Megnut

Foie love: A level field

Amidst the righteous PETA bluster attending foie gras legislation and the earnest journalists trying their balanced best to cover the issue and the misslonelyhearts marching outside Union Square Café (a business that's an emblem of quality and excellence in the culture of American restaurants), indignant foodies railing, committed gourmands wailing, and the food terrorists harassing chefs--well, it's actually relatively quiet now, so I thought it a perfect opportunity to cut right to the core of the issue. The fat liver itself. Which no one seems to talk about anymore.

Foie gras is a marvel and a wonder. If I'd had some left over fresh a few moments ago, I'd have diced it and sprinkled it over my gently scrambling eggs (or should I call them unborn chickens?). That would be a treat on a Wednesday morning! Foie in farm fresh eggs. Almost reason enough to open a bottle of Schramsberg blanc de blanc to go with it (but that would kill the day, wouldn't it ((not necessarily a bad thing!))?).

What's the great fact about foie gras for American home cooks? It's this: that what's available to you is the exact same thing that's available to the country's best chefs. This is a rare circumstance. The caviar that Eric Ripert gets you and I can't get, don't even think about it (and he sends half his back at the delivery door, and you couldn't even get that). Not available to you and me, wouldn't be even if we were rich as Bloomberg. The truffles and fingerling potatoes Joel Robuchon can send to his Vegas outpost--you and I can't have it. Gotta head to Vegas and pay through the nose (entirely worth it, surely, but a nose is a nose). The lamb Grant Achatz lovingly heats sous vide, fragrant with the smells of the carefully grown alfalfa raised and cut and stored by Keith Martin in Pennsylvania--gotta go to Chicago for that.

But foie gras, here the playing field between the chef and the home cook is leveled. There are four growers in the United States, and you can buy from the same one most chefs do, Hudson Valley Foie Gras. Daniel Boulud's A foie is going to be of the same quality as the A foie you order. Yes, he's going to pay a little less because his volume is greater, but even so, and even though it's considered a luxury item at restaurants, it's not really more expensive for the home cook having a dinner party, say, than a beef tenderloin. An A foie, will serve ten healthy portions and it will cost about a hundred bucks with shipping. Ten bucks a head, which, if you're one to go all out for your guests or you're having a special party, is not out of control. And it's a very cool thing to offer your guests, if you run with that kind of crowd.

Moreover, foie gras is one of the easiest things in the world to cook, one of those the-less-done-to-it-the-better food items. Salt the whole thing, put it in a hot pan to give the top a beautiful golden brown, flip it, drop some thyme and garlic in the pan and pop it in a hot oven for ten minutes, basting once or twice with the copious fat that renders. Slice at the table. Or slice it an inch thick, pluck out any large dark veins, salt it, and briefly cook in a really hot pan on either side till you have a nice crust (you'll need a good exhaust system for saute, not a method for the unventilated fifth floor studio walk up).

Or for something truly amazing, the foie-iest foie of all, spread out the lobes, remove the veins, give it a healthy sprinkle of salt and some white pepper and some pink salt if you have some, pour some milk on it to help leach out any residual blood and refrigerate overnight. Then rinse it roll it into a cylinder in cheesecloth and poach it for a couple minutes, just so it all melts together inside. Chill, unroll, slice an inch thick and serve with something sweet and acidic and some good bread and Champagne. That is a luxury beyond luxuries, and available to you, home cook. (This preparation has the fancy name torchon with the unfancy translation dish towel--really all you need for this preparation: a dishtowel to roll it in.)

Foie gras can be roasted first, then pressed into a terrine mold and chilled, maybe layered somehow with a fruit that goes well with it, mango or quince. Slice and serve it cold. Poach it in wine. There are so many wonderful thing you can do with foie gras, so easily, there's so much fun to be done, so much pleasure to give to your closest friends, it saddens me that we've lost sight of the foie itself amidst all the noise.

There's nothing else like it in the culinary world. It's a gift. We need to protect it or we'll lose it.

There are 58 responses

Thank you Michael, for providing me with some morning wood. Your lush descriptions of foie gras classics read like Penthouse Letters. You're going down with the ship on this issue, aren't you? Got your square farmboy jaws clamped down on this issue like a junkyard dog. Don't have enough enemies..angry letters, anemic Birkenstock mafiosi
screaming "Fleshmonger!" at you at the Kwik-E Mart? I admire you, Ruhlman. I really do.
My only suggestion is you take a look at the wacked out typeface/punctuation problems emanating from whatever stolen keyboard you're working with --from whatever dial-up, backwoods work station you're posting from. They are DEFINITELY gonna find that backyard meth lab if you keep filing such sloppy looking chicken scratches.

