Prohibition July/August 2012

The Last Days of Foie Gras

Irate chefs, frenzied gourmands, and the rise of animal rights in California
Joe Ciardiello

It is Saturday evening at Mélisse, a Michelin two-star French restaurant in Santa Monica, and the chef, Josiah Citrin, has spent most of the past five hours engaged in what will soon be punishable offenses: poaching grossly enlarged duck liver to accompany a filet of Dover sole, folding grossly enlarged duck liver into agnolotti, whipping grossly enlarged duck liver into a mousse that will rest on a substratum of blood-orange gelée. On July 1, California’s foie gras ban will go into effect, making it illegal to raise, sell, or serve any product made through gavage, a method of force-feeding waterfowl in order to swell their livers to gras proportions. And so, in the weeks leading up to this animal-rights equivalent of the Volstead Act, Citrin has been serving a seven-course “Foie for All” menu. He’s found 11 takers tonight, at $185 a pop.

Soon after I’ve finished an inconceivably tender prime-beef rib eye and braised beef cheek with cured foie gras—the foie gras cromesquis amuse-bouche is a distant memory—Citrin lumbers wearily into the packed dining room for his nightly patron schmooze. His too-long trousers balloon above his ankles; his apron is smudged. Why has foie gras been singled out, one diner asks, while the depredations of cattle feedlots are hardly addressed? “Foie gras is low-hanging fruit,” Citrin says, in the resigned tone of someone explaining the obvious. “You think the foie gras industry has money to fight, like the beef industry?” He points out that a class barrier also keeps voters from rallying in defense of foie. “You go out in the street and ask 25 people ‘What do you think about fattened duck liver?’ and they’ll say ‘Ooh, I don’t like that.’ You don’t have to take a poll.”

Citrin has joined a coalition of more than 100 chefs lobbying for the reversal or suspension of the foie gras ban. (The coalition, which insists that it does not oppose animal rights, says it favors the humane treatment of all livestock, waterfowl included.) In a few days, many of the chefs will travel to Sacramento to lobby on foie’s behalf, and in the weeks ahead, high-end restaurants will hold foie-filled dinners to raise funds for their quixotic fight. The campaign has captivated and divided the food world. Wolfgang Puck is one of the rare celebrity chefs supporting the ban; its foes include Thomas Keller and Anthony Bourdain (who, despite having no restaurant in California, is one of the law’s more belligerent opponents).

California’s foie gras statute passed in 2004, but implementation was delayed in order to give Sonoma-Artisan Foie Gras, the state’s only producer, time to find a method of rapidly fattening its ducks that is less cruel than forcing tubes down their throats. Perhaps not surprisingly, given that no such alternative had materialized since the ancient Egyptians inaugurated the practice, the past eight years yielded no breakthroughs, and Sonoma-Artisan is shutting down. Those years did, however, see legislative victory after victory on behalf of animal rights. In 2008, Californians voted—in greater numbers than for any other initiative in state history—to pass the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act, which dictates that pregnant pigs, egg-laying hens, and calves raised for veal have enough room to lie down, stand up, turn in a circle, and stretch their limbs freely. That same year, the legislature passed a law that would have (had it not been unanimously overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court) prevented ill or incapacitated pigs, cows, goats, and sheep from being bulldozed or forklifted to their execution. And in October 2011, Governor Jerry Brown signed a law banning the sale, trade, or possession of shark fins, a Chinese delicacy.

Strangely, these animal-rights triumphs coincided with a rising cult of animal protein and artisanal butchery among the state’s gourmands. Last year, a sold-out crowd filled St. Vibiana’s, a deconsecrated cathedral in downtown Los Angeles, to witness the hacking-apart of two whole hogs (and to eat their meat). The aptly named Animal is arguably L.A.’s most influential new restaurant of the past five years, on the strength of its veal brains, pig tails, and copious foie. This sudden vogue for carnage has led to a curious situation, in which diners at high-end California restaurants nod approvingly at menus that brag about the bio-sustainable provenance of the asparagus spears and the happy, grass-fed history of the lamb shanks, even as they sample liver from a duck that in its final weeks was probably force-fed enough calories to fuel its flight around the world—had it not by then been too fat to move.

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Ed Leibowitz is a writer at large for Los Angeles magazine.

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