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.

58 thoughts on “Foie love: A level field

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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)

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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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