Tony, I'm not making an issue of it, I just like to cook it. There is no issue as far as I'm concerned. If the animal welfare folks were really serious about helping animals, they'd make a model of the foie gras farmer show him to be an emblem of humane agricultural practice, and force the Smithfield company to practice the same with its hogs.

The first time I ate foie was at Emeril's restaurant in Orlando. It was crisp on the outside with a melting quality within that was not unlike the bone marrow I ate while growing up. (Who knew *that* would become a gourmet item?)

I wanted to share the foie experience with my husband-to-be so ordered a lobe from Hudson Valley. It was about $40 a lb then, and I could barely afford that, but the lovely people there made sure that my lobe weighed exactly 1 lb, no more.

My first saute was a bit overcooked, but it was still delicious. And I was happy to find that foie freezes really well (probably heresy, but two people can't eat a pound of foie very quickly without it losing some of its specialness). I used every last morsel of that lobe, the last bits of which went into a savory bread pudding with pumpkin puree. Heaven!

I'm grateful to have been able to buy foie and cook with it in my tiny home kitchen, and I hope that ability isn't taken from me in the future.

I think you raise a really interesting point, Michael, that I hadn't considered before. The idea of being able to procure the same thing as a high-end kitchen is really something, alas something I don't think animal rights activists have much sympathy with. I'm not sure if they care if we can emulate Keller in our home kitchens, though I certainly do.

I read that monkfish liver has a similar quality to foie gras. (Wait! Did I read that in "Reach" in the Masa section? If so, perhaps you can expand on its similarities here?) If the day comes when they pry the foie from our cold dead fingers, we can start eating monkfish liver.

And I for one am happy to see you keep up the fight on this issue. Someone has to. It seems like everyone else has rolled over and given up already. Also, screwy punctuation has been cleaned up.

Ruhlman..These days, unfortunately, one "makes an issue of it" everytime one dares mention the "ingredient that shall not be named" lest one become a target. And you are on record as being both public provocateur and my own personal eminence gris on the foie "issue."
As you well know, I applaud you for it--and thoroughly enjoyed your celebration of foie's creamy, unctuous, sensual delights.

your pal, Ted Nugent

Meg, I've never cooked monkfish liver but from an eating standpoint, yes, it's got the same texture and luxurious richness to it; it's very tasty but you definitely know it's from a fish.

And I suspect, now that I think about it, that from a purchasing standpoint, it would be difficult for the home cook to procure high quality monkfish liver. And then there'd be the whole extraction issue. I don't see Whole Foods selling fresh monkfish liver lobes any time soon. ;)

I have never had foie gras (or any animal's liver for that matter). It's not a moral objection. The idea just gives me the willies and I've been unable to take the leap. But your description, Mr. Ruhlman, may make me rethink my caution, much like Meg's description of eating it at French Laundry.

Admittedly, I have always loved watching great chefs sear the slices oon TV and watching the magic fat render out. Plus, I am swayed by the idea of foie gras being the one item where the ingredient playing ground is even between chef and home cook, alike.

I appreciate you for keeping your passion about this issue. Though I am too ignorant to share it, I admire it any time one stands up for what they believe in their hearts to be true.

Meg, you're forgetting to mention the very difficult stage of gavage for the monkfish, which is especially tricky underwater, and involves all kinds of heinous instruments of torture (the reason for the current debate and calls for legislation to ban the sale of monkfish liver in Cleveland, a city regarded to be one of the seafood capitals of the world).

The point about a level playing field is a good one, though ironically it's hard for consumers to get the _lower_ grade foie gras that restaurants sometimes use (or call for in their cookbooks, like say The French Laundry Cookbook). I've never found a way, as a consumer, to get B or C foie. So if I wanted to emulate bacar's duck/foie-gras sausage, I'd have to pony up for the good stuff, when I'm sure they're using B or C.

I'm a resident of Chicago, where our absurd city council recently took the stupid step of banning foie gras, thanks to the clowns at PETA. I'd never had the stuff before, but the absurdity of this ban so incensed me that I determined I'd have some at the first opportunity. Which came in June at - of all places - Disney World in Florida. You might not think of Disney World when you think of gourmet food, but lemme tell ya, a meal at the California Grill, situated on top of their famous Contemporary Resort, will change your mind about that. One of the best meals I've ever had, and I started it off with a truly decadent dish of seared foie gras on a brioche French Toast with a honey ginger sauce. It was lovely. I'm not too skilled on describing such food so I can only say that it was like the foie was a big slab of butter on the brioche. Not something I'd want every day, but I can definitely see what all the fuss is about, why it's so loved by chefs. And I will definitely have it again. In fact, the thought of smuggling some into Chicago for the purpose of featuring it at a party for some friends has occurred to me. (Perhaps I'll serve it with bathtub gin and require a spoken password at a dark alley door for admittance...)

