Foie Gras

Spooning & Forking has moved up in the world … in time that is. And for our first hour long episode I wanted it to be a good one. My co-hort’s at Spooning & Forking wouldn’t touch the subject with a 27 ft. pole but I love to ruffle feathers. And the bad puns begin.

A couple months ago, I was trying to come up with ideas for show topics. I like to do things the hard way and come up with topics that make people think a bit. Basically, I try to get people mad – honesty seems to come out of fury. Seriously, I like to poke a sleeping bear. So I suggested Foie. Not because I love it, because I don’t. No one else on the team wanted to touch it. I started chatting to whomever would listen. And then one day Cam Dobranski from the Brasserie in Kensington sent out a tweet saying he received his second hate mail about having foie on the menu. I was pretty surprised that someone would send a piece of hate mail because of a food item. Then I found out that several other chefs in town received the exact note. So there it was. I took the bait.

Then I had a conversation with JP Pedhirney, Chef de Cuisine of Rouge. JP had heard that I was doing an episode on the subject of foie and explained to me how the birds are anatomically different from what most people think. The digestive and respiratory systems in waterfowl, which are what ducks and geese are, are completely separate. So if you think about it and you replay the image of the duck choking with vomit all over itself, you have to wonder how much photoshop goes into it. If breathing happens independently of eating then how can they suffocate? Hmmm. These were questions I had to find answers to.

Here’s a story: many years ago I went out to dinner with a bunch of friends for a birthday celebration. We chose to go to one of the most delicious restaurants in Calgary – Rouge – where we all ordered the tasting menu. As with all groups of more than 6 you are bound to have finicky eaters. So, one person doesn’t like seafood, another doesn’t like red wine, another doesn’t like white wine, someone doesn’t eat pork, someone doesn’t like onions… Wowsa – I’d hate to be the Chef for a table like ours. Well, at that time, I was not a fan of foie gras but I didn’t say anything. I figured I could pass it along to my partner. I didn’t end up passing the foie to my partner but rather to my friend; and thus every time thereafter, when foie was presented to me, I would pass it along to my friend John. I chose John over my own partner, because I figured John’s wife doesn’t eat foie either and so he would have way less chances to have the foie that he loved so much unless they were with us, and if my partner and I were dining alone he would get foie probably more often than John anyway. There is a little insight into the way my brain works… damn you John Stuart Mill, damn you.

Moral of the story is: foie was just not for me. I know about unethical or inhumane treatment of some animals produced for food, and I will be the first to admit that I cannot look at the horrific images put up on certain websites. I am aware that these things happen.  But, I have spent my whole life around farmers and producers of food and I know that they are not all monsters. The horrific things that groups like PETA or Stop Force Feeding present to the public are egregious examples of the bad side to food production. There is good and bad in everything. I am fine with eating meats that come from animals that are taken care of by people who care about the health of the animal because in the end a happy animal produces a better product, which commands a better price – I won’t pretend to cite an economic theory here but I know there is one in that statement somewhere.

Foie. What is the controversy? Well, you can google it. The gist of it is people are concerned for the well-being of the animals health because of the act of gavage. Gavage is a technique which force-feeds the ducks or geese to enlarge their livers for foie gras. Typically, gavage means that the waterfowl are gathered around and a tube is shoved down their throats where a mash of grains are shot into their digestive systems. Look into it. Type in gavage in a Google search and you will find tons of information. People say that shoving the tubes down the throats for the force-feeding causes discomfort, causes lesions on the throat and esophagus, causes the birds to regurgitate and choke on their own vomit, causes aversion behavior and sepsis. There are a few things wrong with those claims though.

In this episode I speak with Executive Chef Michael Dekker, who at the time was finishing his stint at Rouge.  I also spoke with Chef Xavier Lacaze from Muse Restaurant. Chef Lacaze is from the south of France, which is kind of the modern birthplace of foie gras, and I thought that his experience with foie would be especially insightful.

Then I spoke with the farmer. I love farmers. Seriously. I love them.  Ian Walker from Mariposa Farms in Ontario not only produces a very exclusive foie gras he also distributes it. It seemed that his big thing with the issue of foie gras is that there is a disconnect between the people who produce it and the people who protest it.

Finding a waterfowl proved more difficult. And who came to my rescue? A real surprising hero, actually. I sent an email to the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary outlining what I was doing with this episode and I wanted to chat with an expert who could speak to the natural migratory habits of waterfowl as well as their two separate systems: the digestive and the respiratory. Sid Andrews from the City of Calgary Parks department spoke to me about how wild waterfowl do things naturally. Sid Andrews is the Interpretation Coordinator at the Ralph Klein Park south of Calgary.

In my pursuit on this subject, I have discovered several producers who produce natural, sustainable and/or ecological foie gras by trying to mimic or replicate patterns and habits in as natural a way as possible.

I acknowledge that not everyone is interested in eating foie gras and not everyone will like it. Certainly, most people cannot afford to eat foie gras on a regular basis. But, all I am saying is, be open. Try it. Try it a couple times before making your assessment. Basically just open yourself up to knowing where your food comes from. If you make an opinion about something, and take a strong stance, you need to be able to back it up. If you don’t eat it because of the traditional practices of gavage, well then question where it comes from and try the stuff that isn’t traditionally force fed. But if that is your stance, I hope that you also question where your chicken, beef, oranges and red peppers come from.

If you missed this episode you can download it on iTunes. Or go to www.cjsw.com for links to this and other podcasts. The background music has changed to En Croisiere by the French band called Juanitos. You can now download it for free from www.freemusicarchive.org

Some foie gras producers to check out:

Au Goût d’Autrefois – Jacques Legros

Mariposa Farms - Ian Walker

La Pateria de Sousa – Eduardo Sousa

For further reading or just names of people who are speaking about this subject check out the following links: