Tomorrow night, I’m attending a “Speakeasy” dinner, one held at an address known only to the lucky attendees. It invitation came complete with secret password for entry. But unlike a prohibition-era Speakeasy, this dinner doesn’t feature illicit alcohol. It features Foie Gras, a gourmet food ingredient turned into contraband last summer.
In July, it became illegal in California to farm, prepare, buy, sell or think about the artisanal delicacy known as Foie Gras – the liver of certain types of fattened fowl. The ban was in response to the successful campaign by some very radical animal rights activists, the most extreme fringe even resort to hideous and violent measures against chefs who support and serve Foie Gras. They even threatened their family members – imagine receiving photos of your kids at school along with a threatening note, and you’ll get an idea of what these chefs endured.
“But what of the fowl”, you may ask? You see, the animal rights groups, with whom I find myself in sympathy on many issues, objected to the forced feeding – gavage, as the French call it – that is usually used to fatten the bird and their prized livers that become Foie Gras. And to hear a description of gavage, well, it does sound quite cruel – forcing corn down a funnel and through a tube inserted into the mouth/throat of the bird in order to fatten it suddenly and quickly – resulting in a liver that is several times its pre-fattened size.
But here’s the rub – left to fend for themselves, these birds naturally gorge every fall in preparation for their long migratory flight. You see, they don’t stop to eat very often, sort of like our family vacations with Dad at the wheel.
So, aside from the funnel and tube, gorging is a natural part of their birdly existence. If you’re interested in such things, I encourage you to watch this great video by Dan Barber as he describes his visit to the award-winning Foie Gras farm in Spain, of all places, where no gavage is used at all. It is well worth the time, as is his follow-up presentation about his failed attempt to replicate this experience back home in New York.
But even if your scorecard still comes down in favor of the animal activists, even if only slightly, I do have to wonder why they chose to do battle over such a minor part of our food chain. Ever since Upton Sinclair published “The Jungle” in the early 1900’s, we’ve yet to truly clean up the beef industry. And you’d never eat cheap supermarket or fast food chicken again if you saw how they were raised. And then there’s the issue of the sea lice infecting farm-raised salmon, and how they’re now spreading to the wild salmon outside the high-density farming containers. All of which would have been far wiser bogeymen to pursue if you’re an activist whose goal is to reduce animal cruelty and improve the planet’s food supply. (a thoughtful list of 8 foods to go after before Foie Gras appears here).
So I’m looking forward to tomorrow night’s dinner, with Foie Gras served three ways. And given the guest list, the wines are sure to be memorable, with at least one bottle of Sauternes and a domestic “ice wine” from Tudor Vineyards to provide the classic sweet-salty deliciousness that have attracted international gourmands to this classic combination.