Dispatches From The Foie Gras Wars -- Why Fatty Duck Liver Isn't the Devil

The more we know about our food system, the more we are called into complex choices. It seems facile to declare one single forbidden fruit, when humans live under so many different kinds of trees. - Barbara Kingsolver in "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle"
Publish date:
June 6, 2012
food, ethical eating, foie gras

Foie gras is to be banned in California. And though I didn’t eat meat for nearly a third of my life, I’m annoyed beyond measure. Have they banned KFC? Or hamburgers from CAFO cows? Nope, just the stuff that (mostly) rich people eat. I eat it too, when I save up my pennies for a splurge, or every day when I’m in Paris. Because you know what? It tastes really freaking good.

I have to tell some back story first. Flash back to winter, 2010.

A cold, dead duck sprawled on a cutting board, a dark knife gleaming wickedly alongside. Kernels of corn from its most recent force feeding are scattered nearby. "If you see my vegetarian daughter, Dana, tell her I said hello," read my mom's Facebook comment on this photo I'd posted from Gascony, France.

Putting aside the minor quibble that I never was technically a vegetarian and didn't label myself such, my mom had a point. My anti-meat stance began as soon as I was old enough to fling hot dog chunks from my high chair onto the floor the minute she turned her back. Cajoling, sternly ordering and bribing all failed to produce the red-blooded American carnivorous child my parents expected. I was adept at hiding morsels of meat under my mashed potatoes.

Aside from the Arby's roast beef sandwiches that made up a third of my college diet trifecta of pizza and Taco Bell beans and chips I rarely ate meat after leaving home. And when I finished reading my tear-stained copy of Eric Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation," that was it. I banned meat from my world.

So I could see how friends and family found it rather shocking nine years later to see Facebook photos of me in France, elbow deep in a fatted duck, preparing foie gras. It was a bit shocking to me, too.

I'd always figured I was done with meat for good, though occasional dreams of devouring an Arby's roast beef sandwich both haunted and tantalized me. I was as far from a foodie as could be when I made my decision, and so when I later became interested in cooking and then rather obsessed with good food, meat was simply never a part of it.

Years passed. But the more I traveled and learned about food across the globe, the more I began to furtively wonder. I started to toss purposely casual remarks out to my husband like, "If I ever eat meat again it will be from Dario in Tuscany."

I read "Omnivore's Dilemma" and pondered. Was I a hypocrite for eating tofu shipped in from a zillion miles away when I could have fresh chicken, beef or pork from the farm that provided my CSA share? But after so long in this lifestyle, frankly, I didn't see how I could change. By now I was a food writer enthusiastically extoling the virtues of vegetables and legumes. Lentil soup! Quinoa salad! Where did bacon fit into this?

And ultimately it was just easier. Easier to categorically say no meat than to go the the trouble to find meat that was humanely and sustainably raised and learn how to prepare it. Easier to tell people I didn't eat meat than to risk looking like a snob who said no to their grocery store, genetically modified, grain-fed, antibiotic-pumped, irradiated meat. So I kept the status quo. But I kept thinking.

Then Barbara Kingsolver in "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" gave me even more to ponder:

Should I overlook the suffering of victims of hurricanes, famines and wars brought on this world by profligate fuel consumption? Bananas that cost a rain forest, refrigerator-trucked soymilk, and prewashed spinach shipped 2,000 miles in plastic containers do not seem cruelty-free, in this context.

Giving up meat is one path; giving up bananas is another. The more we know about our food system, the more we are called into complex choices. It seems facile to declare one single forbidden fruit, when humans live under so many different kinds of trees.

I hadn't gone so far as to actually try meat again yet when I saw a Tweet one day from a cooking instructor and writer I followed in rural Southwest France, Kate Hill at Kitchen-at-Camont. "Taking applications 4 NEW culinary residencies in France for winter 2010 for writers, artists & cooks."

I love France with an all-consuming fire. I dashed off an earnest application, pulling out all the stops: my time in my grandparents’ rural garden picking potatoes, shucking corn and breaking beans; my disconnect in my 20s when I ate nothing but “beige packaged and fast foods, sodden with sodium, chemicals and fat;” my transformation when I began to travel; my love for my CSA and my refusal to eat tomatoes out of season; quotes from Paul Bowles -- and my avowal to start eating meat again.

This would be a new world for me in more ways than one. I stopped eating meat before I ever set foot in Europe. I've been keenly aware of what a significant piece of the culture I've missed out on as a result. And while I think I'll never consume American factory-produced meats, I don't see how I could miss out on the meatiest bits of French cuisine, lovingly prepared from wild animals or those raised with care, and treated with respect, every bit made use of.

To my ecstatic delight, I got it. The plan unfolded. I'd spend two weeks at Camont -- the first at a scheduled program, Camp Confit, the second digesting (literally and figuratively, Kate said) the first. This was serious. Not only would I be eating meat, I'd be immersing myself in all things duck. Butchering them, even! Camp Confit promised visits to a fatted duck farm, a duck market, classes in foie gras, confit, pate, all in a very hands-on format. And most of all it promised eating duck -- lots of it.

I spoke to Kate soon after by Skype. She was worried about launching my new meat-eating lifestyle with such a carnivorous crash course.

"Promise me you'll eat some meat before you come," she said. I'd have promised to become an astronaut if it meant two weeks in France.