Monkfish gavage...the image is cracking me up. I picture someone in one of those old underwater diving outfits, (with the bell helmet and the hose running to the surface), struggling to hold a monkfish beneath one arm while ramming a feeding tube (also leading up to the surface, where henchman pour in the grain) down the fish's throat. Tricky indeed, and it would probably result in one very expensive liver!

$100? Not bad at all.

Richard Blais (another French Laundry and el bulli alum, if you're keeping score) created a foie gras milkshake here in Atlanta. Possibly the single greatest thing I've ever ingested. Unfortunately, the bastard left for Miami earlier this month...not that I'm bitter...or hungry.

Frozen "snow" of foie gras in a hot foie gras consomme at El Bulli.....
Foie gras poutine at Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal.....hand made fettucine tossed with butter and cubes of terrine de foie gras....

Torchon of foie gras in court bouillon, served from the emptied skulls of the Chicago City Council.....now THAT'S good eatin'!

I once had a foie gras crme brule as an appetizer at American Seasons on Nantucket. After our main courses, I asked the server if anyone had ever ordered it again for dessert, because I wanted to (I didn't go through with it). It was that delicious. She said no, no one had ever done that. I guess I really like foie gras.

Bourdain, welcome back. And I just bought your "Decoding Ferran Adria" DVD. That's some good TV.

Derrick - I once found grade B foie at one of the Made in France/Village Imports sales in Brisbane. Pretty sure they had C as well, although there's no guarantee they'll have the same stuff next time. If you're not familiar, they hold these sales about once a month to clear their warehouse of excess inventory of all kinds of imported goods. Check Pim and Sam's blogs (as well as many others) for some good descriptions and tips. Next event is in a week and half:
http://www.levillage.com/Page.bok?template=sfowevents

Oh, and if you ever do make the bacar sausage be sure to post about it. That stuff is fantastic.

You're just going to make me go to the Ferry Building and buy some aren't you.......

man, i just ate lunch and now you guys are making me hungry again!

i've always dreamed about making a foie gras sandwhich, but constructed like the liverwurst sandwiches my mom made me as a kid (yes, i loved liverwurst when i was 5).

it would be thick country bread a huge slab of foie, some lettuce, garden fresh slices of tomato & onion, coarse ground pepper and thick slabs of bacon, just to you know, send it over the top
oh, and a light schmear of mayo, yeah, that would go down just right .

thanks for reminding me that i can cook foie at home Msr. Ruhlman! (and thanks for making me laugh Meg, monkfish gavage... that's good stuff!)

Rory,

Thanks for the tip. I've never made it to one of the Made in France sales--somehow we're always busy--but I will keep an eye out.

I think it's a bit of a fallacy to suggest that the various groups lobbying against gavage are not lobbying to bring more humane standards to the rest of the industry. It's just that gavage is a practice that more immediately registers as inhumane - these animals are being force fed, by dry weight, an amount of food equal to roughly 50% of their (natural/wild bird) weight per day. To me that seems excessive.

Non-PETA organizations arguing against gavage also publish standards for the rest of the agriculture industry - it just happens that ending the sale of foie gras is a more amenable position for the average city councilman to take than ending the sale of bacon, as it affects a small minority of constituents who would seek out this food to begin with. The position of the animal welfare advocates is reasonably consistent - they'd like to see more humane standards applied across the board - the political reality is that a ban on foie gras is the most immediate of those humane standards that can be applied.

Apologies - the weight: gavage ratio is approximately 15%, not 50.

Admittedly, the first time I had it was at a dinner in Tony's honor at a popular restaurant here in Cleveland. I can't remember all the details about the dinner as there were a lot of courses and there was a lot of drinking but I remember this was something I really liked and made a mental note to have it if and when I could manage to. I remember coining the phrase "foodgasm" at that dinner.

Do any of you big minds know how to store foie if you aren't going to freeze it? Mine oxidizes in the refrigerator even if it's only there overnight. Texture gets all crumbly too. Any suggestions?...Also this was D'artagnan's "Medallions" which I think is the equivalent f a torchon--not lobes, no veins etc. Would it be better to buy the genuine article?

