The Last Days of Foie Gras

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

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.

Perplexed by these contradictions, I recently went to San Francisco to see John Burton, the chairman of the state’s Democratic Party and the original patron of the anti-gavage law. A dependably profane mainstay of California public life, Burton introduced the bill while serving his last term as president pro tem of the state Senate; hearing of the chefs’ insurrection this spring, he told the San Francisco Chronicle that he’d “like to sit all 100 of them down and have duck and goose fat—better yet, dry oatmeal—shoved down their throats over and over and over again.” A postcard of a duck lay on his disorderly desk, across which he lobbed grenades at each of the chefs’ arguments.

The chefs’ coalition has warned about the ban’s potential impact on California’s high-end restaurants in a bad economy, and the state’s diminished standing in the world of haute cuisine. “California will no longer be a food destination?,” Burton said. “In other words, a guy’s sitting around and says ‘Let’s go to California. They’ve got these beautiful views. They’ve got Yosemite, the bridges, Universal City, the redwoods. Oh, shit! They don’t have foie gras! Let’s go to South Dakota.’”

Nor did he buy the argument that a restaurant could go broke without foie gras, unless that restaurant’s specialty was incredibly narrow. “If you had the House of Foie Gras, you’d be fucked,” he said. “Like if at the House of Pancakes, you can’t make pancakes.” Finally, I tried out the claim, put forth by some experts, that ducks might not suffer overmuch during gavage—that as migratory birds, they are biologically disposed to gorging themselves, and that their lack of a gag reflex means tube feeding may be less miserable for them than it would be for us. “The bottom line is, you shouldn’t be torturing Goosey Gander and Donald Duck,” Burton said. “It’s a bad goddamn thing to be doing.”

Provided the law stands—and it is expected to, given that no one in Sacramento seems keen to revisit gavage in the midst of a budget crisis—California’s chefs will have to decide whether to obey it or, as some have already threatened, defy it (and risk a $1,000-a-plate fine). Such culinary disobedience has some precedent: Chicago, which in 2006 implemented the nation’s first foie gras ban, recently overturned its law, in part because it was so widely flouted, and in part because then Mayor Richard M. Daley claimed it had made his city “the laughingstock of the nation.” (Though not the world. Under Hitler, Germany was the first country to criminalize force-feeding of fowl; several countries—including Israel, Italy, Denmark, the Czech Republic, and Poland—have since outlawed gavage. None of these bans extends to consumption, however; Germans, who updated their ban in the 1990s, eat 170 tons of foie gras a year.)

Back at Mélisse, the servers swoop in on my table with dessert. As I spoon up the last of the ambrosial foie gras ice cream and apples with foie gras Chantilly cream, I’m ready for a self-imposed ban of my own; I’ve had enough velvety richness for a few decades. I’m pleased to discover that I can still walk, however. Citrin tells me this was by design. “You ate maybe six and a half ounces of foie,” he says. “We don’t want to make you feel like you got stuffed—like you’re one of those gavage ducks.”