During an era of political and economic upheaval, the swirling ethical and culinary questions surrounding the production and consumption of foie gras hardly seem to warrant a place at the table of great controversies. Yet they have loomed large in my small corner of the universe since I moved with my family from California to Toulouse, near the heart of France’s foie gras territory, in 2014. Arriving just two years after California’s ban on the rich, fatty delicacy first went into effect, we were marked from the start as immigrants from a state that had committed the greatest of gastronomical heresies.
And it could get worse. After being overturned and then upheld by a series of federal courts, the ban is once again in place thanks to a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in early January not to take up the case. In France, where the ban is followed intensely, the interest is not economic, since no foie gras made here is exported to the United States. Rather, the ban is a deep cultural wound for my newfound compatriots, who feel that the cherished ritual of eating foie gras is being deeply misunderstood. This celebrated tradition is now clashing with more modern sensibilities, mainly over such things as the treatment of animals.
I recently talked foie gras with Christophe Samaran, whose namesake family business is a legendary producer and seller of the stuff in the southwest region of France. His father, Pierre, played a pivotal role 50 years ago when he launched his Toulouse operation, which has since expanded to eight retail boutiques. Pierre helped transform foie gras from a holiday treat into a year-round staple by establishing a network of regional farms that raise ducks to make the fatted liver in all seasons. For Christophe, foie gras is not just a savory triumph. He repeated the widespread claim in these parts that people in the neighboring region of Gascony have among the longest life expectancies in France because they cook with more duck fat, which is high in the monounsaturated fats widely considered better for cholesterol levels. What a tragedy that the health-obsessed residents of California can’t benefit from this food, he mused. “We’re powerless to stop people in California from blocking foie gras, but then they legalize cannabis,” he said. “And me, I’m all for them legalizing cannabis. But for that reason, we shouldn’t judge other people. And it’s too bad, because foie gras is both very good-tasting and good for your health.”
FOIE GRAS SAVOIR FAIRE
It was my wife’s academic work that propelled our move from the San Francisco Bay Area to Toulouse, where our foie gras apprenticeship began almost immediately. My wife’s institute organized the French version of a treasure hunt for new fellows to help them learn about the city, and the first set of clues sent us to a plaza where a table had been set up for the first challenge: Properly prepare a plate of foie gras.
As our two kids cut up fruit and bread to arrange around the slices of foie gras on a plate, the woman running the station asked us where we were from. Upon hearing “California,” she slid her hand under the table and pulled out a large poster board she had made that explained the history and ethics of the dish. The American barbarians had landed on her shores, and she was well armed. “You need to understand that the history of foie gras goes all the way back to the Egyptians,” she said, adding that the controversial practice of gavage (force-feeding ducks and geese to fatten their livers) was perfectly natural and didn’t cause the animals any suffering. We listened and nodded awkwardly while eating the foie gras, and then we beat a hasty retreat.
This was our first encounter with the passion that surrounds foie gras in France, particularly in the country’s southwestern corner. The regions radiating from the west to the northwest of Toulouse, including Gers, Lot-et-Garonne, and Dordogne, are the delicacy’s leading producers. Locals will tell you that the more temperate climate and mild winters are ideal for raising ducks, from which 95 percent of foie gras in France is made.
Gradually, I learned to appreciate the place it holds in the French culinary mind-set. Foie gras extends beyond the simple act of eating to the ceremony surrounding it. Every moment is meant to be enjoyed and savored. A year after our arrival, we were invited to a New Year’s Eve party organized by friends in the countryside. Somewhat naively, when a list was passed around to sign up to bring supplies, we put ourselves down for foie gras. Easy enough, we figured. Just pass by the Samaran market and grab a slab.