I was foie-phobic once upon a time, until a gifted chef cured me...foie gras with cumin caramel. Then foie with asparagus and baby onions. Then foie on the bottom of a demitasse cup, drowning in English pea purée, with a scallop. And foie with an oyster. Insanely good.

Unctuous. Velvety. Completely sexy.

Derrick...I'll see you at the Made in France sale in August!

"Unborn chickens"? You fonny, Michael Ruhlman.

What can I say. We were lucky enough to snag a prime time reservation last night at a moment's notice at the local brasserie where the best on offer was mousse de foie de vollaille. Were that I was not so inept as to advance planning, but then having traveled in the Perigord many summers ago when the dollar bought ten francs, I've begrudged no man his share of foie gras ever since, although I considered making an exception for Tony while watching his Montreal performance.

Of course my righteous streak is better stroked by disparging comments aimed at the hypocritical elements of the "the animal welfare folks," than by touting the obvious pleasures of foie gras. Is there a foodine out there who doesn't already know the pleasures of foie gras? If so, I guess you're doing a public service, but keep a few barbs on hand for the crazies.

Sorry, that's "foodie" not "foodine" back there. Let me just add that however one wants to look at gavage, I'm offended by attempts at anthropomorphism when it comes to water fowl. My esophagus isn't lined with with fibrous protein cells resembling bristles as is a duck's and I don't generally go around swallowing swallow grit and stones as a duck naturally does.

I'm rarely prepared to communicate at the saltier levels at which Michael and Tony banter, but I can also add that I've seen monkfish liver offered in the public markets of Brittany in France, Galicia in Spain and the Union Square fish market in NYC. The latter was a one time thing. I suspect it wasn't a big seller and that there was little inducement not to sell it directly to Japanese restaurants. I'm told it appeared on the menus of a non-Japanese restaurant in the city, but I can't remember where.

One of the best meals of my life ended with foie gras.

My wife had won a gift certificate to Pinot Hollywood (now eat.) at a charity auction, one big enough for four people. We showed up on a slow night, and I saw they had a chef's tasting menu. I was feeling daring, so I order up while everyone's getting lamb and chicken. The waiter comes back and says, "I'm sorry, but you can only do the tasting menu if everyone at the table has it." Crestfallen, I order something else but ask, please, please, please if the chef can make an exception...

And he did. And it was the kind of meal that made me understand every wanky adjective that food writers use.

Oysters on the half-shell. Black cod with chanterelles and spinach. Beef sparerib ravioli with horseradish froth. And Kobe beef and foie gras, served over mountain spinach.

Good gravy, but it was like meat-flavored butter. So smooth. So good. So worth it.

Screw those PETA bastards. You may have gotten your little ban in California, but remember: when foie gras is outlawed, only people who eat meat will be able to kick your joyless, seed paste-eating asses.

Pardon the pun, but is the current market for foie saturated,? Is it possible to expand the number of foie producers without affecting the quality? Are the existing producers looking to educate and train up new ones? I simply wonder whether people have become accustomed to the grim chimneystacks of the nearest industrial-grade-chicken factory while the foie producers are far away on either coast.

Here's a foie gras comic from a few years back from Tom the Dancing Bug.

In one of my all time favourite gastro stories Wife refused to eat foie until she visited Ginor's farm (Hudson Valley Foie). Once she saw the operation and compared it to just about all other protein farming in the US including Salmon she became an avid fan.
I desperately hope anyone reading from Chicago is doing all they can to vote whatever boob of a politician is responsible for this law out in a decidedly ugly landslide.

Foie gras on eggs? Is that controversial? Am I missing something??
I'm living in Italy. We eat everything...including raw pork sausage.

judith, everything food related in this neurotic country is controversial. i should move to italy.

and to a poster way up, foie does freeze well (as do most high fat items). keep it well wrapped and out of the light.

Thanks, Mr. Ruhlman--I am re-reading "Reach" because even after all the food books out this spring and summer yours is the best!

I've read your posts on foie gras and how good it tastes.

I'm not a vegan - I eat grass fed beef , pastured chicken, fish
and shrimp. I believe that homo sapiens biologically need the
B12 , protein , and minerals contained in these meats. I get
my beef and chicken from local Illinois farmers who truly practice animal
husbandry.

That being said, I don't think it's ok to ram a tube down
an animal's throat to force feed it.

I have to ask you this - how much suffering is ok
to inflict on an animal in order to eat something
purely for pleasure...

i don't think it's ever ok to cause anything to suffer. all that i've learned about ducks, duck physiology, and the obesrvations of journalists visiting the farm lead me to believe that the ducks do not suffer from responsible gavage.

