Foie Wars

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


Foie gras

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.

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."

Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer and co-author Jim Mason, in their book The Way We Eat, ask whether callous farming practices are too high a price to pay for the provision of cheap food to the masses. In the foie gras debate, the question of cruelty concerns a luxury item lapped up almost exclusively by the affluent. Bernstein, however, thinks such distinctions should not be made. "Isn't eating any animal a luxury?" Besides, she adds, "Foie gras is part of something much larger than just an appetizer worth twenty bucks. It has given work to people, fed families, helped cities, and been part of cultures for a long, long time."

About 5000 years, more or less. Ancient Egyptians are credited with discovering the delectability of domesticated duck and goose livers. Noting that the birds would gorge themselves prior to long migratory flights and use their livers to store the protein, the Egyptians mimicked this instinct by force-feeding them, albeit in lesser quantities than today. In the Roman Empire, geese were stuffed with fresh figs (which somehow seems gustatorially kinder than corn mush), and after slaughter, the fatted livers were plunged into a bath of milk and honey to further swell and flavor them. The fact that certain palmipeds have a genetic inclination to binge leads some people to proclaim force-feeding to be the extension of a natural physiological process, not a pathological one. Others argue that no bird would gluttonize itself to anywhere near the state brought on by gavage, and that the species of duck used in foie gras production neither migrates nor overeats.

In relatively modern times, the tradition of foie gras was perpetuated and developed in certain regions of France, especially Alsace and the Southwest, where the preservation of food in fat was vital to feeding the population; that's where terrines, torchons, and pâté de foie gras come into play. In 1998 the USDA certified eleven French foie gras producers for exporting to the United States, which ended decades of black-market livers being smuggled here inside fish bellies and wheels of cheese. Just two years later the U.S. developed new procedures to protect against possible contamination in the production process, but the French resisted, complaining the rules were expensive and unnecessary. In response, the USDA decertified four of the eleven French producers and, in 2004, enacted a full import ban on raw livers until facilities were brought into line.

America could afford to set strict standards, because by this time we had our own foie gras farms. Hudson Valley Foie Gras was opened in upstate New York in 1982, and four years later Sonoma Foie Gras was launched on the West Coast. Hudson is the larger of the two, processing 7000 ducks per week and providing around 60 percent — or 220 tons — of all duck liver consumed in the United States each year. Yet while Hudson has had to deal with its share of zealous animal activists, Sonoma has borne the brunt of anti-foie-gras fury. Actually fury might be putting it mildly.

[Trotter] cooks like a guy who's never been fucked properly.
— Chef/author Anthony Bourdain, lashing out at Charlie Trotter after the renowned Chicago chef removed foie gras from his menu

Actress Loretta Swit tearfully compared the abuse suffered by ducks to Abu Ghraib. At the other end of the field, New York Times editor Lawrence Downes reported, "It was unnerving to see the tube going down, and late-stage ducks waddling bulkily in their pens, but no more so than watching the epic gorging at the all-you-can-eat buffet at Shoney's, where morbid obesity is achieved voluntarily, with knife and fork." That's funny. But no one was laughing when the children of a California chef were threatened.

"My friend Laurent Manrique was partner in a company, Artisan Foie Gras, that was looking to open stores on the West Coast," explains Pascal Oudin. "One day he came home and found his house painted red with graffiti. And some people had videotaped his children going back and forth to school. They buried the cassette in his garden and called him to recover it. The FBI became involved and offered protection to his family."

Manrique had been chef and co-owner, with Guillermo Gonzalez, of Sonoma Saveurs, a restaurant specializing in foie gras. Gonzalez, a Salvadoran immigrant, also runs Sonoma Foie Gras with his wife Junny. Their children, too, were photographed in an ominous manner, and vandals poured cement into water lines at their Sonoma farm, causing $60,000 worth of damage. Saveurs was burned to the ground. The Animal Liberation Front claimed credit.

Of course such isolated, incendiary incidents draw media attention — that's their main purpose — but nothing has discredited the movement more. Van Aken says, "I'm extremely put off by the tactics of a few of these activists ... and I have felt that the radical fringe was the real engine behind this animus." Bernstein relates, "I've received anonymous hate letters, warning me that if I used foie gras much longer, I would have to pay. Does it make sense to try and cause harm to others rather than on animals?" Bloise is likewise wary of the anti-foie-gras camp: "If I have to choose between the opinion of activists led by emotion or the official opinion of the American Veterinary Medical Association [AVMA], a well-respected organization speaking for over 71,000 doctors across the country ... well, the decision is easy."

