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Foie gras torchon with cocoa and coriander, recipe from Eleven Madison Park

The very first time I encountered foie gras, I was luckily armed with an expense account, courtesy of Kinko’s. The project lasted for months, and every night it’s the same old question of: Where to eat. Sitting at Downey’s, Santa Barbara, Ed and I quickly discovered that the most expensive starter was also one we couldn’t pronounce.

“What’s f.o.i.e.g.r. …” I cut him off with a made-up mind: “No idea. Let’s get it.”

Ed was obviously disappointed: A single piece no bigger than a baby’s palm. But one bite in, our eyes widened and out came the woo-ing and ah-ing. Giggly soft, rich and smooth, the taste was like none I ever had. There’s obviously a LOT of fat since it dissolved so willingly and seductively in my mouth. I felt utterly … ‘pleasured’.

In a dining room full of plaid sports jackets, Burberry dusters and Channel No. 5, Ed’s faded jeans and my open-toe seashell sandals screamed techno dweebs from the Valley of Geeks. There’s no need to expose our culinary ignorance.

As I signed my name and carefully put away the receipt for expense reports, still had no idea what it was.

Since then, I have had a lot of foie gras. The most memorable being the 2 weeks Will and I spent in Dordogne where we had it seared, poached, stuffed, pâtéd, torchoned, mi-cuit-ed, first course AND main course every meal, 2 meals a day.

I knew, or I thought I knew, how foie gras was made before Dordogne. Ducks or geese were force-fed with corn in a short period of time before they were slaughtered. That process fattened up their livers to have the incomparable rich taste and texture. I recalled seeing Anthony Bourdain on TV, and vaguely remembered him saying the ducks and geese didn’t mind it.

They LOVED it actually.

Roadside sign, Dordogne, France.

Off the narrow country roads of Dordogne, there were signs for tasting and demonstration left and right. “Foie Gras farm 100 meters” “Gavage 200 meters”, “Foie Gras and Camping, 150 meters”.

Let’s stop and see one!

The setting was absolutely idyllic under the afternoon soft light. Lots of space for the ducks and geese to roam and ‘lounge’. There were corn fields for them to mow down, literally, streams and ponds to cool off. The ducklings were playful and adorable. The French granny who gave the tour tended to them lovingly.

Corn field at foie gras farm, Dordogne, France

Would we like to see ‘gavage‘, or force-feeding next? “Bien sûr!” I felt so in peace with my surroundings. Me and all things living, we are One.

As soon as we stepped into the barn where the maturing ducks were housed, we saw how quickly, 10 or so large ducks scurried to one far corner, i.e. AWAY from us. The force-feeding machine was simple and effective: A big metal funnel at the top for the soaked corn kernels, a foot pedal at the bottom that would spin a spiral to push down the kernels, and conveniently leave 2 free hands to handle the duck.

I knew, trying to ‘interpret’ whatever I saw in the eyes of the ducks would be ‘projecting’. I speak no duck and I despise anthropomorphizing in general. But the sound they made when the granny reached out to grab the next in line, was deafening. The way they all squeezed into one corner to be as far from the gavage machine as possible, did not seem to me they looked forward to having a long tube shoved in.

I was appalled, but at the same time, fascinated. This was by no means pretty or pleasant. But THIS, is gavage. THIS, is “how your food is made”.

Before we could ‘digest’ all these imageries mentally, the daughter of the old lady waltzed in: “Shall we go for tasting now?” “Bien sûr!” Anything to get me out of here.

In the office, we tasted goose foie gras and duck foie gras, in various potency, meaning entier, bloc, mi-cuit, pâté, with other mix-ins … etc. Afterwards, we bought several cans and walked out.

“What was THAT?!” Me and Will looked at each other in disbelief.

How could we chow down immediately after seeing what we saw in the gavage barn?! Have we no moral compass??!! Have we no shame?!

We continued to eat foie gras for the remainder of the trip.

That was 7 years ago.

Canned foie gras products at farmer's market, Sarlat, France.

So this is how I resolve my own foie gras complex today:

Compare to millions of Americans who eat factory chickens from Tyson or pork from Swift on a daily basis, either aware or unaware of the appalling conditions those animals were in, I am on the other hand, very aware of where my food comes from and how they lived. I grow most of my vegetables and I know my chicken farmer by name. I eat foie gras no more than 4 times a year, and never waste a drop of it. When I prepare foie gras, I feel grateful for my good fortune, and proud that I am doing honor to their sacrifice.

Every bite I put in my mouth, I think of the paradise they lived in, AND the grinding sound of the gavage machine.


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