Foie Wars

Force-feeding amounts to either animal farming or grotesque torture, but do our chefs give a duck?

 The goose is nothing, but man has made of it an instrument for the output of a marvelous product, a kind of living hothouse in which there grows the supreme fruit of gastronomy.

— Charles Gérard,
L'Ancienne Alsace à Table

The question is not "Can they reason?" nor "Can they talk?" but "Can they suffer?"
— Jeremy Bentham


In a galaxy foie, foie away.... No, wait a minute, it's France. A park in France. A reed-riddled pond in a park, to be precise, around which families have flocked to admire the ducks and geese gracefully gliding across tranquil waters. Observe how the ducks gather in social groups, while geese swim only in pairs; the latter form lifelong pairs to raise their young. See how the mother goose snuggles her gosling; that's sweet. And behold those ducklings waddling up the hill; put them in blue jackets and caps and they could be Huey, Dewey, and Louie! Uh-oh — looks like the littlest ducks and geese are being taken from their habitat and shipped to a farm. They'll eventually relax as they grow accustomed to their new environment — until the last three to four weeks of their sixteen-week lives, that is, which is when the force-feeding process begins. Watch how the birds are grabbed by their necks and a metal tube nearly a foot long is inserted down each of their delicate throats. Look how they squirm as a mush of cornmeal, oil, and salt is either manually or pneumatically pumped through these tubes and into the gullet. In a few hours this process will be repeated, then one more time later on, until a ten-pound bird consumes a daily intake of 400 to 500 grams of feed — amounting to 44 pounds of pasta being pushed into a 175-pound person. Keep an eye on our fine-feathered friends over this time frame and witness a six- to tenfold increase in the size and weight of their livers. See them gasp for air as the grotesquely enlarged organ distends and displaces space normally reserved for the air sac. See them barely able to walk as they become so obese their legs get pushed out laterally — although that's not much of a problem because they're restrained in shoebox-size cages so small they can't even turn around or stretch their wings. Notice how they've become a bit nutsy because poisons normally filtered by the liver pulse rampantly through the bloodstream and brain. It's no day in the park.

On the other hand, the resultant foie gras does taste great on toast points.

Le gavage is the French term for force-feeding, and whether it amounts to farming or torture, it has fattened into a feisty worldwide fracas involving chefs, restaurateurs, animal-rights activists, state legislators, farmers, producers, Hollywood, France, Whole Foods Market, Governor Schwarzenegger, the Israeli Supreme Court, and the pope — to name but a few. South Florida's own gaggle of gastronomes has ducked the issue altogether. Until now.

"I love it! I love it!" chef Andrea Curto fairly yells into the phone when she's asked what she thinks of foie gras (pronounced fwah grah). At Talula in Miami Beach, she gently grills three-ounce slices of intensely rich duck liver and accessorizes them with blue corn arepas, caramelized figs, chili syrup, and crme frache. "When I go to a good restaurant, I always try foie gras. It's one of those dishes that helps you measure a chef," she says. Michael Bloise (Wish, South Beach), agrees the preparation of this delicacy "reflects a true sense of what direction the chef's coming from, and can even be a barometer of their personality." Bloise is evidently a whimsical guy, for he serves the seared liver with cascabel chili-roasted bananas and a black-pepper-crusted toasted marshmallow.

A glance at how our top chefs prepare foie gras bears out the notion of it being a buttery soft canvas upon which to splash their signature style. Allen Susser (Chef Allen's, Aventura), that crafty old Mango Ganger, pairs black-pepper-seared duck liver with mango jam. Contemporary Caribbean chef Cindy Hutson (Ortanique on the Mile, Coral Gables) also stays within her genre with seared, jerk-seasoned foie gras matched with mâche salad, duck confit, and a demi-glace perked with burnt orange marmalade. Michelle Bernstein (Michy's, Miami) frills her foie with pineapple, ginger, and an iconoclastic crackling of peanut brittle, while Norman Van Aken's (Norman's, Coral Gables) signature New World starter is his "Down Island French Toast" with curaçao-scented foie gras, passion fruit caramel, and candied ginger-lime zest. Robbin Haas (Chispa, Coral Gables) does it "the way my good friend Jean-Louis [Palladin, the late, great chef at Washington, D.C.'s Watergate Hotel] taught me, which is to roast a whole foie gras and then slice it." Pascal Oudin (Pascal's on Ponce, Coral Gables) prefers to place a whole liver on the grill, and also serves it in terrines and au torchon (wrapped tightly in a piece of muslin, briefly poached in flavored broth, and cooled in the liquid for a number of days). Those are Old World treatments, and so is the manner in which Jan Jorgensen (Two Chefs, South Miami) mixes foie gras with truffles when he's stuffing quails. He also mentions something of which all foie gras enthusiasts are keenly aware: "It is a very wine-friendly product. The tannins and fruits cut against the fat." A single tablespoon of foie gras, incidentally, contains 60 calories.

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