What he is referring to is last year's unanimous vote by the AVMA's house of delegates to defeat a resolution opposing the practice of force-feeding. The AVMA, founded in 1863, is one of the oldest and largest veterinary medical organizations in the world. The delegates based their voting on "limited peer-reviewed, scientific information" that was gleaned from prearranged tours of Hudson Valley's facilities by two veterinary groups, whose observations indicated "a minimum of adverse effects on the birds involved." AVMA president Dr. Bonnie Beaver's summation: "We ... have found it is not necessary for the AVMA to take a position either for or against foie gras production at this time."

Foie gras, though, has been getting seared on most other sides. In 1998 the European Union asked its Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare (SCAHAW) to produce a report about force-feeding. SCAHAW, which includes a dozen professors of veterinary medicine and agricultural scientists from across Europe, found that methods used in foie gras production negatively affect the birds' physical and psychological welfare, and concluded that force-feeding should be discouraged. In 2003 the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that force-feeding of geese and ducks was in violation of the Animal Welfare Act, and in 2005 made production illegal. Israel, once the world's fourth-largest producer of foie gras, is not alone: Germany, Poland, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, and the UK have also banned its sale.

Closer to home, in 2004 the California legislature passed a law, signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, to terminate production and sale of foie gras (it takes effect in 2012). This past April the Chicago city council voted unanimously to do likewise, and the ban began only weeks ago. Legislation has been proposed and is being debated in Philadelphia, New York, Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, and Illinois. You can partly thank or blame 26-year-old Ph.D. student Sarahjane Blum, who runs the Website GourmetCruelty.com, because her surreptitiously shot videos stocked with shocking, gruesome images of abuse at various foie farms have propelled a portion of the public, and its elected officials, to jump on the boycott bandwagon.

The foie gras industry is having a difficult time swallowing this load of litigation and has begun to fight back to protect its estimated $20 million in annual sales. Hudson, Sonoma, Rougie (based in France and Canada), and D'Artagnan (one of the largest purveyors of American foie gras) pooled their resources to form the North American Foie Gras Producers Association. After hiring a public advocacy and lobbying group to examine the constitutionality of laws banning foie gras production or sale, the association fired its first shot: a lawsuit on behalf of Sonoma Foie Gras against Whole Foods, charging the natural-foods giant with "intentional interference with contract." According to the complaint, Whole Foods told Sonoma's supplier of ducklings, Grimaud Farms, to stop dealing with the foie gras company or the grocer would no longer do business with Grimaud. Whole Foods' account made up twenty percent of Grimaud's total sales, so the company did indeed cease its association with Sonoma. "Whole Foods does not respond to coercion," insists CEO John Mackey. "We re-examined activists' claims and decided they were basically right." The suit, meanwhile, winds its way through the courts. Apparently force-feeding is making lawyers fat too.

Chefs are split on the role government should play. "I'm not a big fan of them telling me what to do," declares Chispa's Haas. "It's like smoking; I think it should be up to the restaurant owner to decide. If enough of his customers complain that the smoke bothers them, then business will dictate the decision." Pascal Oudin believes, "A lot more important questions should be addressed by the government before even envisioning starting to speak about this one." And Susser concurs: "Too much energy is being wasted on this, instead of on better efforts. And I'm not talking about cleaning up hunger or world peace — I mean within the food industry. A much bigger threat looming is avian flu, about which we're not nearly prepared or educated enough."

Others, like Pacific Time's Eismann, think "the government needs to step in and determine if there is a cruelty issue. If that's the case, then it's the government's responsibility to regulate production. It's ridiculous to think, Oh, it's foie gras, so it's all right to let these animals suffer." Johnny V agrees: "Force the people to whom we pay our taxes to do what they are there to do and regulate the treatment of all animals, not just ducks. The proper research should be done by the USDA, rules defining what constitutes cruelty should be established, and those who produce the products should have to adhere to those regulations. Everybody should just chill out, and real facts should be distributed."

Everyone is in favor of facts, and nobody, it turns out, supports animal suffering. But where, exactly, do our esteemed culinarians ultimately stand on the foie gras issue? Meaning: Will they continue to serve it?