So where to start? What is the first bite of meat to put in your mouth after nearly nine years?

I went to an event where local chefs prepared specialties from our sister cities' cuisine. A French chef was presiding over a steaming tray of cassoulet, that quintessential southwestern France stew of beans, duck confit and pork. I accepted a tiny square black dish and sniffed it, self-conscious and nervous. I propelled a tiny forkful of white beans and duck to my mouth. Chewed. Swallowed. Surprisingly enough, the world didn't stop turning when I took that first bite.

Arriving at the Agen train station, Kate spotted me right away and we were off. We turned onto tinier and tinier roads until we pulled into the drive at Camont and piled out of the car. Life was in full swing inside the crumbly old stone farmhouse. Bacon the giant mutt bounded out to greet us, and Kate's helper Erika and artist friend Franny brought us into their conversation as if I was a friendly neighbor rather than an exhausted stranger with untidy hair who smelled of airport.

Under the soaring ceiling, warmed by the fire, this was where I'd chop, cook and eat duck. The smell of the wood fire -- an aroma that would accompany my clothes home -- mingled with that of simmering duck broth and large dog. My introduction to duck gluttony soon arrived in the form of a food destined to become a dangerous favorite -- grattons. "Gascon popcorn," Kate called it. I might call it crack.

Crisp, golden savory outside gave way to a melting, luscious golden inside. Duck skin fried in its own fat welcomed me headlong into life as an omnivore in France.

We gathered around the battered wooden table in front of the fire as I slurped duck soup with tiny pasta stars, and tucked into Puy lentils finished with Kate's homemade red wine vinegar topped with duck breast grilled over her fire, wondering if this was this me.

The next morning I woke to the sounds of rural France -- namely rooster crows and dog barks. I was to visit a foie gras farm and museum. How would I react? A large part of the reason I hadn't eaten meat for so many years was that I couldn't bear the thought of animals being hurt. And everyone knows the torture ducks are submitted to so rich gluttons can feast upon their fat livers, right? But I came with as open a mind as I could muster.

At last we arrived and crunched through the gravel to peek inside a barn housing tiny black and yellow fluffy ducklings. I ordered myself not to think about how cute they were.

Kate explained the process. The young ducks stayed inside for their first three weeks in a humidity-controlled environment before being turned loose to roam the grounds, foraging as they liked. Four months later, they returned to another barn for their last two weeks, this one where the gravage (force feeding) would take place.

We continued around the barn where a display showed photos of the entire process -- the feeding, the butchering, no detail was spared. I couldn't begin to fathom what it would be like for a factory farm at home to so transparently show their work.

We moved inside the museum/store next, where one could buy any variation on duck liver. A slim and elegant young woman took us on a tour, explaining in a charmingly heavy accent about the history of foie gras. It seems the Egyptians first noticed about 4,500 years ago how tasty migratory birds were after they'd stuffed themselves for their long flights from Scandinavia to southern Africa. The Romans learned the Egyptians’ trick of stuffing birds, and fed theirs figs. The practice spread throughout Europe.

A display showed a vessel of corn organically grown here on this farm that these ducks are fed. I thought it was just a sample, but later discovered it's all the corn the ducks eat in their entire lives. It was a shockingly small amount when you consider that for two weeks they're fed twice a day with enough to increase their liver size eight-fold.

We watched as the farmers perched on a stool, a duck between their knees, a funnel inserted in its beak. The duck didn't seem especially annoyed at this intrusion. For about 30 seconds corn is ground into the funnel and makes it way down their esophagus -- a very hard, long tube (I’d feel later firsthand).

With no gag reflex, it’s rather a non-event for the ducks. They don't process the corn immediately. It’s housed in a little pocket of sorts that releases it as the duck can digest it. When its turn was over, the duck wandered away. That was it. That was the much-maligned process of force-feeding a duck.

What the hell was all the fuss about, I wondered. The horror stories at home of pigs being boiled alive, debeaked chickens crowded and crammed into tiny crates and sick cows toppling over in their own waste prevent me from ever consuming factory farmed meat, but this? This I had no qualms about.

The ducks seemed, so far as I could tell, perfectly content. The farmers cared for them -- whether because they're a valuable commodity or because they genuinely care I can't say -- but either way these creatures are treated better than some household pets I've known.

Straight from the film we had our foie-gras sampling. I continued to dwell upon the idea of touring a factory farm at home and then tasting the products. The reason these facilities don't have glass walls at home is that nobody with half a heart would consume the products if they saw the process. Here they proudly showed us the duck's entire life and what happens between death and the samples we held on our napkins.

We tried several varieties, including the one that became my favorite -- mi cuit, meaning partly cooked. This was the most lush of all, melting on the tongue with a slow diffusion of earthy, intense flavor unlike anything I've ever tasted. I was to revel in this taste again and again over the next two weeks. Everything was as promised.

We bought ducks from a special, massive duck market and from a local farmer’s market. We chopped, cooked, ate until I thought I’d turn into a duck. Then I hopped on a train to Paris where it was time to rediscover my favorite city as an omnivore. Bone marrow, steak tartare, and more foie.

So California can ban foie, but I’ll stick to never setting foot in a fast food restaurant, and I’ll only buy my meat from farmers who take good care of their animals. And yes, when I have the chance, I will eat foie gras.