A med & grad student who used to work the line in LA, NYC, SF and Napa talking about the science of cooking and cooking with science. Harold McGee's On Food And Cooking - The Science and Lore of the Kitchen never satisfied my kitchen curiosity and more than one Chef grew exasperated with my asking "Why?" I'll try to stay on topic, but you may see a kvetch or two about the school & hospital.
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It was autumn. The air was crisp and cool. Leaves were in the midst of their transformation from vibrant green to red, orange and yellow. The brown would come later. The walkways and cobblestones of Montmartre were slick with damp. The soles of our cheap shoes couldn’t find much purchase on the stairs of Rue Foyatier, so we clung to the wet handrail. My gloves would smell like rusty metal for weeks after we returned home. The street lights made the ground shine, like some magical place. Dorothy’s Yellow Brick Road and Oz had nothing on the magic and majesty of Paris and her damp slick streets in autumn. You couldn’t help but hum along with Edith Piaf, “The falling leaves / Drift by the window / The autumn leaves / All red and gold.”
It was our last night together in Paris. I would remain for another week. M’s sister was heading home. The other two members of our erstwhile quartet, whom I’ll refer to as D and A, were heading to Nice. A pale, coke bottle lensed imitation of Jake Barnes and Hemingway’s Lost Generation in The Sun Also Rises. Reservations made and held at a brasserie we’d found earlier in our visit. The white linen tablecloths, waiters in tuxedoes and copious amounts of vin ordinaire paired with the incredible food had endeared the place to us. That last meal was memorable for the company and the food. Stories that had A’s lilting, peeling laughter filling the restaurant and D and myself leaning into each other in laughter. But the food, the food was what we remember the most. The frissee and lardons, the herbs young so they weren’t bitter, and dressed simply with a poached egg. No salad has ever compared for me. Many have come close, but fallen oh so short. Choucroute, a plate of cured meats and potatoes, which featured a pork knuckle that could have been served on its own to applause, and potatoes so airy and light mashed potatoes just don’t cut it anymore. A didn’t like the knuckle. She was just too weirded out by recognizing a part of the animal she was about to consume.
There was one dish we four agreed upon. A dish M’s sister didn’t think she’d enjoy, that D looked dubiously at me for ordering. It was foie gras. Foie gras with pear, an incredibly simple dish that had an amazing depth of flavor and grace. It was like the Chef had decided to recreate Jacques Demy’s Les Parapluis des Cherbourg on the menu and had cast the foie gras dish as Catherine Deneuve.
Foie gras is a food that serves up much controversy. It has been around for a long time, perhaps since the Egyptian Empire. Animal rights activists decry the practice of raising animals and force feeding them as cruel and inhumane. Producers and restaurateurs cry “foul” and point out that the birds normally gorge themselves before long migrations in the fall. Unsurprisingly there isn’t much peer reviewed literature on gavage, the force feeding method, or foie gras. The majority of the literature against foie gras comes from veterinarians and animal rights activists “touring” facilities and nitpicking everything from whether the plumage looks right to just how rusty parts of a tractor are. The literature of proponents of foie gras tends to rely largely on how dissociated with the reality of global food culture that animal rights activists and vegans can be.
What literature does exist is, unsurprisingly, done by the French. The French are the world’s largest producers and consumers of foie gras, with over 18,000 tons of produced1 and 19,000 tons consumed. Dr. Daniel Guémené of L’Institute national de la recherché agronomique (L’INRA), has written one of the few papers on gavage. In it he looks at the concerns raised by many opponents – that force feeding stresses the birds; that the birds don’t naturally consume the quantities of food forced down their throats; that the birds were fed against their will. Guemene notes:
One major criticism based on the excessive amount of food that the birds have to ingest daily during the force-feeding period was counteracted by the observations of geese spontaneously ingesting large amounts of grass or over 3kg of carrots per day…Ducks exhibited only partial avoidance of force-feeding and no sign of aversion was observed in geese…Furthermore, there was no development of aversion to the operator throughout the force-feeding period. (Guémené and Guy 219)
Guémené’s statements probably do little to address the concerns activists have for the well-being of the animals in question. Which is not a trifling emotion. Certainly anyone who has ever had a pet has some attachment and sentiment for at least some animals. And certainly, talking to most farmers and chefs, they take just as much consideration for the animals they raise and serve. But in light of Guémené’s statements, one can’t help but wonder if activists take too much care to humanize animals and de-humanize, practically demonize, the people responsible for their slaughter?
Further input on the stress of the birds is, again, provided by Guémené when he notes, along with Guy, Noirault, Garreau-Mills, Gouraud and Faure looked at corticosterone (CORT) levels in ducks, to determine stress levels of the animal. CORT has been linked to stress in birds, and Guémené et al., set out to look at if, how and when birds were stressed and noted:
Higher basal corticosterone concentrations were measured for the fully force-fed ducks throughout the first study and by the end of the experimental period for the second one. It is however very unlikely that these oberservations are related to any stress effects. In experiment 1, this group already had a higher concentration on day on before the ducks were first force-fed…there was no significant change between two subsequent bleedings. (Guémené et al 655)
These are ducks being fed roughly 2kg of food every day. And it’s very doubtful that the increase elevated corticosterone levels are the direct result of stress. Especially as there was no change in levels. Instead Guémené et al note that “the role of corticosterone in metabolic regulation during the pre-migratory period is well established.” Where CORT in humans is an intermediate, before eventual conversion to aldosterone, in birds and some other animals it is a glucocorticoid (GC). GCs have functions that encompass metabolism, immune response and arousal and cognition, but it is CORTs function in metabolism that is necessary to look at. The birds are taking up an enormous amount of food and it wouldn’t be surprising that the body is releasing CORT to help deal with the amounts of fuel now available.
This is no longer a stress response in birds, but instead a response to food. I’m certain if you looked at the GC levels of my friends during meals, you’d also find elevated levels. I’m certainly not stressing my friends out, but there’s just a copious amount of food available. And they are gorging themselves. Willingly.
Both sides of the debate can be taken to task for unnecessary bile and rancor, with the passions serving only to alienate both sides. But passion is about all you can expect from both sides. Activists are fighting for what they believe in. Whether it is the care of animals in humane fashion or not scoffing at over 3,000 years of human history. It would be reprehensible to dismiss both sides and claim that only one side’s argument has true cachet. If you take a look at providers like Sonoma-Artisan Foie Gras or Hudson Valley Foie Gras, you see people who care about their animals. They aren’t a quick battery operation that just churns out product. The whole animal is used. The liver, foie gras, certainly is what draws people to them, but the whole animal is offered. Nothing is carelessly tossed out. That isn’t something people who don’t care about their animals do. If the truly didn’t care, they wouldn’t take the time to make sure everything was available. You’d have foie gras and that’s it.
Sonoma-Artisan and Hudson Valley are the only two providers of foie gras in the US. And on July 1st, 2012, one of them will no longer be in business. California will be the only state in the Union to ban the production and sale of foie gras. I doubt foie gras will actually go away. Much like Cuban cigars in the US can be had for “free” with the purchase of a $50 book of matches foie gras will go underground. And this isn’t a good thing. Duck and geese will still be raised in the state, but how many operations will go underground and not taken up by people with the animal’s interests at heart? How much foie gras imported from E. Europe and China, where there are just long rows of cages of ill-treated birds, will be smuggled into California?
This isn’t the same as shark fin soup, where an animal is endangered. This is about a viable product that has been part of human history for a long time. Not just Western history, but human history. Where hunters in Asia, Americas, Europe and Africa looked forward to migrating birds, because they’d gorged themselves prior to their long flight. This isn’t just the food of the bourgeois or the rich. This is a food that was once prized and a treasured part of people’s culinary heritage. This was something you would have looked forward to on Christmas Day 100, 150, 200 years ago.
D and I spent about a month trying to recreate the foie gras dish when I returned to NYC. My hastily scrawled notes, from subsequent visits and questioning the chef, proved an excellent jumping off point. And the following January, when I was back in SF, I made the dish for my birthday. And it brought the four of us back to Paris. To Montmartre. To cheap, but excellent Bordeaux. To mornings spent nibbling on pastry and drinking dark, dark coffee. And to this day when I make it, I’m still brought back to Paris. It’s still not a trip to Paris, either, without finding the same brasserie serving foie gras. And if they’re not serving it, maybe I’ll find another restaurant serving foie gras. Or maybe I’ll just go with it. Trying to capture that taste, that memory. Mais la vie sépare / Ceux qui s'aiment / Tout doucement / Sans faire de bruit
D. Guémené and G. Guy (2004). The past, present and future of force-feeding and “foie gras” production. World's Poultry Science Journal, 60 210-222
D. Guémené, G. Guy, J. Noirault, M. Garreau-Mills, P. Gouraud and J.M. Faure (2001). Force-feeding procedure and physiological indicators of stress in male mule ducks. British Poultry Science, 42, 650-657
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Life is to enjoy and good food is to be had. Overeating is only a health problem long term.. we could make this argument over the obesity epidemic. Ah well thanks for sharing and as usual I am completely jealous of the foods you have been able to eat!
What if you provided the poultry with television? No more force-feeding, just wanton snacking. Wouldn't that make everyone happy, including the animals?
Oh man. Can you imagine? Reruns of MASH and snackage? The birds would take down that 3kilos of food in no time. 5 or 6 if we rolled up a fatty for them to pass around. It'd totally fall under organic, wouldn't it?
@Alchemystress One of the two papers hit on that if the birds were force fed like that, and they weren't allowed to migrate, if you let the birds live 2 weeks after the planned slaughter date, they developed serious health problems. But that would mean that the birds weren't allowed to fly free, or weren't slaughtered. Just allowed to wander around the duck/goose house.
I wish I could write half as well as you do, Jay. I could read your writing all day. Excellent post.
What is needed is a transgenic goose with a mutation in the leptin gene. Then it'll fatten itself.
@Brian : Thanks!
@Namnezia : Huh...I have a friend that works with geese. I'll pitch the idea at him. Dunno if that will cause as big an uproar as transgenic salmon amongst seafood chefs, though - Ripert, Moonen et al.