On July 1, California becomes a zero–foie gras state. Senate Bill 1520, which Arnold Schwarzenegger signed in 2004, outlawed the force-feeding of birds to enlarge their livers, and what’s more, prohibited the selling of those livers—in short, a total ban on foie gras in the state that gave the world Stars (Jeremiah Tower's now-defunct restaurant) and the French Laundry. But the law came with a grace period expiring at the end of June 2012, to allow producers time to engineer alternatives to the feeding tube. They didn’t. And late last month, a star brigade of California chefs—putting faces to the recently formed Coalition for Humane and Ethical Farming Standards—fired off a Hail Mary pass to lawmakers in Sacramento, trying to score a stay after proposing a list of new ethical standards for foie production. So far, it looks like a fumble.
Meanwhile, whether defiant or resigned, chefs have mounted protest dinners, mournful farewells, $150-a-plate denials—Californians with the means to afford it have probably eaten more foie gras this year than at any time since the days of San Francisco’s robber barons. But now, fans of fatty livers are being forced to swallow what had seemed unthinkable even after SB 1520 became law: the French Laundry without foie.
THE ULTIMATE NOVELTY
Just so you know where I’m starting from, I’ll cop to my own biases. I have no particular love for foie gras, nor do I hate it. I feel slightly uncomfortable in high places—maybe it’s the memory of my union-member dad, a grocery clerk who had a distrust of wealthy people and expensive things and yet aspired to culture. Maybe I just naturally prefer cheap food over fancy.
The times I’ve eaten foie gras, I’ve felt ambivalent: It’s almost always been seared, garnished with something sweet—onion jam or quince mostarda or preserved cherries—and I pretty much hate eating sugary stuff before dessert comes. But I've also eaten a $15 takeout foie sandwich whose main purpose seemed to be novelty, and foie ice cream (subtle-tasting, triple the novelty value). The best I ever had was a $50 foie appetizer (for one) at L'Atelier de Jöel Robuchon in Vegas, all gorgeous sear, caramelized meat sugars, and shocking smoothness. I'm glad I tried it—once.
Still, I appreciate the idea of foie gras, the culture of traditional animal husbandry that created it, farmers who patiently grew and harvested bird livers in some picture-book idyll of the Languedoc. It makes foie gras seem like a world cultural legacy, like bird’s nest or huitlacoche.
But that’s not the world we live in, the one where old French guys in sabots and charmingly worn-out tweeds patiently massage the necks of prized geese in a dirt farmyard. Anybody been to Paris in the last decade? The restaurant food most French people eat is as industrialized as anywhere else in the modern world, with heavy doses of Burger King and cornstarch-shiny Chinese. And anyway, marrying 14-year-old girls is a cultural legacy, too, but thankfully, we've evolved.
MEAT IS MURKY
Face it, we live in a world of troubled meat, where production is constantly under pressure to scale up. The old French guy has become an underpaid worker from Mexico, and foie gras—even though it’s harvested on a small scale in the U.S., even smaller in California—isn’t from the family farmyard.
Can it be grown and harvested using more humane, more ethical methods? Of course—though sadly for foie fans, the Coalition for Humane and Ethical Farming Standards seems to have waited too long to lobby that point. In a roundup of opinion yesterday on EcoSalon, Vanessa Barrington quoted Charlie Hallowell, chef and owner of Pizzaiolo in Oakland. “It’s a cheap and easy target for animal rights activists. We should f*cking ban McDonald's!”
Yeah, Charlie, we should absolutely talk about fucking banning McDonald's, or at least its worst, most toxic, most tragically inhumane practices. But just because Big Meat, or fast food, or high-fructose corn syrup is all bad, that’s no reason not to go after something that’s bad in a different way. That’s like saying, well, bullying kids to the point of suicide is bad, but since inmate treatment in the California prison system is also heinous but happens on a massive scale, we shouldn’t worry about bullies right now. That’s a nihilist argument thrown up to distract.
WHAT'S SO BAD ABOUT BEING GOOD?
As imperfect as it is, as many issues as it will raise about black markets and lost livelihoods, the foie gras ban is based in an effort to do something good: alleviate the suffering of animals, even a handful of them. Sure, those same animals will be slaughtered for meat and enter the food system, but that’s no reason not to curb a practice that sparks even a little twinge of empathetic revulsion for many of us, maybe even most of us. Talk all you want about the lack of gag reflexes, or how some ducks have been known to gorge themselves naturally, or slippery slopes for animal activists who want to eventually outlaw all meat—I say bullshit. It’s only human to feel—to know it instinctively—that force-feeding is wrong. I’m saying this as someone who eats meat every day of my life, and not just meat that’s had a decent amount of space to move around in before it was dragged off to slaughter. I want meat to be more humane, across the board. I'm willing to accept a small step, like banning foie gras, to get there.
And chefs—I’m talking to you now, as somebody who used to be one of you—aren’t you striving, every day, to cook from the deepest part of your humanity? Isn’t your food the thing that gives you the deepest connection to the world? Isn’t cooking a constant process of evolution, of becoming more enlightened?
The fact that politicians, most of whom had probably never thought about foie gras, or had the slightest understanding of its place in culture, pulled the plug has made a lot of people cynical. Jesus, it makes me—a dude whose gay marriage is a dodgeball for politicians to nail each other with when it's expedient—cynical. But that doesn’t mean that political opportunism, or grandstanding, or taking an easy position against a luxury food with a small constituency, can’t coincide with doing the right thing. If that means Thomas Keller has to find something else to charm or seduce his guests with the way foie gras has, how can that be bad?