There's this one jewel that I really love. Unfortunately it grows at the base of the spine of Ethiopian babies, so you have to debone the babies in order to extract them. I know it sounds bad when you say it out loud, but ... what an unbelievable stone this is.
— Comedian Sarah Silverman

Eleven months ago, Johnny V, like Giancarla at Escopazzo, removed foie gras from his menu. "I had been contacted by several of the organizations trying to stop the production of it. They sent me a pretty graphic video, but it was unclear if the footage was shot in the United States. So I began to research it and realized the movement was quite large and gaining momentum. I was only using foie gras as an accompaniment to one of my entrées, so after a couple of comments from customers who were supportive of the movement, I decided I would serve something else. It just doesn't mean than much to me."

Many chefs regarded the argument against gavage with skepticism, but after delving into the subject further, they took the potential for abuse more seriously — although most are still straddling the fence. "I tend to receive a pretty decent number of e-mails — some polite, some not so much — requesting that I remove the dish from my menu at Wish," says Bloise. "I follow the links, watch the videos. I can't say that I'm 100 percent in either direction — but what I really want, honestly, is to get to the bottom of all of this and figure it out for myself." Toward this end, he plans to take a trip to Hudson Valley Foie Gras (and has invited New Times to tag along).

Van Aken and Curto are likewise hesitant to take a stand without having visited the farms to witness things first-hand. Curto admits that until she does so, "I can't say I know what's going on. But I want to believe that [the bad] stuff isn't true. If it is true, then I have something to think about." Van Aken, too, vows to one day judge with his own eyes, and meanwhile "continue to think and reflect on this very meaningful subject." Hutson is "not swayed either way. I know about the stories of inhumane treatment, but I've never seen the gory details that people talk about." So we asked her to take a closer look at the argument for both sides and get back to us. She did not. Maria Frumkin (Duo Restaurant, downtown Miami) promised to discuss ducks and geese with us but then chickened out. She asked us to call back, asked us to call back again, and finally requested we e-mail the questions, but never responded to any of our queries.

Some started out skeptical and remain so. Oudin, like a majority of chefs, takes into consideration the important role foie gras has played in "history, tradition, and culture," and stresses personal choice: "Chefs in the United States are becoming more skilled and refined, and the clientele have become more aware of delicate foods. Why deny this pleasure of life to everybody? Any individual is free to decide for him- or herself to enjoy it or not." Susser takes the same slant: "You have to let people vote with their fork rather than dictate what they can or can't eat. If you don't like it, don't buy it. That's why we've got vanilla and chocolate ice cream."

Two chefs who were on the fence jumped off. Haas doesn't proffer foie gras at Chispa "because it doesn't work within our price point or with our style of cooking. You don't find a lot of foie gras in Central or South America." But he consults for numerous restaurant groups, and places foie gras on quite a few menus nationwide. "I always knew how it was produced, but I hadn't given the issue much thought. Now that I've seen photos of it and watched videotapes of it, I'm not going to serve it anymore." But he won't be getting in line to picket or making speeches against it, either, because he agrees with Oudin and Susser that it's up to each person to decide. "If there's no market for foie gras," he says by way of deduction, "the producers aren't going to produce it."

Foie gras hasn't been on Pacific Time's menu for some time, either, at least partly owing to bloated costs. "There was a large price increase about ten months ago, and I was concerned at seeing a $25 appetizer on my menu. It looked like it belonged in the entrée section. But we were contacted by a few groups, and though I've ordered it in other restaurants and eaten it, I've sort of subconsciously removed it from use. I think it's a worthy boycott — I mean I can live without it." Yet while Johnny V points to "an endless bounty" of products from all over the world to fill the foie void, Eismann isn't so sure about substitutions. "As far as I know, there's no tofu foie gras yet."

Nervous chefs who fear that foie's goose may be cooked have begun to contemplate alternatives. Jorgensen speaks of how he could "just as well be dealing with chicken livers. You can use them in pâtés, stuffings — and rabbit livers can be used as well." He recognizes, however, that these options will never hold the same mystique and awe as foie gras. "Do I want a piece of seared rabbit liver with blueberries on top?" he asks himself. "No, I don't." Haas, too, talks up chicken liver. "This Balkan chef at the Bakery, in Chicago, used to make a chicken liver pâté, that if you closed your eyes ... it was so silky, it was so good, you didn't need foie gras. I think there are enough creative guys out there to do stuff like this." Haas pauses and then adds, "On the other hand, it will be hard to get $19 for a chicken liver appetizer."

Bernstein confesses that taking foie gras off of her menu is "something I am heavily considering," but the decision "is not a very easy one. I have learned to use it, love it, live it for so many years. I understand the situation, and I am really trying to figure out the best way of dealing with it." And she, too, has reluctantly begun experimenting with chicken liver. "It will never replace foie," she laments, "but I have to start getting used to the idea."

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >