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In France, the Shangri-la of foie, the populace has been liver-savvy for generations. Ask old-timers on the street to describe the difference between a goose from Toulouse and one from Strasbourg, and they'll tell you the former yields an ivory white and creamy liver, while the latter is pink and firm. The trend in recent years, though, has been toward using ducks, which require less space to house and can be slaughtered at a younger age. Duck liver is rougher in texture and has an earthier, more pronounced flavor than goose. Only ducks are raised to make foie gras in this country; specifically speaking, that would be the male Mulard, a hybrid of a male Muscovy and a female Pekin.
Foie gras is sold in grades of A, B, or C, though the last denomination is rarely used. A is the largest, a bulbous lobe about one to three pounds, while softer and darker B livers are generally closer to one pound. The main difference, as described by a manager at Marky's International Food Emporium in Miami, "is mostly a matter of which is cleaner. If a chef wants to save a little money, he can buy Grade B and just spend some more time deveining it."
Regardless of the grade, foie gras triangulates with truffles and caviar to form the Holy Trinity of culinary indulgences, and it is priced accordingly: A whole liver wholesales from $20 to $30 per pound; two packaged slices, or 2.6 ounces, retails at Marky's for $27.49. But does our eating it make us complicit in a cruel, inhumane practice? And if so, could it be that the moral cost is higher than the monetary?
Certainly a sort of industrial use of creatures, so that geese are fed in such a way as to produce as large a liver as possible, or hens live so packed together that they become just caricatures of birds, this degrading of living creatures to a commodity seems to me in fact to contradict the relationship of mutuality that comes across in the Bible.
Pope Benedict XVI, speaking when still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger
The food world is fraught with ethical choices. As Norman Van Aken notes, "The very nature of consuming anything that once breathed is always an issue in a moral mind." Yet although it's true that, as Johnny Vinczencz (Johnny V Restaurant, Fort Lauderdale) observes, "There is no pretty way to harvest an animal for consumption," it's also correct to say foie gras is the gateway organ that inevitably leads to comparisons to other acts of barnyard banality.
"It's the same with spring lambs," claims Jorgensen of Two Chefs. "We take them away from their mothers and kill them at 25 days old. Does that go under animal cruelty as much as foie gras? I don't know. It's a very tricky thing." Talula's Curto expresses the oft-repeated fear that "If you start with foie gras, what's next? Everything that's an animal." Indeed other chefs reference abusive treatment of pigs, cows, calves (for veal), pheasants, quail, farm-raised fish, and, most of all, chickens. Says Oudin of Pascal's on Ponce: "To define animal cruelty can be subjective and hypocritical. The production of foie gras is tightly controlled by the authorities, much more so than the chicken industry. How many people have seen the 'manufacture' of a chicken? How many will still eat chicken after that?" Van Aken wonders, "How capable are we of saying what is humane killing? We certainly have not been effective of this within our own species."
The dozen toques who spoke with New Times were all careful to characterize themselves as conscientious carnivores. The force-feeding issue, therefore, has a tendency to make them a bit defensive. "I like our planet," says Ortanique's Hutson. "I care about the world that my son will inherit," says Bloise of Wish. "I'm not a horrible person," says Curto, "but I'm a chef, and it's foie gras, a wonderful thing." Many, like Giancarla Bodoni (Escopazzo, South Beach), emphasize their use of free-range, grass-fed, or organic meats, "not animals that are cooped up in overcrowded pens, who succumb to disease and therefore have to be treated with antibiotics and steroids." And most of our culinarians have dealt with food controversies before.
"I was an early pioneer in the boycott of bluefin tuna and swordfish," recalls Jonathan Eismann of Lincoln Road's seafood-based Pacific Time. "I didn't serve tuna for three years, which was very difficult for us." Bloise bypasses "Chilean sea bass, swordfish from the not-yet-fully recuperated South Atlantic population, and farm-raised salmon." Hutson doesn't use Chilean sea bass, either, "or put billfish on the menu." Sounds painless enough to do without a few fish, but according to Chispa's Haas, that's not always the case: "You stop serving something because of a vocal minority, but ultimately it's the buying majority that's going to dictate whether you stay in business. When I took Chilean sea bass off the menu at Baleen, customers were up in arms about not having it. I thought I was going to get burned in effigy in the parking lot."
Yet resisting sea bass or farm-raised salmon, or even tender veal scaloppine is one thing. Forgoing foie gras, one of the consummate pleasures of the table, is, as Michy's Bernstein says, "like quitting tobacco" or, as Bodoni prefers to put it, "like a child going to an ice-cream store and discovering that their favorite flavor is no longer served." She should know, because Giancarla was the first South Florida chef (and still one of just a few) to eliminate foie gras from her menu. "I stopped serving it at Escopazzo about one and a half years ago," she explains. "The decision wasn't an easy one, as our business is driven by what the market expects of us, and foie gras was one of my specialty dishes. Unfortunately the demand for foie gras has led the producers to handle their animals in such a way that meets those demands, but at an inhumane cost to the animals."