Some how the enlarged liver of water fowl has become a flashpoint in the animal rights movement.
To some extent, I understand their concern. To some extent, I don't.
I don't mean to be obtuse. Foie gras is an interesting topic. For anyone who doesn't know, foie gras is the fattened liver of ducks and geese. People either love it or loathe it -- if they even know what it is. Those who love it do so because it is a wondrously rich and delicious delicacy. Those who don't, don't because making foie gras requires the birds to be force-fed more food then they normally eat so that their fatty livers grow even fatter.
But in the larger scheme of things, why does anyone really care? As Mark Caro rightly points out in his book, "The Foie Gras Wars," foie gras is nothing more than the liver of unnaturally obese ducks that a limited number of wealthy people plunk down $20 to eat at expensive restaurants. Surely there are more important issues for people to worry about. But it is foie gras' relative obscurity and exclusivity that makes it such a perfect target for animal rights activists and sympathizers, Caro argues.
As he notes in his book, "foie gras (a) has a funny French name, (b) is enjoyed by the relatively affluent, (c) remains unknown to your average Tyson chicken eater, (d) is liver, and (e) is made from ducks. We like ducks."
This fondness of ducks, and concern that they're subjected to torture, is the reason protesters harass restaurateurs, demanding that all foie gras is pulled from the menu. However, the picketing and protesting can have the opposite effect. Damien Brassel, chef and owner of New York's Knife + Fork restaurant, responded to protesters by adding it to his tasting menu, according to the Village Voice. Other restaurants in New York, D.C. and elsewhere have done the same.
While researching this topic, I spoke to a local chef who's worked with foie gras for years. Like the fur protests of the 1990s, the chef said the foie gras protests are a passing fad and would not consider pulling the controversial dish from the menu.
Now, I like foie gras. Of course I also like beef, pork and chicken. But the main difference between foie gras and the Holy Trinity of American meat is scale. Given the enormous amounts of beef, pork and chicken we eat, the industries that provide those products to us are understandably large. And large companies have lobbyists, legislative clout and well-funded marketing departments (Beef, it's what's for dinner; Pork, the other white meat; The incredible, edible egg; etc. and so forth.)
In contrast, the small amount of foie gras produced in the U.S. comes from two farms: Hudson Valley Foie Gras in New York and Sonoma Valley in California.
So despite the various problems and abuses in the beef, pork and poultry industries over the years, not too many people are chucking bricks through restaurant windows because there's a burger on the menu.
To understand why someone would vandalize a restaurant and threaten its staff over a duck, it helps to understand how foie gras is produced. Foie gras is made by artificially engorging ducks or geese a few days before slaughter (a process known as gavage or noodling). The forced-feedings cause the birds' livers to increase in size because that's where they store fat. Gavage may be considered a grotesque process by some, but consider that the birds naturally do this to a lesser extent every year to prepare for migration.
For the daily feedings, a worker holds a bird (typically a duck in the U.S.) between his legs and slides a metal or rubber tube down the bird's throat. The bird is then force-fed about 10 ounces of grain. This can be a rough way of feeding an animal, but ducks and geese swallow their food whole. So as long as the worker is careful, the process shouldn't cause the animal much discomfort, and certainly no injury.
But are the workers always careful? I'm sure not. Judging by the videos and accusations made by the Humane Society and PETA, gavage is a highly cruel process suffered by filthy, injured animals forced to live in wretched conditions. The problem with these videos, it seems to me, is they highlight the worst cases not the typical cases. As such, they distort the issue. Rather than discuss the issues involved with producing foie gras, animal rights groups dredge up imagery and anecdotes about farms with the very worst animal husbandry practices. The way in which these operations treat their livestock has nothing to do with foie gras, it has to do with the way they treat their animals. And whether we're talking about ducks or cattle, abuse is abuse.
For her The Village Voice article, writer Sarah DiGregorio visited Hudson Valley Farms to witness first-hand their production practices. Although Hudson Valley is a favorite target for protesters, DiGregorio found no signs of abuse, even going so far as to personally inspect the esophagi of freshly slaughtered ducks. Caro took similar tours, including of Hudson Valley, while working on "The Foie Gras Wars" and found no signs of torture or abuse either.
During the feedings, DiGregorio said the ducks didn't seem to enjoy being held between the worker's legs and force-fed, but the animals did not appear to be tortured. Once the 10 to 15 second feeding was over, the birds calmly walked off.
That's an important point. Hudson Valley doesn't raise its birds in cages. The animals are raised in sanitary environments and allowed to wander around in large, open areas. Farms in Canada and Europe have been known to raise their birds in cages. As a consumer, you have the ability to decide whether this is important to you. If it is, then make sure you're buying foie gras from farms that raise their birds in cage-free environments. If you don't care, that's fine too. At least you know there's a difference.
Like veal, foie gras is not an easy issue. Everything we eat, whether it walked the earth or grew from it, has political, moral and nutritional implications. And as we must eat to live, we should be aware of the consequences, and not merely cherry pick the issues we decide to fight for or against.
If you choose not to eat foie gras, fine. If you choose not to eat veal, fine. But I will. And I will do so being well aware of what I'm eating and secure in the knowledge that people like Forrest Pritchard at Smith Meadows Farm, and the folks at New York's Hudson Valley Farm, are producing these products in a sustainable, conscientious and humane way.
