feeding birds as far back as 5,000 years ago. In a tomb near Saqqara, one can see bas-reliefs of slaves jamming grain into a goose to make foie gras. The ancient Romans loved the stuff, too. In his “On Agriculture,” Cato the Elder wrote specific instructions that don’t vary much from modern-day techniques, advising producers to “cram twice a day.” Improbably enough, protests have a long history, as well. In the eleventh century, the French rabbi Rashi declared that Jews who force-fed birds would have some explaining to do in the afterlife.
Even outside the religious realm, there are broad philosophical questions at hand—many of which, as in any proper war, have no easy answer. Do ducks have souls? Do they suffer, really? When we kill for food, where is the line that separates humane conduct from barbarism?