Foie: One chef’s response

When I first spent time at the CIA, one course I took was taught by a woman named Eve Felder. I wrote about the class, and her, and by the time I returned to the CIA she'd become one of the academic deans. Eve, a former Chez Panisse chef, is probably the most humane-minded chef I've ever met. The depth of her care for students, for chefs, for our food, for cooking and for the earth seemed to me then and now to be boundless.

So I asked her where she stood on the foie gras issue, and here's what she emailed back:

Thanks, Michael. No, I do not have an issue with foie gras. My philosophy in most everything is that one has to experience what another person (or animal) is experiencing prior to making an informed judgement.

When I was a young chef, I spent about a week on a foie gras farm in the Dordogne valley in France. I spent days force feeding ducks.

The experience I had in France is that they fed the ducks a warm mash of corn, water and duck fat that was administered through a funnel.

The funnel had a wire in it that helped to expedite the mash from the sides and through the tube. The wire moved when you pressed a peddle with your foot. Sort of like a sewing machine.

I sat in a comfortable small straw lined corral with 6 ducks in 6 corrals on a small stool. The warm mash was poured into the funnel. I held the duck under one of my legs and extended its' neck upwards and gently opened its' mouth and inserted the tube to about the top of the chest. As I pressed the machine with my foot, I gently pulled the funnel up until the bird's throat was filled with mash.The funnel moved across
the ceiling from corral to corral.

It was an extremely gentle and intimate experience. The animal does not have a gag reflex. They always waddled away perfectly happy and full and ready for a nap.

As you know, I'm sure, ducks naturally gorge prior to migration. They are genetically programmed to make sure they are full for their ultimate flight. People who are taking issue with this have attacked a very small artisinal industry that is easy to target. I am actually heartsick that they have made such inroads. What will be next?

16 thoughts on “Foie: One chef’s response

  1. If the anti-foie activists have a problem with this, they should never see how I give my cat his antibiotic drops.

  2. I really appreciate this post. I think it makes a much more convincing argument than the “foie gras is really good and anyone who doesn’t get it is an idiot” attitude I’ve heard/read from some foodies (not necessarily from you, Michael). I think the bans are silly but I also think the intense anger about the bans is a bit silly as well. Considering all the horrors in today’s world, I have a hard time getting too incensed about whether or not I can eat fat duck liver…..even if it’s really damn good duck liver!

  3. Great post, Michael. I have a nearly identical story from one of my former chef-instructors at Kendall College in Chicago (who strangely enough also went on to be Dean!). He spent some time on a goose “foie farm” and was able to do some of the feeding himself. He said that the geese appeared eager to eat when he came into the pen and took hold of the funnel–some of them even walking toward him with heads tilted back, ready to be fed. It’s nice to have a “legitimate source” like your post to which I can point people when they question my own anecdote. Thanks!

  4. This post makes me think that what upsets the anti-foie contingent most is the notion of “force feeding.” In reality, they’ve anthropomorphisized geese and ducks, bestowing unto them a characteristic not possessed by beasts – free will. From Eve’s (and other) descriptions, I sense no force, and no trauma.
    These birds actually have it far better than a lot of humans.

  5. It strikes me that the parallel with pre-migration gorging is slightly disingenuous. The rate of feeding in foie gras is such that (were the bird not slaughtered) the liver would eventually shut down entirely and become diseased. I suspect this is not the case with gorging prior to migration. It strikes me that there are substantial differences between the birds’ state and level of comfort between natural feeding and gavage. Anyone qualified to comment?

  6. Wait. The ducks were fed…duck fat? Now, that’s kinda creepy and self-immolative. Isn’t that the cause of BSE in cows…eating matter from their own kind? Soylent green is people!

  7. Agreed, the “gentle” description glosses over the forced cannibalism.
    I had no problem with this FG issue until I read that. I wouldn’t eat an animal that has been forced into cannibalism, for karmic and health issues.