Foie Gras Three Ways
(Makes a lot of foie gras)
For these dishes, I went online and ordered 2 pounds of Hudson Valley foie gras from D'Artagnan. That much will easily feed 10 people a reasonable amount of foie gras. Remember it's all fat. Really, really delicious fat. But don't eat it regularly or your cardiologist will tell you to lay off it for good.
As for the recipes, they include two American techniques (grilling and searing) and one French technique (cru au sel: raw with salt). To be fair, the use of two American techniques and one French is a misrepresenation of foie gras cooking techniques. The grilling and searing techniques represent most, if not all, of the American approaches to preparing foie gras. Cru au sel is but one of a great many ways the French have come up with to prepare foie gras. In fact, I had to cajole the chef who worked with me on these recipes (who's training is classic French cuisine) to allow me to try the grilling technique (this is a grilling column). Fortunately, it worked out (to my relief and the chef's surprise).
Grilled Foie Gras with Gastrique of Porter
2 4 oz. pieces of foie gras
2 tbs. of honey
2 tbs. of balsamic
1/2 cup of porter (I used Flying Dog's Road Dog porter)
Typically, foie gras will come in two lobes, with one lobe larger than the other. The larger lobe has more veins than the smaller. If you cut your pieces from the smaller lobe, you are less likely to encounter veins. Use a hot, thin-bladed knife to cut on the bias through the lobe of foie gras in order to render the two 4 ounce pieces. Also, make sure to work with cold, not frozen, foie gras. As foie gras warms, it will begin to melt like butter.
Once your pieces are cut for grilling, get your grill as hot as possible. When it's ready to go, salt one side of the foie gras and place it on the grill for 30 to 45 seconds. If you want a cross hatch, turn the foie gras 90 degrees. If not, allow to grill another 30 seconds or so. Turn the foie gras and grill for another 30 seconds or so. Remove from heat and set aside.
In a medium, non-reactive pan -- on the stove or grill -- combine the honey, balsamic vinegar and cook over medium heat until the mixture starts to caramelize. The consistency should be syrupy. Remove the pan from the heat and slowly add the porter; reduce by half. This should take about 5 minutes. When the sauce has thickened, place the foie gras in the pan and allow it to finish cooking, about 2 minutes.
Remove the foie gras from the pan, and sauce it lightly. Serve it with the remainder of the beer.
Seared Foie Gras with Peaches
2 4 oz. pieces of foie gras
1 peach, peeled, halved and sliced (or cut into a fan)
1/2 cup of dessert wine, such as Sauternes or Beaumes de Venise
1/2 cup of veal stock
Freshly cracked black pepper
Himalayan Pink Salt or other finishing salt
To begin, heat a high-quality aluminum pan (do not use Teflon) over high heat. Season one side of the foie gras with Kosher salt.
When the pan is very hot, place the foie gras in it, seasoned side down. Because the foie gras will begin to melt immediately, you do not need additional fat in the pan. Also, it will smoke ... a lot. After 45 seconds or so, a crust will have formed on the bottom. Turn and cook the foie gras for another 45 seconds or so. Remove the foie gras from the pan.
Turning down the heat to medium, place the peach into the same pan, which is now coated in rendered foie gras. Sear for 30 to 45 seconds and remove from the pan.
Add the wine to the pan and cook off the alcohol, about three minutes. Add the veal stock, stir and allow to reduce by about half. This should take 3 to 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, and return the foie gras and peach to the pan. Warm the foie gras and peach, while gently basting, for about a minute.
Plate the foie gras and peach, and sauce lightly. Finish with the cracked black pepper and pink salt.
Cru au Sel
In this simple, classic French preparation, the foie gras is cured rather than cooked.
1 lobe (approximately 1 lb.) of foie gras, cleaned of all veins
5-6 cups of Kosher salt
Approximately 1 tbs. finishing salt (such as the pink salt)
1/2 tsp. freshly cracked black pepper
Crackers (or toasted brioche or baguette)
1 container of Membrillo (quince paste)
Allow the foie gras to come to room temperature for about 30 minutes. Disturbing the liver as little as possible, gently work through the underside of the lobe, identifying the veins and any bloody bits, with the tips of your fingers or the tip of a boning knife. Return the lobe to its original shape as best as possible.
Place 1-2 cups of salt into the bottom of a container big enough to hold the lobe of foie gras. Roll the cleaned lobe of foie gras in cheesecloth to keep its bits together (if any pieces came off during cleaning, these can be added back to the middle of the lobe and secured with the cheesecloth). Gently form the lobe into a loose log shape, tightly closing the ends of the cheesecloth, and place seam-side down into a container. Do not place it seam-side up, or too much salt will enter the interior of the log. Pour the remaining 3-4 cups of salt over the top of the lobe, and allow to cure for two hours.
After curing, remove the lobe and rinse in cold water, removing all salt. Lay a sheet of aluminum foil down on a flat surface, then cover with an equal size sheet of plastic wrap. Lay the foie gras on top, roll up, and twist tightly to form a perfect cylinder. Place in the refrigerator for at least three hours, or until ready to serve. Before serving, remove the log from the fridge for 15-20 minutes, slice into disks with a hot knife, and serve simply with a sweet jam or membrillo, finishing salt, pepper, and toasted brioche or baguette.
Additional photos of the foie gras, including the preparation, can be seen here.