Still enjoying foie gras

A bit more information about this "most contentious of foods"

The recent Eat This Podcast on foie gras, talking to Michaela DeSoucey, the sociologist who wrote Contested Tastes: foie gras and the politics of food, was really fun to make. Foie gras, the way it is produced, marketed and eaten is such a complex and interesting topic and Michaela DeSoucey is such a knowledgeable person that we talked for over an hour. The hard part was cutting it down to a more manageable length, and that meant that some stuff just inevitably had to be left out.

One of those was the whole question of duck (and goose) digestive anatomy and physiology. Michaela did say that they have an oesophagus that is keratinised, like a fingernail, and that lacks nerve endings. That's how they can swallow sticks, gravel and spiny fish with impunity. And they also lack a gag reflex. But there's more. The crop, which lies at the end of the oesophagus, is a kind of storage bag, which gradually passes food into the proventriculus, or stomach, and from there into the gizzard, where the food is ground up and moved on to the rest of the digestive system.

During gavage, food passes into the crop, not the stomach. The bird regulates the flow of food from crop to stomach. It isn't gagging and it isn't stuffed. It is actually our failure to put ourselves properly in the duck's place that makes us think that gavage must be cruel.

That's not so say that industrial-scale production of foie gras is without its faults. Industrial-scale handling of any animal is bound to be less caring or respectful than a smaller-scale approach. There is an animal welfare issue, but in the greater scheme of things, foie gras is not that big a deal. It does, however, lend itself to theatrics, which is probably why it has been such a soft target for animal "rights" activists. But as George Berridge sagely observed in a recent review of Contested Tastes 1

[A]ctivists have made it clear that if they cannot manage a coup de grâce, they will settle for death by a thousand cuts.

Which is rather clever.

How important is gavage, though, the source of activists' anger? As DeSoucey's book makes clear, there is excellent evidence of a similar process in ancient Egypt, and all the effort to turn foie gras into effectively an essential part of French nationhood and history drew on the long tradition of the process. The justification, if any were needed, is that waterfowl naturally gorge themselves before migration to store energy for the journey, and all we're doing is hastening that process. It's entirely natural. It is even said that hunters sometimes find a fatty liver when they open a freshly-shot bird.

In which case, why not harness nature to create foie gras for us? That is apparently what Edoardo Sousa & Diego Labourdette have been doing in Spain. In 2006 their gavage-free foie gras won a prize for innovation at a French food salon, a victory subsequently denied them because, as DeSoucey explained

French law states that foie gras by definition must come from a goose or duck that has been specially fattened via force feeding.

No gavage, no foie gras, although who can say whether that would be enough for those who oppose it.

A couple of years later, chef Dan Barber made a meal of this "ethical foie gras" in a TED talk. Stirring though Barber's talk was, there are persistent rumours of difficulties with Sousa & Labourdette's production and ability to supply their foie gras. And Barber was not able to replicate the technique at his own farm. Although Michaela DeSoucey and I talked about ethical foie gras, there wasn't any way to include our discussion in the show without a great deal more work. In the meantime, I came across an old write-up of Jacques Legros, a producer in Canada who seems to be able to persuade ducks and geese to fatten themselves without gavage. Legros seems to have dropped out of the news lately, but his farm's website is still going strong. Anyone over there care to investigate?

Those are just a few things I thought it important to add to the podcast episode. There is a ton of stuff out there on the internet, most of it not all that illuminating. So to save you having to sift yourself, here's my selection:

  1. A Wild Goose Chase by Wyatt Williams, January 14, 2015. Excellent feature in Eater, following one Georgia farmer and folding in a lot of information about foie gras.
  2. The New Yorker ran a three-part series by Dana Goodyear in June 2012, pegged to California's ban (since rescinded).
  3. In truly horrifying news, a company called Laurel Pine supplies something called Foie'camole 2 made from foie gras produced by a farm in southern Tennessee.

In the end, as I said in the original podcast, "if you want to be good at the same time as eating well, you have to know how your food is produced". Foie gras is no different. It just carries a lot more baggage. As George Berridge wrote:

Foie gras is a product that thrives not in spite of its critics but because of them. The fight is about defining social identities around food: in constitutional America and patriotic France, you are what you eat.

  1. Behind a paywall, I'm afraid. And, as I always say on these occasions, I'd be happy to pay a small, one-off fee, if it is easy enough. 

  2. Which, to my sordid mind, lends itself to a near homophone. 

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