But there followed a long chain of emails between us and the host, who was clearly dubious that we were sufficiently qualified. “Do you plan to make it or buy it?” she asked. Well, buy it, as we have no idea how to make it, we replied. This was not considered optimal. It is crucial to get foie gras mi-cuit, which is placed in a container and poached a bit before sitting in a refrigerator for just the right number of weeks. “Where will you buy it and when? Have you bought foie gras before? What is your experience with it?” she wanted to know. Eventually, a truce was negotiated in person in which my wife agreed to ask a French friend to accompany her to the Samaran market to ensure that the appropriate foie gras was chosen.
The next step in our education was to learn to make foie gras. So one Sunday morning some months later, we embarked on a bus tour, again organized by my wife’s institute, that took us from our home in Toulouse to Gers, in the heart of foie gras territory. The bus dropped us in the small town of Gimont to experience its legendary Marché au Gras.
Stepping inside the vast hall, we joined a crowd of locals pressed together behind a rope blocking access to a white sea of ghostly still ducks and geese lying supine on more than 100 tables, their heads hanging just over the edges. A whistle blew, the rope was lifted, and the crowd flooded through in search of the best of the best. Gray-haired men and women poked and prodded the dead fowl, lifting the heads gently, expertly pondering their weight, color, and texture for clues to the quality of the delicacies hidden inside.
There was a sense that we were seeing an ancient rite, something that had managed to escape the demands of modernity. There was a little haggling, then our duck was weighed, bought, and whisked over to a counter of butchers. In just a couple of minutes, the bird was plucked and cut into pieces such as the magret de canard (breast), to be cooked on its own or made into duck confit. The liver was packed separately.
After exiting the market, our group walked to Villa Cahuzac, a nearby restaurant and hotel, for our foie gras workshop. This being France, the making of the dish was in fact just a small part of the workshop. Just as important as eating is having a complete knowledge of the science and history of the food. The connaissance and the savoir-faire.
Inside the Villa Cahuzac dining room, the workshop started with the knowledge part of the equation. “The history of foie gras goes all the way back to the Egyptians,” our instructor began. The Egyptians, we learned, are credited with discovering that geese can be fattened through force feeding, because their anatomy allows them to stuff themselves in preparation for long migrations.
An hour later, we were ready to make foie gras. After what felt like years of buildup to this moment, the preparation turned out to be hilariously simple. Cut the liver. Trim a few unwanted bits. Open a glass jar. Sprinkle in some Armagnac. Stuff the liver inside. Add a little salt and pepper. Close the jar. This took maybe 10, 15 minutes tops. As our jars were placed in a steamer to be poached, we gathered around a long table for a lengthy lunch composed mostly of exquisite foie gras and red wine. We then boarded the bus back to Toulouse with a jar of our very own foie gras in hand and, feeling extremely drowsy from the sensory assault and culinary overload, were asleep within minutes.
The most controversial part of foie gras is the force feeding of the animals. There is no getting around the fact that for most humans, the idea of someone inserting a tube into an animal’s mouth and pouring food down it feels unsettling. During the first 12 weeks of a foie gras duck’s life, the amount it is fed is gradually increased. The gavage then takes place over the last couple of weeks. The animals are killed at around 100 days, at which point their livers are roughly six or more times bigger.
But are they suffering? The foie gras industry in France says no, duck biology is different, and to imagine that they are in pain is to anthropomorphize them. Animal rights activists say the force feeding is barbaric.
In 2004, a coalition of animal rights activists convinced the California legislature to pass a law that banned the force feeding of animals as well as the sale of any products derived from that process. The law took effect in 2012, prompting a suit to be filed in U.S. district court by attorney Michael Tenenbaum, who represented a group of Canadian duck and geese farmers. The case came to turn on the legal question of whether a state had the right to make a law that trod on an area of rulemaking reserved for a federal agency, in this case the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The district court judge ruled for the plaintiffs in January 2015, an event overshadowed in France by the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack, which occurred the same day. In 2017, a federal appeals court overturned the lower court’s decision, but agreed to stay its ruling, leaving the ban blocked. In January 2018, Tenenbaum petitioned the Supreme Court to hear the case.
