Despite the outlawing of foie gras in Chicago, many Portland chefs are prouder than ever to serve the controversial culinary delicacy made from the fattened livers of overfed geese or ducks—but for how long?
Chicago's ban on actually serving foie gras—also known as goose liver pâté—went into effect on August 22, and is the first ruling of its kind, going one step further than banning production, which is already illegal in 17 countries and due to be outlawed in California in 2012. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) says it now expects the US ban to spread quickly—even to Portland—despite the failure of 2005's Oregon Senate Bill 861 to ban foie gras production here, and the continued refusal of the American Veterinary Medical Association to condemn it.
As PETA representative Matt Prescott writes, "In a few years, you're going to have to go to a dark alley in Iran if you want to eat the diseased liver of a tortured duck," adding that where foie gras is concerned, "it really isn't a matter of personal choice."
I'm not sure what PETA has against Iranians, but in the US, where individual freedom reigns supreme and I can still drive a polluting four-liter Mustang if I choose, should liberal Portlanders even pay lip service to legalizing what's edible in this city? Apart from the obvious (kittens and babies), does anybody have the right to tell me what I can and cannot eat?
The issue last flared up on Portland's streets in 2004, when campaigners from In Defense of Animals (IDA) screened shocking videos of foie gras production outside local restaurants—purportedly showing ducks being cruelly treated at the two biggest US foie gras firms, Sonoma in California and Hudson Valley in New York. Force-feeding geese or ducks grain through a metal tube, which is pushed down their throats directly into the stomach, produces foie gras. Apart from the off-putting feeding process, the videos also show other scenes that might put most people off their dinner—for example, a duck incapable of running away as rats gnaw on its open wounds.
In light of the Chicago ban, Matt Rossell, the NW outreach coordinator for the IDA, says he's yet to decide whether to revive the 2004 protests, the point of which was to educate the public about what is behind foie gras. "The cruelty is not in question—there really isn't a friendly way to force-feed a duck," he says.
While Rossell agrees people should in theory have the right to choose what they eat, he believes that with rights come responsibilities, and thinks diners should take responsibility for cruelty to animals in the production of a so-called delicacy. When pressed about what this means in practice, he admits he would like to see the Chicago ban extended to Portland—so much for our freedom to choose.
In 2004, the IDA saw a victory of sorts for its protests, when foie gras disappeared from three prominent local restaurants. It's still off the menu at the Heathman Hotel, and Greg Higgins at Higgins Restaurant says it isn't there because it's not "sustainably minded." Tom Hurley of Hurley's pulled foie gras after a month of IDA weekend picketing, but since then it has discreetly reappeared on his menu—seared with both scallops and steak. Hurley did not return the Mercury's call to discuss the issue.
Meanwhile, as the foie gras hits the fan in Chicago, many Portland chefs are now making a point of serving the product. Lately Daniel Mondok, head chef at the Carlyle Restaurant, has been serving a special dish of petite rib-eye steak with foie gras in a foie gras sauce. The newly opened Le Pigeon on East Burnside is even serving a peanut butter, jelly, and foie gras sandwich!
Eric Bechard, at the Alberta Street Oyster Bar and Grill, thinks foie gras is an easy target for the likes of PETA and IDA—whom he accuses of being "fundamentalist in nature" and of using "shock-and-awe tactics" in the editing of their videos of foie gras production.
Marcus Henley, the operations manager of Hudson Valley Foie Gras in New York, agrees with Bechard. While he admits some of the IDA's video footage was taken at his farm, he says it has also been edited out of context.
"Not every aspect of animal agriculture is pretty. In any 110,000 animal population you will find an animal not doing very well in the dark hours of the night, but it is deceptive to pick that one animal out from the rest," he says.
Back in Portland, Bechard says taking foie gras off his menu would be the beginning of a slippery slope. Next, he would have to stop serving veal sweetbreads and oysters, saying that in his view, PETA and the IDA will not be happy until he is running a vegetarian restaurant—a view PETA's Prescott shares.
Like many of his fellow chefs, Bechard also points to the production of battery-farmed chicken as far crueler than foie gras. It's a point reinforced by Pascal Sauton, head chef at Carafe, who favors sustainable products and personally toured the Sonoma foie gras factory in California when he decided to add it to his menu.
"Everything I serve, I know where it comes from. I thought the Sonoma farm was impeccable, I did not see any of the craziness that's been talked about—I was even kidding at one point saying I'd like to be reincarnated as a duck over there, but what I really get upset about is battery-farmed chicken—five hens per cage, it's insane," he says.
Battery chickens—pumped full of hormones and having their beaks cut off to stop them from pecking each other to death—arguably have a worse life than force-fed geese, which naturally gorge themselves before migrating. Rossell at the IDA is, however, quick to point out that ducks in the wild rarely eat so much as to be unable to walk, as is common toward the end of their force-feeding.
Like battery-farmed chicken, foie gras production is not cruelty-free, and aspects of its production are off-putting—but shouldn't we have the right to decide for ourselves what we ingest? As Sauton says, "If you believe foie gras is not correct, don't eat it. Just don't tell people what they can eat, or chefs what to cook."