Wonderful postings on foie gras lately, Michael. Your "rant" was right on target (besides giving me a good laugh), and this post made me think about my own evolution as a foie gras lover, inspiring today's post to my blog.

Bux - good point about our attempts in the US to anthropomorphise animals. Hum...think all the Disney movies are having an effect on that tendencies???

On all the bans - the thing that really gets me is the way that people have a tendency in the US to try to push their beliefs and values on everyone else. Politics, religion, "family values," and now food. I have absolutely no problem with someone deciding to be a vegetarian, a vegan, a fruititarian, or whatever else he or she chooses. What I have a problem is with these folks trying to tell me what I can eat. If I can manage it, I am moving out of California (hopefully out of the US entirely) before the foie gras ban goes into effect.

Lynda -

Do you object to peeople telling you you cant beat your dog? Even if you enjoy it?

Lynda - I have a nephew who wouldn't eat lobster after watching--what was it?--Captain Nemo and a niece who looked for the three legged lamb at the petting zoo after Easter dinner. Even reality comes in small doses.

Justin - I don't mind others offering their moral values and beliefs to me. I accept the fact that vegetarians may even hold the moral high ground. Slaughtering animals for food and profit, may not be humane, although the evidence seems to support the fact that humans are programmed to eat flesh by nature. I do however, object to being having the process of "gavage" described and explained to me as inhumane. by those who have never been near a foie gras farm, battery raised poultry factory or feed lot. Ruhlman used the term "responsible gavage." From what I know and believe based on the research I've done, it's most likely that ducks slated to grow foies gras are far, far less likely to suffer at the hands of those raising them, then are the battery chicks destined to produce cheap and low grade supermarket protein. It's difficult to carry on a rational and civil discussion unless we post from an unbiased and educated perspective free of emotional baggage.

I actually came back here to talk of monk fish liver. I also recall having a tartine (open faced sandwich) of foie de lotte in snack bar in Paris. The product was canned, and I think it was of Danish origin. Now it seems the French are canning (or jarring) monkfish liver. http://www.foie-de-lotte.com/ The label is bilingual, which offers hope we may find it here in the U.S., although I don't recall the sandwich spread pate offering much of the joy afforded by an order of "ankimo" at my local Japanese restaurant, any more than canned pate de foie gras substitutes well for fresh foie gras outside a sandwich. Best sandwich of pate de foie gras I ever had was made with pate, caramelized onions and chocolate spread on a crusty baguette.

Justin -

Personally, I think that there is a big difference between animals raised as food and animals raised as pets, and the laws do (and should) reflect that.

I believe that animals raised for food should be treated as humanely as possible. However, I enjoy eating meat and I do not consider food the same as pets. Obviously, you feel differently, and I respect your right to that opinion. However, perhaps in the future you might consider offering a reasonable argument in support of your position, rather than a silly inflammatory remark.

Call it silly or inflammatory - I think my point stands. There's a double standard for animals that makes no sense. Does the dog feel less? Does it matter less?

It's hard for me to take articles like this seriously when I read statements like this:

"Screw those PETA bastards. You may have gotten your little ban in California, but remember: when foie gras is outlawed, only people who eat meat will be able to kick your joyless, seed paste-eating asses."

I can't think of a more bourgeois, silly thing to scream about that the lack of engorged duck liver in your diet. This is no different than P Diddy whining about the cost of filling up his Hummer, or Paris Hilton lamenting the cost of diamonds for her Sidekick. I know that for a lot of the first world, meat is a major part of people’s diets, but you’ll excuse me if I find the righteous indignation on this subject a tad childish. I'm all for life’s little luxuries and having fun when I eat, but when something is captured, held captive and killed for your fun, I think it deserves a second thought.

"... when something is captured, held captive and killed for your fun, I think it deserves a second thought."

I see your argument against gavage as coming from a moralist vegetarian viewpoint. It appears you find foie gras an easier target than boneless breasts from battery chickens. I'm not sure how your comment quoted above relates to this discussion or to animal husbandry as it is practiced in first or third world countries. I do not suspect you would be any happier with the practices of earlier hunter societies. All I can say at this point, is that arguments in favor of banning the sale of meat make as much sense as those banning foie gras.

I dont think its a matter of fois gras being an easier target - it was simply the subject of the post. I can find just as many reasons to protest chicken, probably more.

As for the practices of the third world, I think that people feeding themselves to survive is a far cry from a bunch of mid - upper class people complaining about a luxury food item.

BTW - the table of condiments from the previous post has some inaccuracies, e.g. vegemite lasts not 2 months but 2+ years (due to high salt content). Although any respectful Australian will finish the jar well before it's expiry date...

