Update: This post has been updated to clarify that the ban affects the sale of foie gras in restaurants and markets, and to add more context about gavage.
After a brief return, foie gras may once again be off the menu in California. On Friday, Sept. 22, the U.S. Ninth Court of Appeals handed down a ruling reinstating a ban first passed in 2004, though overturned by a lower court in 2015. The ruling states that “foie gras sales must now cease in the next few weeks unless the Supreme Court takes this case up.” The decision follows a more than decade long tug of war between advocates and activists.
“There’s not a food today that’s more maligned than foie gras,” said chef Dan Barber in a 2008 TED Talk in Monterey. That’s likely owing to the dish’s double reputation.
For opponents, foie gras is a symbol of both effete elitism and cruelty in the guise of cuisine. For advocates, it’s among the highest of culinary achievements. “One of the 10 most important flavors in gastronomy,” celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain claimed in an episode of his show “No Reservations.”
Following the tradition of dressing up English words with their French equivalents, foie gras translates literally to “fatty liver,” and the process by which it is made, gavage, comes from the verb gaver — “to stuff”’ or “to force-feed.” The English is decidedly less appealing when set as a menu descriptor.
Opponents of foie gras like to point out that words are nothing compared to the process. Gavage involves forcing a 10 to 12-inch tube down the esophagus of ducks or geese, two to five times a day, pumping the animal with excess food until its liver expands up to 10 times the usual size with fat.
“It’s pretty widely understood that this is one of the most excessively cruel instances of abuse towards animals in our society,” said Matt Johnson, press coordinator for Direct Action Everywhere, “so we are obviously very pleased to see that go by the wayside,”
Direct Action Everywhere (abbreviation DxE) is a global grassroots animal rights activist network based out of Berkeley. DxE had come to local and national attention earlier this year after they pressured the Local Butcher Shop into hanging a sign denouncing the killing of animals. Johnson hails the reinstatement of the foie gras ban as a sign of progress.
“We see animal rights as the next frontier in social justice,” said Johnson, “and something like this ban on foie gras is a step in the right direction where we treat animals not as inanimate objects to use and abuse but respect animals as the living feeling individuals we know them to be.”
However, those who raise ducks and geese for the purpose of making foie gras do not agree that raising fowl for foie gras is “excessively cruel.” In an article on Serious Eats by Kenji Lopez-Alt, he discusses the physiology of ducks (they do not have a gag reflex) and the way and means that they’re raised, fed and killed to make foie gras. He comes to the conclusion that foie gras is not any more inhumane than the confining, slaughtering and eating any animal for food.
Coverage by the LA Times seems to suggest the reaction to the foie gras ban rouses the same spirited passions as the gun debate. (And Bourdain’s claim that “a few twisted, angry people would like to take your foie gras away,” neatly echoes the language) But for many of the East Bay’s most celebrated restaurants, the prohibition carries as much direct impact as a statewide ban on zeppelins.
Many East Bay restaurants pride themselves on cooking California cuisine, a style typified by an emphasis on fresh, local and seasonal. Foie gras represents none of these. There are only three farms in the U.S. that produce foie gras, all of them located in upstate New York. Though many East Bay restaurants serve items such as duck confit, pate and mousse, these products can be produced without gavage and will not be affected by the ban.
Chez Panisse does not offer foie gras on its menu, nor could any staff remember guests specifically requesting it, though patrons do occasionally bring specialty items to private events. Still, the restaurant could not verify that foie gras had never been on any of the thousands of menus it has produced in its 46 year history.
A few East Bay restaurants, such as The Wolf and Perle serve foie gras, though as of publication, were unavailable for comment. The ban affects restaurants and markets, alike, but for the determined home chef, foie gras is still available for sale at Market Hall Foods in both Berkeley and Oakland. Grocery Manager and buyer for Market Hall on 4th Street, Wendy Robinson confirmed that they currently stock foie gras torchon, and at the holidays, foie gras terrine, sourced from Hudson Valley Foie Gras, a producer in Ferndale, New York.
Robinson is optimistic about the ban. “I actually think it’s going to increase our sales for foie gras this season.” Foie gras libertines are likely to buy more because of a threat to supply, while foie gras libertarians may be spurred to purchase out of defiance.
But in truth, for Robinson the news comes with a pragmatic shrug. “We will continue to sell foie gras until we are told that we cannot any longer.”
“It’s more a topic of conversation than anything really,” said Robinson. “I really don’t see it affecting our specialty store.”
Locally, at least, it appears a supposed outrage over foie gras may be a bit of a canard. And with so many other things to spread on toast — butter, jam, avocados — for the majority of East Bay eaters, foie gras is just not a going concern. It may as well be chopped liver.
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