A hot Friday evening in the Pearl District and the deck at Bluehour is packed with well-scrubbed customers. Suddenly, the buzz of polite conversation is broken.
"Force-fed ducks! Foie gras sucks!"
A loose-knit group of about a dozen protesters from the Portland Animal Defense League (PADL) has begun to chant, demanding the restaurant remove foie gras from its menu.
According to the Larousse Gastronomique, foie gras is "goose or duck liver which is grossly enlarged by methodically fattening the bird." It's been known since classical Roman times and is largely consumed by the French. However, foie gras has found its way to the menus of Portland's most renowned restaurants, much to the delight of many consumers who rave about its buttery essence and velvety texture.
In response, protesters have set up shop at the corner of NW 13th and Everett, holding signs depicting regurgitating fowl and leaflets describing "cruel farming practices." Their contention is that the liver-enlarging "methodical feeding"—wherein the last weeks of the birds' lives are spent being force fed through a steel funnel—is an inhumane process.
An hour into the protest, Bluehour's patrons have had enough. A woman yells, "Shut the fuck up," and the deck erupts in a cheer; another patron throws water. The protesters remain undeterred.
The last major foie gras protests in Portland happened in 2004, managing to force foie gras from the menu at Higgins. Afterward, the protests faded. Now, though, things are changing.
Courtney Kintz, spokesperson from PADL, says they have been working on the anti-foie gras campaign for months. "There hasn't been any direct action against foie gras for a while," she says, noting that PADL "took up the cause" after noticing an increase in Portland restaurants serving the pricey dish. PADL has created a kind of hit list, which includes big-name eateries like Le Pigeon and Beast.
Chef/owner of Beast, Naomi Pomeroy, whose restaurant is directly across the street from the Portland headquarters of In Defense of Animals, doesn't seem surprised she's on the list. Still, she wonders why PADL would go after a small, artisanal product, produced in the US by only two farms.
"It's an heirloom product," she notes. "Nobody eats four ounces of foie gras, it's a treasure. There is a certain amount of reverence around this." She suggests protesters are misguided and questions why they aren't picketing restaurants serving factory farm-produced beef, which she says is "causing widespread destruction around the world."
"Trying to persuade all of Portland's restaurants to go vegan is not a winning campaign," Kintz responds. "Micro campaigns are easier to meet."
Protester Justin Kay adds, "It's easier for people to see the connection of one cruel life for a meal."
PADL has had some recent victories. Last month, in response to protests, ten01 and Fenouil, both located in the Pearl, removed foie gras from their menu.
Sources from Fenouil refused to comment on the matter, but Adam Berger, owner of Ten 01 and Tabla, noted that his patrons are speaking out. "Our customers want [foie gras] back," he says. "A lot more than want it gone."
Pomeroy says she's noticed some customers who will not eat the foie gras on her prix fixe menu. "I'm happy there are people who are choosing not to eat it," she says. "The point is to regulate your own body. Enjoy yourself and have small amounts of things that you're really appreciating."
Chef Kenny Giambalvo of Bluehour isn't bothered by protests. "It's fine," he says, adding that protesters "help me make the right decisions as a business owner." He's toured the farm in Sonoma where his foie gras is produced and feels comfortable with what he saw there.
Outside Bluehour, protesters continue chanting. Thom, the maître d', has brought water for them. According to Thom, Giambalvo has no plans to remove foie gras from the menu. But how do the patrons respond? Almost on cue, an outdoor table orders two plates.
The foie gras issue in Portland is one that offers insight into the city's epicurean soul. It's hard to say which way things will go. Will gourmets cling to their fattened liver, or will an enforced guilty conscience make foie gras a culinary footnote?
Until that question is answered, PADL's Kintz promises more direct action. "We're always willing to stand outside with signs," she says. "And you will be seeing more of that."