The petition attracted amicus briefs from various parties, including France itself, whose filing exclaimed that the law is an “assault on French tradition” and complained about “California’s legislative affront to the people of France.” It went on: “Indeed, in 2010 UNESCO designated ‘the gastronomic meal of the French,’ which often includes a serving of foie gras, as an ‘intangible cultural heritage of humanity.’ ” Despite these pleas, the Supreme Court in January followed the recommendation of the U.S. solicitor general and denied the request for a hearing. The ban was back in effect, though Tenenbaum has vowed to return to U.S. district court to seek another injunction while he prepares further appeals.
Meanwhile, France’s foie gras producers have suffered. In 2015, a bird flu forced the government to order the killing of 3.7 million ducks, either because they had contracted the disease or as a precaution. Production plunged by 25 percent that year. And homegrown animal rights groups have been pressuring the industry with public campaigns about the ethics of producing foie gras; they see the California ban as a victory, even if its fate is uncertain. Polls show that a growing percentage of French people favor banning the gavage.
Brigitte Gothière, cofounder of the activist group L214, says that the notion that foie gras is some great French tradition is itself a bit overstuffed. “Symbolically, it’s very strong,” she says of the California law. “The fact that the practice is banned in more and more countries helps us convince the French.”
Producers are pressing a campaign of their own to show that they take the treatment of animals seriously. Marie-Pierre Pé, director of the industry association Comité Interprofessionnel des Palmipèdes à Foie Gras, says that French foie gras methods are devoted to quality, which results from raising the animals in better conditions and using a less intense gavage technique. She also notes that in rural areas the product remains an indispensable part of the economy. The California law contributes to a misunderstanding about who foie gras producers are and what they do. “It’s more symbolic than economic,” Pé says. “The protection of animals is very important to us. If it’s not done by the rules, it’s not a good product.”
SCHWARZENEGGER, THE GAVAGE
On a Saturday morning in late November, my wife and I drove through the rolling hills of Lot-et-Garonne to la Ferme de Souleilles, a working foie gras farm and home to the Museum of Foie Gras. Inside the museum’s boutique, where we found shelves loaded with jars of foie gras, we were greeted by owner Yves Boissière.
Boissière is renowned for his striking, ample white mustache, which makes an impressive awning over his upper lip. He opened the museum more than a decade ago to recount the history of foie gras. Despite being in a rather remote setting, the museum welcomes 15,000 visitors a year, who pay about $5 for a ticket and shop in the boutique. That economic boost helps ensure that the farm’s 17 employees, including Boissière’s wife and children, can make a solid living and remain in the place they love.
Boissière led us through the museum over the next hour, giving us a personalized tour that began in the only place such a journey could begin: Egypt. From there, we traced the story of foie gras across the history of Europe through the past century, as represented by life-size exhibits of rural families stuffing ducks. Detecting our country of origin, Boissière showed us a copy of a local paper from 2015 hailing the original U.S. federal court decision overturning the foie gras ban. The ban, in his mind, is an indicator of how the world has changed and how people over time have become more distant from their roots, living with little knowledge of how things are made or where their food comes from.
“Today, if California bans the consumption of foie gras, it’s because people don’t know about the gavage,” he explained. “I would ask Californians who would come to visit, ‘Do you think [former governor Arnold] Schwarzenegger knows anything about the gavage?’ More than anything, it is about the change in society over the last 50 years. Because we were a much more rural society 50 years ago. Fifty years ago, you bought meat or chicken, and you had to bring it home and kill it. Today, everything is done in a factory. And when people see the gavage, they don’t understand it.”
That got no argument from us. As the tour ended, we found ourselves back in Boissière’s boutique, where we were treated to some tastings of the farm’s famous product. We slid the foie gras into our mouths—it was wonderfully delicious and, for that moment at least, guilt-free.
Chris O’Brien is a journalist and refugee from Silicon Valley who didn’t know the first thing about duck confit or foie gras when he fled to Toulouse, France, in 2014 with his family.