I -do- believe that the bans on foie gras are being enacted because PETA activists have chosen an easy target, not because they represent the worst and most inhumane meat-producing practices.

The fact that foie gras is not overwhelmingly popular in this country, and is percieved as a luxury item, means that few ordinary citizens of the US will protest the ban of it.

In reality, responsible gavage-and there is such a thing-is among the least inhumane practices in modern meat production. I am speaking from having done intense research on the issue, and from knowing what I know of the physiology of ducks and geese from my time growing up on my grandparents' farm. Their esophogi are not physiologically comparable to those of a human being; ours are soft and filled with eaily damaged tissue, while theirs are hard, in large part because they are meant to swallow gravel and grit in order to grind up the food that they eat. They evolved in this way because they have no teeth, and thus no way to chew their food.

Most PETA activists whom I have come across know little to nothing realistic about animal behavior, physiology and anatomy. They also have very little experience with real animals in any sort of long term way. Instead, they replace this experience and knowledge with emotional, anthropomorphized beliefs, resulting in rhetoric meant to appeal to city-dwellers' similarly limited, emotional views of animals which are drawn from popular media, such as Disney cartoons and films.

In doing so, Americans are making purely emotional decisions, based upon very little actual experience.

If PETA really wanted to make a difference, they would go after CAFO's (concentrated animal feeding operations) that are a much greater source of animal suffering and, not inconsequentially, human health issues and environmental issues, instead of picking up on foie gras producers.

But, of course, if they did that, they would have fewer emotional supporters among the rank and file American consumers, because the result would be higher meat prices in the grocery store and the end of the cheap McDonald's Happy Meal.

And, as we all know, we cannot have -that-.

Thank you for your commentary, Mr. Ruhlman, and Mr. Bourdain--I am pleased to see you have come safely back from Lebanon, though I am very sad that you did not get to see the country at its most beautiful and show it to the world.

mmmmm...ankimo (monkfish liver) is wonderful-lightly steamed, served with ponzu sauce, or wrapped in toasted nori with a bit of sushi rice...of course, now the monkfish is on the list of overfished species :(

I just wanted to comment on some of the issues brought up. First, a little about me to expose any potential biases I may have. I am a senior veterinary student, I eat meat from all species (though I try to eat humanely raised meat), I do not support PETA, and I do not eat foie gras or veal.

"Responsible gavage" is somewhat of an oxymoron, since the entire point of gavage is to induce disease. The fact that many species of birds swallow rocks to grind their food does not make it natural to force a tube down their esophagus. Putting that aside, the fact remains that foie gras involves inducing chronic end-stage liver disease. If these birds weren't slaughtered they would die of liver failure anyways. That is not "responsible" animal care.

Anyone who thinks PETA has taken aim at foie gras while ignoring other factory farming issues obviously knows close to nothing about PETA.

That there exist other factory farming practices which are worse (more inhumane) than gavage is in no way a logical argument that gavage is an acceptable practice. I'm sure you won't find people who object to foie gras and veal crates but accept feedlots and battery cages.

Chickens raised for meat are not kept in battery cages. Lack of exercise causes muscle atrophy, so there is very little meat in battery caged hens. That is strictly an egg-production practice.

I accept that animals must die in order for me to eat them. But there really is no reason that the animals can't live a reasonably happy and healthy life up to the point of slaughter. Unfortunately, foie gras is by definition a diseased liver.

I can't believe all the fuss back home over what is one of my favorite foods. One of my most memorable meals of all time was a plate of seared foie and cepes at La Tupina in Bordeaux, and I'm actually more of a cheeseburger kinda guy.

Ten servings of A foie for $100 (especially for a home cook) sounds like a great bargain... I'm in Japan now and it runs 3-4 times that here, albeit imported from France.

steve,

thanks for your very smart and balanced post. could you, as a veterinary student, explain your comment about the fat liver being diseased. What defines diseased? Could you also address if possible why ducks preparing for migration would gorge themselves (fattening their livers in the process)--this appears to be how foie gras was discovered in the first place, I beleive by the Egyptians--and if this too constitutes disease.

if there is a potentially valid argument against gavage, this is it, though I'd to know more about the definition of disease and it's impact on the duck.

Michael, thanks for responding. I can never tell how unbiased I am being when I "rant".

