Foie gras or faux pas?

Everything you always wanted to know (or not) about this duck liver delicacy

click to enlarge ISLAND FLAVOR: West Indies spiced foie gras with tamarind barbecue sauce, banana lime salad and tostones, served at Mise En Place. - VALERIE TROYANO
Valerie Troyano
ISLAND FLAVOR: West Indies spiced foie gras with tamarind barbecue sauce, banana lime salad and tostones, served at Mise En Place.

Did you know that ducks don't have a gag reflex? "That makes sense," says Writer Rick, as we pull into the parking lot of the Don Cesar. "Have you ever seen them gobble a whole fish? Right down the gullet." That esophageal flexibility plays an important role in explaining why we've gassed up the Hyundai and headed out in search of foie gras.

Foie gras is the fattened liver of a duck or goose. May not sound attractive if you've never had it, but it's divine stuff. Like caviar and truffles and a few seasonal mushrooms, it's one of the few things in this world that can make me believe in God, if only for just a few bites. When cooked correctly, it quivers along that fine line between liquid and solid, a texture that requires minimal mastication to release the intense flavor of meat and fat. It does not in any way taste like liver as you know it. It is also — as of Aug. 22 — illegal in Chicago.

That doesn't seem like much of a tragedy when a poorly executed plate of the stuff lands in front of us at the Don Cesar's Maritana Grill. It's a bit burned, a bit shredded, and gets lost amidst crisp puff pastry and powerful porcini mushrooms. Resoundingly mundane, it hardly seems worth the $17, let alone the possible karmic consequences.

You see, there are people who believe that foie gras production is inherently cruel, even beyond the industrialized nastiness that takes place every day in the mainstream meat and poultry industry. That's why it was banned in Chicago, a city where you can otherwise find almost every part of almost every animal on earth shoved into a sausage casing and eaten with mustard. Are the activists right? It's hard to say, even for the experts.

Before you make any value judgments, you first have to know how foie gras is produced. Ducks or geese (mainly ducks here in North America) usually wander about in free-range splendor for the first 12 weeks or so of life. Then they're moved inside and two to three times a day a spigot is pushed down their throats and into their esophagi, where as much as four pounds of cornmeal and fat per duck are injected daily. After two to four weeks, the liver becomes enlarged to roughly 10 times its normal size. Slaughter the duck, harvest the liver, package the breast, and use the rest in everything from pâté to confit.

The result is a pound-and-a-half of pale pink perfection that is almost 80 percent fat and 100 percent delectable. At its simplest, foie gras can be lightly seasoned and poached, like the torchon ($16) Rick and I order at Café Ponte in Clearwater later the same night. This disc of foie is covered in nuts and served cold; when spread on buttery brioche toast, it coats my mouth in unctuous fat that is almost too much to handle.

Am I spreading cruelty with Ponte's homemade marmalade? Animal rights proponents from PETA to the Humane Society say yes. They claim that premature death goes up dramatically during the weeks of force-feeding, that the duck's esophagus can be damaged during the feeding, and, though this might seem obvious, the ducks don't really like it. To its critics, eating foie gras is the same as eating liver disease on toast.

Proponents claim that duck livers are made for this sort of thing, because ducks use a version of this fattening to stock up on calories before the flight south for the winter. If you stopped force-feeding at the end of the process and let the duck live, the liver would gradually return to normal with little to no harm done. By measuring chemical triggers in the blood, a European Union study showed that ducks don't get unduly stressed by the feeding. And then there's that lack of gag reflex.

It's the classic fight between people who believe animals shouldn't be a commodity and people who feel animals are destined for human consumption, with blurry evidence on both sides.

Later that night, Rick and I dig in to a small plank of seared foie ($13.91) on the patio at Sidebern's. It's undercooked, but the foie mousse in a special soup ($9.91) is spectacular, adding a powerful bit of opulent richness to a spicy cumin, white bean and sweet-corn chili. The side of potato and foie gras pierogies ($5.91) are the most luxe little dumplings I've had in a while.

That's the kind of delicious foie gras that has encouraged a pro-foie revolution in Chicago. There's a chef-sponsored lawsuit and documented cases of culinary civil disobedience. Who knows ... it may end up rivaling Prohibition. Bathtub foie gras? Foieleggers?

Later at Mise En Place, while cutting into another slightly charred slice of foie ($14) and a slab of dry pâté ($8), I come to the conclusion that the fine dining industry takes foie gras for granted. It's so luxurious, so decadent all by itself, that it doesn't always receive the care it deserves.

Headed home, loaded with liver that's been poached, foamed, seared and stuffed into a mold, I have to admit I'm underwhelmed and ambivalent. Should I turn a blind eye to the supposed plight of these ducks? If tonight's parade of good, bad and indifferent foie gras is any indication, do I even care if it's outlawed here in my hometown?

Cast the bright light of day on any type of meat production and the results are not going to be pretty. That pristine pack of skinless, boneless chicken breast at Publix was once a living creature that undoubtedly didn't like its tight quarters, horrible air quality and five-week life expectancy. If you eat meat, you should face up to the realities that come with your cheap and easy protein.

Are ducks mistreated? I'm sure they are, at some operations. Some are kept in isolation cages while some are allowed to roam free. Some are hurt when force-fed, many are not. Some may want to be force-fed, others find it uncomfortable. Wow, sounds a little like life at Guantanamo Bay.

Is foie gras production cruel? Not nearly as cruel as the short and miserable life of an industrially raised pig or chicken.

In any case, this incredible liver shouldn't be taken for granted by chef or gourmand or casual diner. We may want to ban the stuff here in the Bay area — but only in the restaurants that don't treat it with respect.

Brian Ries is a former restaurant general manager with an advanced diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers. Planet food critics dine anonymously, and the paper pays for the meals. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.

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