Foie gras, a last hurrah to an underground alternative in California

Well fed ducks and their livers will soon disappear from California menus. Most chefs object and several are publicizing their frustration through dinners and media efforts.

Orange County, Calif. April, 2012—“I don’t tell people what they can’t eat,” says Playground Chef/Owner Jason Quinn, and most restaurant professionals agree. Yet the California legislature passed a bill in 2004 that essentially tells everyone in the state not to eat foie gras. The bill prohibits, “force feeding a bird for the purpose of enlarging the bird’s liver beyond normal size.” It also authorizes, “…a citation … in an amount up to $1,000 per violation per day.” 

This “one-of-a-kind, irreplaceable culinary treasure” foie gras, French for fatty liver, will soon be available in all states but California. 

As foie gras is a high priced luxury item, most restaurants and diners may not be affected directly by the upcoming ban on foie gras. But the impact of a law prohibiting the sale of a traditional product—one safely produced and consumed for the last 5,000 years—may disturb anyone that has studied Prohibition or believes in individual choice. 

The bill becomes a law on July 1, 2012. The purpose behind the eight year delay was to allow businesses to modify the practice. The only company raising ducks to produce foie gras in California is Artisan Sonoma Foie Gras in Sonoma. 

Hudson Valley Foie Gras spokesman Marcus Henley notes that since the measure passed, the feeding practice has been studied extensively. Result? The American Veterinary Medical Association refused to declare foie gras farming detrimental to animal welfare. He also noted, “Eleven other states have introduced and rejected similar legislation.” 

Henley describes the tube feeding as being natural and humane. The feeding lasts 21 days, between age 12 and 15 weeks and mimics the migratory adaptation of waterfowl that allows them to store fat in the liver prior to migration. Ducks, geese, and other migratory birds gorge themselves in the fall to prepare for long fly times. 

Henley’s views on the ducks care are underscored by chefs all over the state. La Toque Chef/Owner Ken Frank buys exclusively from Artisan Sonoma and agrees the ducks are treated well and are not hurt or bothered by the feeding. He visited the farm several times over the last 20 years and notes, “The ducks have a very strong bond of trust with their feeders. They exhibit no fear or ‘flight’ and they have plenty of room to move about, flap their wings and socialize.” 

David Coleman, Executive Chef at Michael’s on Naples in Long Beach, believes farmers that raise animals have more compassion and understanding of animal needs than those not involved. He states, “Most people are willfully ignorant about where their meat comes from. If they were to see an animal being slaughtered, they may decide not to eat meat.” 

The government should concern itself with regulating the massive amounts of processed foods in the American diet or go after factory farms suggests Chef Micah Wexler of Mezze in Los Angeles. 

Several chefs interviewed for this story commented on the futility of enforcing the ban and don’t believe it will last long. “Can you imagine the black market demand? Who will be accountable then (for humane treatment)?” asks Coleman. “Certainly police can find better things to do.” 

“Drugs are illegal. People still use them,” comments Quinn.

Frank adds, “Prohibition never works, for anything. It will go underground.”

These same chefs demonstrate their concern for how animals are raised in their buying decisions. “We only purchase food grown in a sustainable way,” Wexler explains. “I know many of my farmers and ranchers personally and often visit their farms to see what they are doing with my own eyes.”

Chef Coleman also sources his product from local farms with humane and sustainable practices. “I also generally buy whole animals as often as possible to ensure freshness you can’t always get with parts.”

“We buy animals that are treated with respect and care. We buy from smaller farms and we like it that way,” remarks Chef Quinn.

“Let’s look into bluefin tuna, Chilean sea bass, sharks … endangered species first,” observes Chef Brian Redzikowski of Flavor in Del Mar.

Feedlot cattle and chickens could also benefit from the scrutiny bestowed on the ducks. “It’s silly when you consider the treatment of all animals that are farmed for food. These animals are better treated than most,” says Chef Joe Youkahn of Chef Joe Youkhan’s Tasting Spoon  food truck.

One well-known voice in support of the ban on foie gras, Wolfgang Puck, took the trouble to send a letter to restaurants and hotels. It reads in part, “And here in California, our own customers understand the need for all animals, including those raised for food, to be treated humanely. California voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 2 in 2008, with nearly two-thirds of voters supporting an end to extreme confinement of farm animals. We chefs have the ability to create delicious and original dishes our customers will love without causing torment to animals.” The letter is online in its entirety.

The chefs contacted said their business will not be affected by the ban, but find the law foolish, misguided and unfair. It sets a dangerous precedent by restricting a safe food choice. What others might follow?

Many chefs are planning multi-course dinners to feature and celebrate the delicacy with the additional purpose of raising money and awareness to repeal the law. 

While not exactly legal, (except medical marijuana dispensaries) Henley notes that marijuana is reported to be California’s most valuable agricultural product. “Foie gras may not be quite as fun as marijuana is reported to be, but I would guess people will find a way to keep it going, one way or another.” 


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Linda Mensinga

Linda Mensinga was editor of Culinary Trends for 15 years, now a contributing writer. Researching restaurants and hotels, she interviews the best and brightest chefs, not necessarily the most famous, to learn their secrets and recipes. Their talent and dedication never cease to inspire her. 

Mrs. Mensinga is happily food obsessed and fortunate enough to be married to a chef. 

Contact Linda Mensinga

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