Webster defines disease as "a condition of the living animal or plant body or of one of its parts that impairs normal functioning and is typically manifested by distinguishing signs and symptoms." In the case of foie gras, the condition is hepatic lipidosis, which literally means fatty infiltration of the liver. One of the many functions of the liver is to take circulating triglycerides (fats) and break them down into fatty acids which can be used by body cells for energy (there are three fatty acids per triglyceride). When the liver is overwhelmed by a constant influx of fats, it is unable to process them quickly enough and so they build up in liver cells. The liver is not a normal storage organ for fat, and as the fat builds up it impairs the normal function of the liver.

Among domestic animals, hepatic lipidosis is also a common disease in cats and cows. I've actually wondered whether the liver from a cow with hepatic lipidosis would be tastier (but I'm weird...). Ironically, in cats, one of the important steps in reversing this process is to force feed them by esophageal tube if necessary.

Regarding fatty liver in pre-migratory ducks, I have to admit I am shooting from the hip. I know little about the physiology of migrating birds. I do know that they gorge themselves because the amount of energy required to fly migratory distances is enormous. Some degree of fatty liver must occur, but a migrating bird must also strike a balance between energy storage and excess weight. A quick wikipedia search reveals that 96% of foie gras is produced by the Mulard duck, a sterile cross between the Muscovy duck and the Mallard duck (the "mule" of the duck world). The Muscovy is a non-migratory bird, and some populations of Mallards are sedentary while others are migratory. So the likelihood that we are exploiting a wonderful natural migratory adaptation of the Mulard is rather slim. Besides, if we approach this logically, we would see that the "natural" way to exploit this would be to simply provide them with big piles of food and let them gorge themselves, rather than force feeding them.

Besides, if we approach this logically, we would see that the "natural" way to exploit this would be to simply provide them with big piles of food and let them gorge themselves, rather than force feeding them.

Hmm, this is interesting. Lots of gavagers (not sure of the proper term for people who administer gavage) have been quoted as saying that the ducks approach them for food. If this is true, it would follow that one could do as you suggest and simply leave a big mound of food for the ducks to pig out. Does anyone know why this isn't done? Or if it has been tried, why it didn't work?

Thanks for the follow-up info Steve, very interesting.

Thanks Michael for asking the big questions that were on my mind. I feel a little self conscious stepping in too often in this thread in spite of the fact, or possible because, it's a subject I feel strongly about. Thanks Steve for both your initial post as a senior veterinary student, and perhaps more so for the qualifying statement of shooting from the hip as well as the very valid additional scientific and medical information in your follow up post.

I'm not sure about the logic of letting domestic fowl naturally gorge themselves. The point of gavage is to increase the extent of liver development, a term I find more neutral than liver disease, and perhaps no less accurate, though we all have our baggage. I've read that a waterfowl's enlarged liver will eventually return to normal size if gavage is stopped, and that this is true right up to the point of slaughter in terms of otherwise healthy birds. Producers, such as Hudson Farms and Sonoma Farms are not selling the products of diseased birds. As for exploitation of animals, I believe all livestock destined for our table are "exploited," simply by the fact we intend to eat them. Few livestock in the U.S. are fed in a manner that comes near approaching how the animals, poultry or mammal, might feed in nature. (Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma is a must read.) Another point well taken is that mules and moulard ducks are not a natural occurrence, nor are the many hybrids, flora and fauna, produced for our food. The unnatural interferrence of man has long been cherished in animal husbandry and agriculture. Perhaps too much so, but it's very difficult to establish where to draw the line. At the moment, I'm disinclined to argue about what an unnatural bird might do in nature.

There is a movement afoot to consider the production of enlarged livers that would result from encouraging the over feeding ducks without gavage. My understanding is that the somewhat enlarged livers do not come close to equalling the taste and texture of foie gras.

Megnut - I've read that geese will eagerly come running to the artisanal farmer with the tube affixed to a rotary device that "pumps" the feed down their esophagus and geese naturally shy away from humans. I'm not sure if this applies, or applies to the same extent, to ducks, which are the principle source of foie gras raised in North America. I suspect not, but I've not read much about that either way.

To follow up on Bux's commentary (and he could probably predict I would say this).


Geese running to the feeders: There is quite a bit of anecdotal and scientific evidence to support this. There's a study by Faure that demonstrates the difference neatly.

Ducks running to the feeders: There is very little anecdotal or scientific evidence to support this. I posed the question to the ranch manager at Sonoma Foie Gras, and he says they don't. There's an old quote from Michael Ginor that they do, but I suspect it's a misquote, as he doesn't mention it in his foie gras book, not even in the lengthy subsection on animal welfare.