  8. Great post, Michael. I believe there have been studies which compared the levels of corticosterone (an indicator of stress) in geese undergoing gavage with geese simply given free choice food and water. There was no significant difference between the two populations.
    Of course, as you know from my comments on your previous entry regarding foie gras, my issue is whether or not we are causing significant liver disease in these birds. My conclusion is yes, but as another reader pointed out in the same comments, one can find veterinarians on both sides of the fence (the American Veterinary Medical Association refuses to take a stance). I tend to err on the side of caution, and given the lack of scientific evidence that these birds’ livers are functioning normally (though I am aware of only two studies which show that liver function is impaired), I choose not to eat foie gras.
    I also find this whole debate rather silly. If foie gras were banned around the world, the amount of animal suffering it would relieve is fairly trivial compared to what occurs in factory farming on a national (if not global) level. The amount of good that Temple Grandin has done by working with national livestock organizations and slaughterhouses rather than against them dwarfs any positive achievements from PETA’s divisive and polarizing antics.

  9. Jeffrey Steingarten wrote about the stress of foie gras birds for Men’s Vogue last spring. I did a write-up of his key findings here.

  10. Damn it! Why did I pick beer as an english paper reseach topic.
    All these weeks it’s been brough up multiple times.
    Foie gras this, foie gras that, I’m interested, I’m learning, but I’m not going anywere with it. I’m not using it as an excuse to blow $100 bucks on myself just to put it in perspective.
    I’m not cooking myself fancy omlets or making tiny single serving terrines.
    At least I can give thanks to those of you nice enough to post educational tid bits that I might miss in school.

  11. Megnut, that was interesting. I would have expected Mr. Steingarten to be firmly on the pro-foie-gras side of the fence. Regarding Dr. Guémené’s comments regarding the lack of necrosis once the liver has shrunken, I believe that is slightly misleading (though his words may be out of context). The liver is famous for its regenerative capabilities. I would expect to see no evidence of necrosis once the liver has shrunk (which, according to the studies I’ve seen takes about 4 weeks), since the dead liver cells would have been reabsorbed. By no means does this mean that the liver was not in a severely diseased state at its peak size.
    As an analogy, a reasonably healthy person can expect to make a full recovery from the flu, even without medical attention. Yet by no means does this suggest that influenza is not actually a disease. I would be interested to know if Dr. Guémené looked for evidence of disease in the birds who were advanced enough to be slaughtered.

  12. There is no easy solution to this problem.
    And the problem is NOT foie gras, its the guerilla tactics that the humans are using to control the issue.
    Non-scientists may not know the terror of anti-science “animal” activists but they have been terrorising the scientific community for decades.
    They cut their teeth on attacking universities, rapelling down buildings to put up signs, personal threats, lies in the local and national media, actually destroying labs and animal facilities.
    Its the same people and its NOT about foie – its all about them and their own megalomaniacal and anti-social and inhumane need to control the “issue”.
    Restaurants and small foie producers do not have the budget or public will (ie: vote getting public image) to effectively combat these people.
    The problem now is this: they will not stop at foie, why should they? They have gotten a long way, intimidated a lot of people very effectively.
    What will be next?
    What is important to you? Effective and democratic consensus on our food and food security or allowing terrorist factions to rudely and effectively force their issue-du-jour down our own duck throats?

  13. I agree with Steve’s comments, to a degree. However, I take issue with the last comment about the amount of suffering factory farming causes in comparsion to the number of ducks impacted by the foie gras industry.
    Of COURSE factory farming inflicts terrible suffering on a massive number of animals, but this isn’t an “either-or” issue. We can work to reduce the suffering of animals in both industries. It drives me crazy when I mention the plight of animals in the factory farming system and someone counters with the suffering of human beings all over the world being a more urgent problem. We can work to solve or lessen BOTH problems—they’re not mutually exclusive.
    Also, I’ve researched and written on the foie gras industry a great deal and there’s no way I would ever characterize the force feeding (esp. with material from the same species) as “intimate.” When we misuse any natural resource (be it animal, vegetable, or mineral), we wind up paying a price.

  14. MM, I must have misspoken. In no way did I intend to suggest that foie gras is OK because factory farming is worse. In fact, I have made your exact argument in comments on other posts on That there exist worse practices than foie gras production is in no way a logical argument that it is acceptable.
    What I find silly is that this issue, which on the larger scale of food animal welfare is relatively minor, has become such a flashpoint of public debate. It has become a shouting match between the self-righteous and the righteously indignant. In my opinion, saying “you’re evil and I’m banning you” is not generally an effective way of going about life. Much better to say, “hey, there’s a problem here — let’s try to work together to improve it.” My struggle is getting people to recognize that there is a problem. I generally find that intelligent, reasonably compassionate people will work towards an improvement when they agree that animals are suffering.

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