The endless cycle of the foie gras wars goes on in Seattle with weekly protests that, as far as I can tell, follow the same pointless cycle as I used to find in my years as a restaurant critic. Mentioning foie gras in a review brought on automatic form letters from protesters saying it was cruel to force-feed ducks to produce the dish, which I answered with my own form reply. No one’s mind was changed, or even challenged.
That’s part of why I tip my hat to Mark Caro, a reporter for The Chicago Tribune, and his new book ”The Foie Gras Wars: How a 5,000-Year-Old Delicacy Inspired the World’s Fiercest Food Fight.”
Caro is coming to town July 14 for a Words & Wine event (cost: $45, including the book, wine and nibbles). He knows his subject as intimately as only a guy who’s stuck his hand up a duck’s rib cage to pull out its liver can know it, and I’m looking forward to hearing him talk with Warren Etheredge about the facts, the morality, and the politics of this culinary flashpoint. (The event’s at the Pan-Pacific Hotel, by the way, not Lark or Quinn’s.)
As I wrote here for the Christian Science Monitor, I admire how thoroughly Caro embraced “the moral whiplash” of his research, uncovering revealing facts on all sides. He avoids delivering absolute conclusions in the end, leaving readers to draw their own.
“I’m trying to tell you what I learned and what I know, but not tell you what you should do with that,” he said in a phone conversation last week.
He does, though, give readers as complete a look as they’re ever likely to get of the foie debate; enough information to draw conclusions, no matter which side readers choose in the end. Caro visited farms in the U.S. and in France for his research, observed the animals from force-feedings through slaughter, spent the time it took to understand the views of protesters and restaurateurs, politicians and veterinarians, and just about everyone else with a duck in this fight.
Here are some highlights from our conversation:
On which side he personally landed on in the foie gras wars: “I don’t think it’s either an anti or pro question. I think it’s more complicated, and in doing the book, the conclusion I came to is, it’s kind of like a Chinese box, where you keep opening one thing and have to think about something else.” There weren’t even definitive answers to questions as basic as whether force-feeding is painful for ducks, who don’t have the same gag reflexes as humans. “You have people who study this for a living who don’t agree about it.”
On some of the more dramatic claims of foie gras protesters: “If all (the ducks’) esophaguses were getting ripped and their stomachs were exploding, they wouldn’t have a 3 percent mortality rate. It would be bigger. It wouldn’t work as a business if you were really doing that much damage to the animals. Which isn’t to say it’s OK to stick a tube down a duck’s throat.”
On the irony of being allowed to tour the places where such a controversial product is produced, compared to the secrecy of farms that produce more typical American meals: “I find it telling. If I want to go see a foie gras farm, they will let me in and show me everything, up through the slaughter — and there’s no way you make slaughter look nice. It’s nasty looking, but they let me in…but if I want to go see where the food we eat every day is produced, forget it. I called Butterball to say, I’d love to see how the most American meal, Thanksgiving turkey, is produced, and they’re like ‘We’re sorry.’
On politicians who, the book showed, voted on foie gras bans but had some of the basic facts behind its production flat wrong: “You think, if this is what’s happening on something like duck livers, which affect relatively few people, how are the big decisions being made?”
On the sight of ducks panting on the farms, a potential sign they were in distress: “The one thing that did seem clear to me was that it did seem heat-related.” Perhaps the ducks shouldn’t be farmed over the summer, for that reason — but, then, that could be anthropomorphizing. “You see dogs panting, and don’t think that’s a tortured dog.”
On the bigger issues: “The book on the surface…is (about) whether or not you should eat something you probably don’t eat anyway that probably sounds kind of disgusting. But it’s really, to me, just about how you actually discuss these bigger issues. The “how” of the subtitle, to me, is the key part of it. How did it go from this obscure French thing to something where you have people rallying in the streets?”
On why people protest foie gras so vigorously, but don’t picket restaurants serving factory-farmed chickens, who arguably represent a much larger sum total of mistreatment: “My theory on it is this. It’s a combination of how we feel about ducks, and how we can relate to ducks in a way we don’t relate to — chickens, for instance - and then, the process of it is just so vivid. There’s something kind of abstract about this idea of the chicken having a living space the size of a piece of paper in a barn you never get to see. But there’s something about sticking a tube down a duck’s throat that everyone can imagine — they can imagine what it would be like to them, and it’s just disgusting. And the other part of it is, people don’t eat it. It’s a way for people to air their general discomfort with… food production, without having any practical ramifications.” Ensuring humane treatment for chickens and cows, for instance, means the price will likely go up. “Who cares if the price of foie gras goes up?…Foie gras is safe. It’s French, so it’s not even American. It’s expensive, so it’s kind of for rich people or gourmands, food snobs. There are only three farms in the country, basically, so it’s not like there’s some big industry they’re going to miss (if it is banned). And, it’s liver. Who’s going to defend liver? It’s the perfect wedge issue.”