Ethical Foie Gras: No Force-Feeding Necessary

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Holly A. Heyser


Sometimes nature presents you with something so special you have no choice but to bow down to the ingredient and present it as purely as you can. I know, Jaded Ones: You've heard this mantra aped by hundreds of chefs hundreds of times—"honor the protein," and such. It's a cliché. But in this case it's warranted.

I present to you wild foie gras. Yes, it exists. Under certain circumstances, wild ducks and geese will indeed gorge themselves far beyond their normal nutritional needs, to the point where they develop a fat layer comparable to that seen on a domestic duck, loads of fat around their gizzards and guts—and, most importantly, livers that develop into the lovely wobbly bit you see at left in the picture. Doctors call the condition steatosis, in which liver cells accumulate lipids. I call it yummy.

Not all ducks seem to do this. You will rarely see a diver duck this fat, and you will never see a snow goose this sclerotic. Mostly you see it in seed-loving ducks: mallards, gadwall, wigeon, Green-Winged Teal, and most of all in the Northern Pintail, Anas acuta.

This liver came from a pintail, a hen I shot on Opening Sunday at the Delevan National Wildlife Refuge, just outside of Maxwell. Even before I finished plucking this bird I knew I had something special: It was as fat as a domestic, and since I'd shot it in the head, there was no meat damage. Once I opened it up, I saw fat around the guts and a glob coating the gizzard. A good sign.

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Holly A. Heyser

When I saw the liver, I actually gasped—it was exactly the color of foie gras. Understand that you just don't see livers this fatty very often; a wild foie turns up maybe once or twice a season, tops. How fatty are we talking? Look at the other liver in the picture: It came from another pintail I shot that day.

Getting a wild foie is reason to rejoice. Especially for me. You see, I normally hate the texture of liver. Yes, I eat lots of livers throughout the year, but I mostly grind them into sausage, like my Italian mazzafegati, or mash them into a ravioli filling. I am particularly fond of a savory liver crème caramel, too. But straight-up liver? Not for me.

Yet I do love foie gras, even though I know that the practice of force-feeding the ducks and geese, called gavage, is questionable. That tube does hurt the birds a little, studies show (PDF), but not so much as the animal rights people would have you believe. There is a Spanish producer, Pateria de Sousa, that makes an exquisite foie without gavage by laying out lots and lots of figs, acorns, lupini beans, and olives for their geese to eat in fall. The Spanish foie is not as large as French force-fed foie, but it did win a blind taste test in France in 2006. De Sousa's foie has become the darling of the food world.

The reason the Spanish method works is the same reason we hunters occasionally see our wild foie gras: Waterfowl instinctively gorge in late summer and autumn, first to prep for the migration south—often a flight of more than 2,000 miles—and then to recover from that long journey. The domestic Spanish geese (which are a cousin of our wild specklebelly geese here) are slaughtered right after they've gorged for their "migration."

Presented by

Hank Shaw runs the website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, nominated for Best Food Blog by the James Beard Foundation in 2009 and 2010. He is the author of the recently released Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. More

A former line cook, veteran political reporter, and fisherman, Hank Shaw is a freelance food writer who runs the website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, which chronicles Shaw's search for what he calls the Forgotten Feast: The seasonal foods--mostly wild--we once delighted in, but are now curiosities at best. Game, wild mushrooms, seafood, and wild plants all have a place in modern cooking, and Shaw spends his days exploring their possibilities on the plate.

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook was nominated for Best Food Blog by the James Beard Foundation in both 2009 and 2010 and by the International Association of Culinary Professionals in 2010. He is the author of the recently released Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. His work has appeared in magazines such as The Art of Eating, Field & Stream, and Gastronomica. He hunts, fishes, forages, and gardens in Northern California with his girlfriend--and photographer--Holly A. Heyser.

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