With so much war raging around us—in Iraq and Afghanistan, to say nothing of Congress—it’s surprising I missed the foie gras wars. Let me bring you up to speed because this battle goes to the very core of our humanity.
It began in 2005, in Chicago, where Rod Blagojevich and Roland Burris roamed the windy streets. (Even though they don’t figure in the story, it would be a damn shame not to mention them in this wacky context.) Restaurateur Charlie Trotter decided quite innocently to stop serving foie gras (“fat liver,” in French) out of compassion for the plight of helpless, suffering ducks. Suffice it to say, this is the same saintly Trotter whose friends claim was typecast in My Best Friend’s Wedding, when he screamed at a cook: “I will kill your whole family if you don’t get this right.” Later, he threatened to eat a rival chef’s liver as “a little treat,” presumably with some fava beans and a nice Chianti. In any case, when Trotter scratched the duck liver from his three-star menu it sparked a food fight that reverberated in kitchens around the world, pitting chefs against one another after the Chicago City Council officially banned the dish.
Mayor Richard Daley finally put the foie gras wars into perspective: “We have children getting killed by gang leaders and dope dealers. And we’re dealing with foie gras?”
Mark Caro, an entertainment reporter, broke the Trotter story in the Chicago Tribune, then embarked on a two-year odyssey that took him from southwestern France to the Sonoma Valley in order to weigh the ethical questions surrounding the production of foie gras and the degree, if any, to which torture is involved. The result is The Foie Gras Wars: How a 5,000-Year-Old Delicacy Inspired the World’s Fiercest Food Fight, an exhaustive account of a rather intriguing, if controversial, subject. I mean, is what foie gras producers do to ducks any different than what Charlie Trotter did to me the last time I visited his restaurant?
It’s not that I’m trying to duck the issue (sorry). But Caro’s take on the argument, at times wildly comical, bizarre, and exasperating, stretches on for 300-plus pages, with a multitudinous cast of characters from both sides of the aisle who bang away at hot-button issues, much like the wonks at a Meet the Press roundtable. The hottest is the practice known as gavage, the force-feeding of 12-week-old ducks or geese via a metal tube inserted down their esophagus. Caro’s eyewitness account of the ancient practice, including his foray in Gascony into “the slaughter room,” and his rookie attempt at eviscerating a fatted goose, while yanking out its prized liver, highlights every gory detail. Does it sicken him afterward? Au contraire. It’s lunchtime at the abattoir, necessitating a feast that includes a slab of foie gras conserve followed by goose-meat cassoulet. In fact, throughout, he wolfs down gluttonous helpings of foie gras to the extent that his doctor forbids him to indulge after his cholesterol level soars into heart-attack territory.
It might have been easier to stomach the facts—after all, chickens, pigs, and cows are processed to similar effect on industrialized factory farms—had animal-rights activists not waded into the fray. Enter PETA, the Humane Society, and a wacky cadre of bomb throwers called, of all things, Hugs for Puppies. The militant activists put a different spin on the story, with their all-out disruptions at restaurants, concerted boycotts, and blatant acts of sabotage against any establishment serving duck liver. Things reached a fever pitch in Philadelphia when activists accosted waitresses serving foie gras, followed them home, and reminded them “We know where [you] sleep at night.”
Unfortunately, most of the activists come off as Moonies. Caro’s prejudice becomes apparent early on in the book, with the portrayal of the foie gras producers as hard-working artisans, while the activists are, well, your basic nutjobs. Many of their quotes, delivered out of context, are slanted to make their convictions seem absurd. When Caro visits an animal-welfare organization called Farm Sanctuary, in Watkins Glen, New York, where each of the 745 animals are given human names, his escort talks about building an in-ground swimming pool for the birds and points out duck couples “who love each other completely.” In another encounter, the activists dress as “ninjas.” And the Chicago councilman who introduced the ban makes Blagojevich seem reasonable. Almost.
What saves the book from devolving into an overlong meandering magazine article is Caro’s breezy, effective style and his reporter’s eye for the absurd. His portrait of Izzy Yanay, a partner in the highly regarded Hudson Valley Foie Gras, is a howler. And his account of Chicago politics, including a cameo by Mayor Richard Daley, comes just in time. In fact, it is Daley who finally puts the foie gras wars into perspective when he tells a colleague: “We have children getting killed by gang leaders and dope dealers. We have real issues in this city. And we’re dealing with foie gras? Let’s get some priorities.”
I’ve sure got mine straight after reading this book. In fact, I’m going to take a break about now for a slab of lightly seared tofu in port-wine reduction. Bon Appetit.
Bob Spitz is an award-winning journalist and author whose best-seller The Beatles: The Biography is considered the definitive work on the subject. His most recent book, The Saucier's Apprentice , will be published in paperback in May. He is working on a biography of Julia Child.