Foie gras is created by the practice of “gavage” to a duck or goose until its liver is inflated to a nice, ripe, plump, delicious size. It’s a delicacy, enjoyed for centuries and a food that very nearly saved culture back when it was a peasant food in ancient Egypt around 2600 B.C. It originated as a “throw away” organ that slaves would feed their families since their masters under-fed them. Realizing they could fatten their crop and eat the leftovers, the farmers developed what would eventually become the appetizer of kings, as soon as they snatched that too from their starving workers.
But despite its cultural relevance, this stalwart of culinary culture has come under attack again recently, including in Asheville. These efforts are not because foie gras is unnecessarily cruel, unethical or unhealthy, but because it is an easy target for extremists who are against the raising of animals for the purpose of eating them and who think that if it looks uncomfortable to humans, then it must be so for the animal. They struck first in Chicago — which eventually lifted its ban on the fatty pate — and more recently in California. That state’s ban kicked in July 1; a direct slap in the face to cultural icons like Thomas Keller of the French Laundry who used foie gras to define modern American cuisine.
So what is all the fuss about? Why are animal rights activists in such a tizzy about an appetizer that on any given day less than 1 percent of the population is eating? It’s because these birds, mostly raised cage free for the first nine weeks of their lives, are force fed (gavage) for the last two to three weeks before they are slaughtered. In other words, these geese and ducks are raised in way better conditions than the chicken you ate for lunch at Applebee’s, and in way less stressful conditions than they would face in the wild (see this video from Anthony Bourdain).
For the last two weeks of their life, the geese are fed like kings (something that some farms in California have been doing naturally, without the controversial 30-second tube feedings), until they are fat and happy and ready to be prepared for our eager and respectful tables. Not only that, but chefs like Keller and other obsessive geniuses in California have gone so far as to make sure that their birds were raised at higher standards than most Kobe beef (and Waygu Kobe are massaged daily and fed beer!).
As an animal-rights supporter, as an environmentalist, as someone concerned about the well being of all living creatures and who still considers himself an evolutionary product, a hunter, a carnivore and a lover of all things fleshy — there is a part of me that understands why people who don’t eat anything with a face might have an issue with foie gras.
But you are wasting your energy. You are sparring with the puppies when you should be fighting the wolves. If you are someone who wants to truly help with the rally for the ethical treatment of farm-raised animals, I am all about that and fully support of you, but it does not start with foie.
That fight starts with boneless, skinless chicken at your local grocery store. It starts with Chicken McNuggets, Zaxby’s and KFC. In 2007 McDonalds sold $5.2 billion worth of chicken alone, and all of those animals were raised in the most horrible conditions imaginable. Yet we are arguing over foie gras, an industry that raises just $72 million in total annual sales globally, what McDonalds might make selling chicken in just one county for a year.
The horrors of factory-farmed chicken, beef and pork are blatant and extremely well documented. Most of the companies that do abuse their foie geese are the same companies that manufacture these animals. Not to mention that factory farming is a global industry with ties to the uses of carcinogenic steroids and chemicals to increase production. At any given moment over three quarters of our population is chowing down on a chemical-laden, minced-up version of a factory farmed animal.
That’s 233,693,938 people. At that same moment, 1,000 might possibly be eating a pate of foie gras. Trying to stop the production of foie gras is like swinging a fly swatter at a single, specific hornet when you are standing in the middle of a hornets’ nest. If you really want to end cruelty in foie gras production, stop factory farming and you will be left with the heavily regulated and ethical foie gras that most high-end restaurants already serve.
Let’s dispense with the distractions and focus on what really matters: ethical, local, organic meat. Let us turn that energy towards the promotion of local farmers and local fisheries. Let’s take our money, our resources and our voices and lend them to our neighbors. Let’s keep our wallets closed to the factory farms that produce the sorry excuses for meat they serve our kids in schools. Let’s eat real food from real farms, Let’s ban boneless, processed meats.
And let’s shut the hell up about foie gras.
Asheville resident Jonathan Ammons is a local bartender, musician and food aficionado