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.”