As he points out, ducks dominate the production, not just here but throughout the world, which flipped from something like 90% geese/10% Muscovy duck to 80% Mulard/20% geese in just three decades. (Mulards are much better suited to the "large-scale" and annual production)

Bux, I was intrigued by your mention of waterfowls' livers returning to normal when gavage is stopped. This suggests that someone has actually studied it, so I went a-surfin' the internet (Google Scholar is a lovely resource) and found a 1998 report entitled: Report of the Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare on Welfare Aspects of the Production of Foie Gras in Ducks and Geese. Of particular interest to me was a section in the middle in which three questions are addressed:

1. Is fat liver a deviation from normality?
2. Is the condition reversible?
3. Is reversibility a factor that renders the condition non pathological? ("pathological" in medical terminology is roughly equivalent to "diseased" in lay terminology)

The conclusions are as follows:

1. "This shows that the hepatic steatosis induced in ducks during force feeding results in impaired hepatocellular function." (steatosis = lipidosis = fat accumulation) (hepatocellular = liver)

2. "Plasma biochemistry studies were corroborated by a study of hepatic histology which showed that the observed liver steatosis regressed when force feeding was stopped so that, 4 weeks later, the hepatic cells no longer showed any sign of excess lipids." (I therefore retract my previous statement that these birds would die of liver failure anyways.)

3. "Hence it appears that the level of steatosis normally found at the end of force feeding would not be sustainable for many of the birds. For this reason, and because normal liver function is seriously impaired in birds with the hypertrophied liver which occurs at the end of force feeding this level of steatosis should be considered pathological."

The explanation for answer 3 is that if birds are maintained at the level of fatty liver found at the end of gavage (as opposed to stopping the feeding) they die. This is confirmed by the rapid increase in mortality at foie gras farms when gavage is continued longer than normal. It is also notable that "several [pathologists] pointed out that some degree of steatosis can occur in healthy animals at certain times of life but they considered that the degree of steatosis at the end of force feeding was much more severe than any naturally occurring steatosis."

Of course, SCAHAW is a committee of the European Union, and I do not know if US practices are similar to European ones. I also do not know if foie gras production practices have changed significantly since 1998. But hopefully this report helps to shed light on whether the level of fatty liver found in foie gras can be considered "disease" (my conclusion is yes). I also apologize for my earlier use of the word "exploit". In no way did I mean to convey a negative connotation. I am totally ok with the use (which some would call exploitation) of animals for meat, fiber, and to some degree, labor.

Steve,

I have a lot of issues with the EU report (lots of bias in the supposedly objective text). However, I know that US practices are equivalent to some European operations and better than most. As I'm sure you noticed, the EU report saved its worst commentary for caged foie gras birds. None of the US producers use battery cages, and I'm pretty sure none of the Canadian ones do, either.

The EU has banned the use of battery cages for the purposes of foie gras, but the ban hasn't fully kicked in yet. There's some grandfathering for a while (maybe this year), and then the expectation that they'll all be converted by--2010? I used to have these numbers more ready to hand.

As per the disease issue, it's ambiguous enough that you can find some veterinarians and physiologists who say yes, for sure, while you can find others who say, absolutely not. Most of the ones who say yes have ties to animal rights groups, and most of the ones who say no receive funding from agribusiness. So it's hard to take any of them seriously.

Good to see Derrick's comments here as he's written some of the least baggage loaded posts and articles I've read on the subject and seems to have approached the subject with with great skepticism of both sides. EU bureaucrats often seem to vote the vested interests of lobbies in their respective countries. Derrick's opinion on this subject is one that's likely to more neutral, as well as the product of more research and personal investigation, than mine.

I don't quite fully follow the reasoning behind Steve's explanation of conclusion #3. For a process to be cruel, it must be inherently cruel as practiced and not potentially cruel if carried to excess, at least in my opinion.

Good points all around. It is certainly true that one can find veterinarians on both sides of the issue. The American Veterinary Medical Association has openly refused to take a stance either for or against the production of foie gras. Derrick, I generally ignored the sections in the EU report regarding handling and housing, since my concerns are primarily about whether foie gras constitutes disease. Housing and handling can always be improved (as evidenced by the existence of humanely produced eggs and veal).

Bux, I tend to be somewhat utilitarian in my sense of moral right or wrong. What matters is the end result, not an inherent property of an act. One could knowingly feed peanuts to a person who is allergic to them, and the end result is that they have a severe reaction. That act is obviously cruel, though nobody would claim that feeding peanuts is inherently cruel. We gavage ducks with the full knowledge of what it does to them (in fact that is our goal), and my argument is that the practice is carried to excess (liver function is impaired and ducks at slaughter are only a few gavage-days from death). Death is the endpoint of cruelty, not its beginning.

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