The battle lines are drawn. Loins have been girded, and livers too. Before it is all over, feathers will fly.
A fight is simmering in California — of course it’s California. The battleground is diners’ plates, and the instigating factor (the Helen of Troy, as it were) is foie gras.
Foie gras is the liver of a duck or goose that has been force fed, making the liver especially fatty. On July 1, it will become illegal to produce or sell the delicacy in the state of California.
Animal rights advocates cheer the news. They say the process of force-feeding a duck is inhumane and an affront to ethical standards.
They call it animal cruelty. A feeding tube is placed down the bird’s throat, and the duck or goose is essentially forced to eat constantly until its liver has expanded to many times its normal size and the bird is ready to be slaughtered.
That sounds awful, doesn’t it? And the animal rights advocates have a point. But now a coalition of 100 of the state’s best chefs is fighting the ban, and they too have a point .
Their point is this: Foie gras is delicious.
There is really nothing like it — so light, so delicate, so bursting with the flavor of earthiness known as umami. Although its taste is so enormous, it practically melts on your tongue. It is one of the world’s great culinary pleasures.
Which could be the key to ending this battle. Though they have the moral high ground, it seems likely that most foie gras opponents have never tried the stuff. Why would they? They would not want to participate in anything they consider tantamount to animal torture.
But perhaps they should try a taste — it need only be a taste — of foie gras and see what they are missing. They could feel the sensation on their tongue, so light it is almost effervescent. They could taste the fully rounded harmony of deep, rich flavors from such a tiny bite.
One imagines them trying just a sliver of the stuff and then saying in a small, still voice, “oh.”
Of course, that will never happen. The professionally outraged have taken up forks and knives against the professional culinarians. The chefs, for their part, have formed an organization called the Coalition for Humane and Ethical Farming Standards (sometimes these acronyms are pretty good) not to deny the cruelty of foie gras farming, but to suggest humane alternatives.
They say the birds do not have to be kept in cages to make foie gras, and they claim the birds can even be fed by hand, which would eliminate both the feeding tube and the uncomfortable sense that the animals are being abused.
Not too long ago, a radio news show featured a segment about a Spanish farmer who produces what might be the best foie gras anywhere. The trick, he said, is to make the geese happy by not letting them know they are in any way being kept by humans. The space he has for them is expansive, with fences to keep out predators so far away that the geese don’t see them. He grows a variety of grains and grasses apparently at random on the land, as if by nature, but specifically chosen to produce the best tasting foie gras. Most importantly, the geese are free to come and go as they please.
They stay. And not only do they stay, they honkingly invite other geese who are passing overhead to come and stay as well.
Admittedly, the story sounds a little unlikely, and that particular show has had recent problems with credibility. But wouldn’t it be lovely if it were true?
Ultimately, the battle is over philosophy. One side argues that humans should universally treat animals with respect and kindness. The other side argues that man has dominion over the fish of the sea and the fowl of the air, and besides, the process of force feeding isn’t nearly as horrifying as it sounds.
I know which side I stand on. I agree with my friend, the restaurant critic Michael Robinson, who once ordered foie gras and wrote, “yes, I know how it is made, and no, I don’t care.”