Consider foie gras
Publication: The Guardian
It's the most divisive issue in gastronomy. Where do you stand on the production, and consumption, of foie gras?
Foie gras, then. The most divisive delicacy in gastronomy. No doubt you have a view already, but it's worth recapping the notorious facts. At about 12 weeks old the birds are force-fed two or three times a day by means of a pipe or funnel down the throat. The "gavage", as this procedure is known, is far more than the bird's metabolism can cope with, and the creature's liver swiftly develops elevated levels of triglycerides and swells by up to eight times its normal size in a disease called steatosis, the same affliction suffered by many lifelong alcoholics. The wretched animal exists thus, in relentless and mounting pain, for around three weeks before it's finally dispatched and its liver harvested.
Foie gras is objectively, indisputably cruel. What a tragedy, then, that it should be so delicious, with an incomparable interplay of sweet and fat, the semi-solid and semi-liquid, the smooth, buttery earthiness and the velvet blush of offal. For many who love food, it has a kind of beauty, even though that beauty was wrought from agony.
If foie gras were invented today, we would ban it. But humans have been force-feeding geese for 5,000 years. The practice seems to have begun in Egypt, where people noticed that geese prepared for their long summer migration by overfeeding. The practice spread to Greece: in 400BC the king of Sparta received a gift of fattened geese from Egypt. The Romans, too, were fond of it, and marched Gaulish geese to Rome to plump them on figs mashed with oil. They called the resulting product iecur ficatum, fig liver. That most dissolute of emperors, Elagabalus, fed foie gras to his dogs: his subjects evidently disapproved of such excess, as testified by his ignominious end.
The French, predictably, carried on making it after Rome fell, eventually calling iecur ficatum simply ficatum, or fig. Ficatum had become figido by the eighth century, then warped into fedie and feie before finally reaching foie in modern French. By the 17th century, foie gras had assumed its role in gastronomy, and pâtés and mousses emerged.
French culture has grappled foie gras to its soul. But today every serious animal charity now calls for a ban on foie gras or otherwise condemns it: PETA, the Humane Society of the United States, the Animal Defence League, the RSPCA, and the ASPCA. No less a body than the EU's Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare concluded after a thorough investigation in 1998 (pdf) that "force feeding, as currently practised, is detrimental to the welfare of the birds". Ducks and geese, the study noted, generally waddle over to the person who feeds them; birds undergoing gavage will try to avoid their force-feeder. Even when they are so bloated they can no longer walk, or from within the straitjacket cages involved in industrial production, they will try to turn their heads from the pipe.
Trish Deseine, one of France's leading food writers told me:
"The French will never stop eating foie gras. But I had to give it up after visiting a Périgord farm a few years ago. The gavage took place in dark, stinking outhouses, and after it, the birds sat down panting. It was prolonged, crescendoing agony for them."
A number of countries, including Argentina, Turkey and Israel, have banned foie gras. Its production is also forbidden in those EU states with no history of making it: a meaningless and hypocritical non-rule. Arnold Schwarzenegger outlawed production in California in 2004 in a cheap scrap of bread and circuses politics – his state had only one producer – and Chicago prohibited the sale of foie gras in its restaurants between 2006 and 2008, the mayor commenting that this brief ban was "the silliest thing they [the city council] have ever done". The French have responded to this global bloat of negative opinion with characteristic tact and empathy, enshrining foie gras's place in law and stating that the livers are part of their "cultural and gastronomic heritage".
By contrast, the foie gras industry insists that geese and ducks have no gag reflex, that birds will even queue up for force-feeding. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall claims to have witnessed this latter phenomenon (Meat, p195), and argues that "The real ethical problem with foie gras ... is the inevitable industrialisation of the process."
Some 87% of foie gras ducks are housed in individual cages (2003 figures), and life in a cage is presumably more miserable and brutish than one afforded freedom of movement. But the fact of gavage is the same for both, the final product extremely similar, so it seems to me a neat piece of casuistry to deem foie gras ethically sound – or "not excessively cruel" in Fearnley-Whittingstall's phrase – as long as it's "free-range".
There is a seasonal product, more deserving of the label "ethical" foie gras, that relies on the birds' natural overfeeding. It has received bothrapturous coverage (video) and an award from the French. But it's even more expensive than the traditional product, and in fact can never be classified as "true" foie gras, which is defined in both French law and by thousands of years of tradition as a liver enlarged by gavage.
All meat, from kobe beef to the paltry poultry of the broiler farms, has been reared for slaughter and will have suffered to some degree. Suffering is by its nature abhorrent, but the orgiastic misery of industrially reared meat (6bn caged chickens are slaughtered in the US alone every year) far outweighs the 24,000 or so tonnes of foie gras produced globally in that period.
Notwithstanding the still-growing sales of free-range meat, for the majority of meat-eaters their needs are more important than the animal's suffering, and it is the most cowardly doublethink to enjoy foie gras while denying its cruelty. To my mind, the only approach that retains a shred of integrity is to admit with ruthless candour: I eat this because my pursuit of pleasure trumps the wellbeing, comfort and rights, such as they are, of this animal.
Foie gras works best with something sweet and sharp such as chutney, and it goes beautifully with figs, cherries and oranges. There's real skill to cooking the fresh livers: the instant between raw and puddled teeters between seconds. Smart restaurants rightly tend to treat the liver with minimal faff, perhaps serving it with something bready for crunch, a few vegetables for lift and a bit of gentle seasoning. I got a superb lump ofBelgian entier from Harrods. We had it with brioche, a little Sauternes jelly and a few crystals of salt: the universe holds few more palatable things. As the fat cloaked and puddled over the tongue, the sweetness of the bread danced with the richness of the liver and the sharp jelly wobbled and split, it was very, very hard to remember the suffering that lay behind it. And there, of course, is the rub.
The foie gras debate is among the most intransigent in food. There is no lasting solution; a global ban on foie gras – probably impossible – would open up a black market. My own position on the matter is logically indefensible. Deseine's stance is sounder. "Like a lot of people," she says, "I care about the way my meat is raised. Refusing to eat foie gras is just a matter of consistency." To eat this food is somehow to be implicated in its cruelty, and that can be pretty hard to swallow.
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