Much Ado About Liver
by Barry M. Levenson
It is illegal for any restaurant in Chicago to sell foie gras to its patrons. For those of you not familiar with this often-prized dish, here is a quickie gastronomy lesson: foie gras is French for "fat liver," and it is a delicacy (or travesty, depending on your political leanings) made from the livers of ducks or geese that have been force-fed during the last two weeks of their lives to make their livers very big.
You won’t find foie gras on the menu of your local fast-food joint. Probably not on the bill of fare at your favorite neighborhood eatery either. It’s rare and very expensive. An appetizer portion of top-grade foie gras will set you back about $20, if you can find it.
Foie gras has been around for centuries. The ancient Egyptians may have been the first to notice that ducks and geese have a natural tendency to overeat before migrating, perhaps as a natural food-storage mechanism. This overeating caused their livers to swell. Lo and behold, some brave soul — maybe on a dare? — tasted one of these "fat livers" and decided it was, in the words of Alton Brown, "good eats." The French, always looking for an excuse to try something new, so long as they could pair it with a great wine, made foie gras into a national delicacy.
The problem is that you can’t count on ducks and geese to reliably overindulge themselves into little butterballs. So we have learned to help them along, by inserting tubes down their gullets and pouring food into them. The result is a fat duck (or goose) with a fat liver.
Foie gras always has been a treat reserved only for the well-to-do. It spread from France to many other lands, including the United States. It never has been an abundant food, but has managed to exist quietly alongside saffron, truffles and veal. You know; the ultra-gourmet stuff.
But you can’t buy foie gras in Chicago. It is now illegal because animal rights activists have convinced the Chicago City Council that the practice of force-feeding is so cruel that it should totally ban the food in all Windy City restaurants. Who can argue with the underlying premise that a decent society must not condone the mistreatment of animals raised for food?
There are no foie gras farms in Chicago or anywhere in Illinois. In fact, there are only three foie gras farms operating in the United States, two in New York, one in California. In five years, the California operation will stop, because Gov. Schwarzenegger signed into law a bill that will outlaw the practice of force-feeding ducks, effective 2012.
As a lawyer, a lover of animals and a major foodie, I find myself conflicted by all this. I’ll confess: I’ve eaten foie gras a few times (well, maybe more than a few) and I like it. It has a silky, buttery taste that is enhanced by a fine French sauternes and even more enhanced when someone else is paying for it. On the other hand, I’m not insensitive to the argument that we should not torture animals (or vegetables either) to satisfy our gustatory cravings. In fact, several countries have banned the practice of force-feeding birds to produce fattened livers, so this is not a ridiculous argument advanced only by some lunatic fringe element.
I decided to go straight to the horse’s mouth for an answer. That’s not entirely accurate: I went straight to the duck’s beak.
I visited the California farm where the ducks are being raised and then "force-fed" before being sent to the slaughterhouse. I witnessed the process, called "gavage" by the French, in which a pre-measured portion of grain goes down a metal pipe into the duckie’s gullet. It takes about eight seconds per feeding. I saw no outward signs of distress but I am no expert on animal behavior. So I then asked each duck: "Does that bother you?"
The ducks weren’t talking.
That’s the problem. Yes, I wouldn’t want someone cramming food down my throat but anthropomorphic arguments are inherently flawed. So what are we to do? Shall we invoke the overwhelming power of the state to mandate that no one ever again shall taste the dish that has inspired countless chefs yet also has disgusted and repulsed equally as many (maybe more) fervent lovers of animals?
I submit that we sometimes ask too much of our laws. Prevention of cruelty to animals is laudable and a proper subject of legislation. But when reasonable minds can differ as to whether a particular practice really is "cruel," should we not hesitate when imposing one side’s will on the rest of society? That is the problem with laws. When one side has the votes, it can declare that reasonable minds cannot differ.
Without intending to trivialize either issue, I have suggested that this topic is akin to the abortion question. If you believe that abortion is murder and that reasonable minds cannot view it otherwise, you support laws that ban abortion. If you see abortion as something else — perhaps a muddied and gray area of moral uncertainty — you support a woman’s right to choose. Are not the growers, preparers, and consumers of foie gras, entitled to make that same choice, without government interference?
With all that’s going on in food these days, from the safety of food from China to organic labeling, from trans fats to mad cow, is this really the best use of legislative resources?
Have you ever had a real "Chicago Dog"? It’s a hot dog in a poppy-seeded bun, with green relish, sport peppers, tomato chunks, maybe a pickle spear, and mustard. Some people within the city limits of Chicago put ketchup on their dogs. Now that’s what the Chicago City Council should ban.
Barry M. Levenson is an attorney, author and recent CBA-CLE presenter. His book is Habeas Codfish: Reflections on Food and the Law. Contact him at (800) 438-6878 or firstname.lastname@example.org.