Some people consider foie gras, the fattened liver of a duck or goose, one of the finest gourmet pleasures available. Others consider it the product of intolerable animal cruelty because of the way it's made—by force-feeding the bird through a tube until its liver grows to several times its natural size, using a centuries-old process called gavage.
The debate over foie gras in the United States (where consumption is a fraction of what it is in France) blew up a few years ago, after the acclaimed Chicago chef Charlie Trotter offhandedly mentioned to a journalist that he had stopped serving the ingredient because he had decided it was cruel. The controversy that followed, including anti–foie gras legislation passed in California and Chicago (where it was eventually repealed), and a no-holds-barred campaign by animal rights activists, is detailed in the new book by Chicago Tribune reporter Mark Caro, The Foie Gras Wars: How a 5,000-Year-Old Delicacy Inspired the World's Fiercest Food Fight.
I just finished reading the book, which took me longer than usual. Somehow, descriptions of force feeding and animals having their festering sores gnawed on by rats (as captured in an infamous, and gruesome, scene in an anti-foie gras video) didn't make for the most pleasant reading, as thought-provoking as the subject was. Caro thoroughly, and even-handedly, explored all aspects of the issue, visiting foie gras–producing farms in the United States and France, talking to animal rights activists, and sampling enough of the product in question to throw his cholesterol out of whack.
Surprisingly, despite the distastefulness of some of the descriptions and my personal squeamishness about meat in general, the book left me with slightly better image of foie gras---at least as it's produced on the handful of farms in the United States---than before.
The closest I've ever come to eating the stuff was my grandmother's chopped liver, which I'm sure is not very close at all. My sole face-to-foie encounter was at the Montreal restaurant Au Pied du Cochon, a carnivore's pleasure palace that my vegetarian-leaning friends and I were dragged to by the foodie in the crowd. He ordered, in addition to an appetizer of poutine (more about that another day), a gargantuan dish containing several stuffed pigs' feet, each topped with cutlet-sized lobes of foie gras and a rich-looking gravy. At the end of this self-inflicted gavage, he could barely breathe or walk, though he professed to have enjoyed it.
I still don't have any interest in tasting foie gras myself. But, after reading the book, I'm also not convinced that methods used to make American foie gras, including by the largest producer, New York's Hudson Valley Foie Gras, are any crueler than other forms of farm-raised meat. Unlike on some Canadian and French farms, the ducks in this country are kept in group pens rather than individual cages during the 3- to 4-week gavage period, and, from the evidence Caro presents, the force-feeding doesn't seem to harm the birds or cause them terrible distress.
Foie gras is an easy target for criticism, but if you're going to ban it you might as well ban all farm-raised meat. Despite a growing public belief in the health and environmental benefits of eating less meat (and an awareness of the poor treatment of animals on many factory farms), though, that's not likely to happen anytime soon.