02 April 2009

The Foie Gras Wars: Taking A Stand

To all vegan extremists: leave us meat eaters alone!

A delectable, delicious dish of seared foie gras in reality has none of the cruelty of shark fin soup, pinikpikan, or even, perhaps, a bucket of KFC. The mythology of pervasive mishandling of ducks and geese, when combined with the political strategy of attacking foie gras as a mere beach head landing in the war on meat consumption, seems to fuel vegan extremists to tactics of annoyance, interruption, and, occasionally, reprehensible vandalism and criminal threats.

The culinary wedge issue of foie gras has arisen again, this time locally, with San Francisco Mayor and California gubernatorial candidate Gavin Newsom being dragged into the vegan extremist agenda spotlight. The San Francisco Chronicle's executive food and wine editor, Michael Bauer, blogs that PETA mailed the mayor a letter asking for the removal of foie gras from the restaurant group owned by the mayor's family. Although the causality is denied by the mayor's sister and president of the restaurant group, foie gras has recently been removed from the menus subsequent to a face to face discussion between the cofounder of an animal protection group and the gubernatorial candidate at a campaign townhall event. The San Francisco Chronicle reports on these activities. It is unfortunate to learn that the mayor appears to be caving into this ridiculous anti-foodie political pressure.

Just a few weeks ago, a new book came out with deep coverage of Chicago's legal handling of the foie gras matter.

Celebrity chef/travel TV show host Anthony Bourdain and chef-author Michael Ruhlman discuss Chicago's 2006 ban and the proposed New Jersey ban on foie gras sale in a lively dialogue format for Salon.com. Both Bourdain and Ruhlman highlight the implications of when one group tells another what not to eat.
Bourdain: Telling people what they should and shouldn't eat is cultural imperialism -- and deeply disturbing. That a group of people could say, "You know, how you eat and how you've been eating for hundreds, if not thousands, of years -- traditional Jewish cuisine, Western European food since Roman times -- that is wrong and should not be allowed." I find that offensive. Ethnically insensitive, jingoistic, xenophobic, anti-human and disrespectful of the diversity of cultures on this planet, and for human history.

On March 27, 2009, Chef-owner David Chang of New York City's Momofuku restaurants defiantly responds to a recent threat to his business. (Here is the Google cache of the article, as the Eater site appears to be down at the time of this blog posting.)
Chang: We stand behind the meat we cook with and the people who raise it. We do not support factory farming or the mistreatment of animals raised for meat. And we are deeply offended that these people think they can threaten us like this, without even considering how we run our business, how much money and time and care we've put into trying to serve delicious, responsibly-sourced food prepared by well-informed, respectful cooks. We know there are better fights for them to fight out there. And, finally, the truth is that we've used very little foie gras at Ko or any Momofuku restaurant over the years, mainly because it's expensive and we try to keep our menus affordable. But as of today we'll be adding at least one foie gras dish to each of our menus, and we’ll work to keep the prices of the dishes low, and we'll donate any proceeds from those dishes to charity, including City Harvest and The Foodbank NYC – both of which are in dire need of money and support to help feed our city’s poorest and hungriest citizens.

Sarah DiGregorio of The Village Voice of New York recently investigated the largest foie gras producer in the U.S. and found none of the problems the vegan extremists claim, unless you consider eating responsibly raised meat itself a problem.
DiGregorio: Personally, I would avoid foie gras from the producers in France and Canada that use individual cages. The fact that some industrial farms elsewhere are making foie gras in inhumane ways doesn't mean that all foie gras production is inhumane. You can buy humanely raised chicken, or you can buy chicken that's had a nasty, brutal life. The same goes for foie gras. If I had seen with my own eyes that Hudson Valley produced foie gras by abusing ducks, this article would have turned out very differently. But that just wasn't the case.

Finally, Mark Pastore, owner of Incanto restaurant in San Francisco writes a lengthy and lucid perspective letter called Shock & Foie: The War Against Dietary Self-Determinism.
Pastore: Foie gras serves as a spearpoint issue for anti-meat activists not because the practices of foie gras producers approach anything close to the worst within the world of animal husbandry, or because the industry itself is significant in size or growth... Foie gras farmers – and those who serve it – are targeted for simple and eminently practical reasons: This is quite literally the smallest and most defenseless segment of the U.S. meat industry. There are only three producers in the U.S. Fewer than one in a hundred persons ever eat foie gras, and when they do, it is infrequently and in small amounts... Working to ban something that 99% of people never eat is not an act requiring great moral or physical courage ... By comparison, the anti-foie gras movement is – at best – founded upon a shrewd political calculation in which the professed indignation of a few is used to harness the indifference of the many to the inherent political cowardice of elected officials, in order to achieve a desired political outcome. In essence, it's a confidence game in which participating meat-eaters, by agreeing to condemn something that they don't care about, receive the equivalent of a get-out-of-jail card... The attack on foie gras consumption in the United States is therefore a tactic... This is a relatively easy target, intended to shock the American public into putting animal rights at the forefront of public policy. Don't start with a full frontal assault on a food that everyone eats – that would be futile. Better to pick off an easy target first and to make a public example of it.

I believe my stance is clear on foie gras.
  • I am a meat eater and I will actively defend my right to eat animals.
  • Vegan extremists are treating foie gras as a beach head front in a larger war against overall meat consumption. Tactics now include intimidation of restauranteurs and customers, but have previously gone so far as severe property vandalism and threats to family members of chefs. Absolutely no compromise should be given in this war for consumption of legitimate, responsibly produced meat. Attention should instead be given to cruel production practices with shark fins, mass production of chickens, and cornfed feedlot cattle.
  • There is no evidence of any cruelty or mistreatment of ducks and geese in the U.S. production of foie gras, both as an anatomical compatibility to the feeding procedure and as a tiny industry under close scrutiny.
  • One group of people telling another group what they shouldn't eat is deeply offensive.
  • Foie gras is a delicious delicacy, with thousands of years of culinary tradition behind it, and should be enjoyed with great respect to the chef, the restauranteur, the producer, and the bird.