Foie Gras and Ties of Tradition in France

Grey geese

With the ban on foie gras in California, I think it’s time to take a closer look at just what foie gras means in French culinary tradition and how it came to be. This post appeared a few years ago, but like tradition, not much has changed, except that some misguided purists want to impose their beliefs on others.

Enchanting photos of grey geese and sleek ducks, truffle-hunting dogs and pigs — all signs of autumn in the French countryside. The crunch of leaves and whiffs of wood smoke in the air add to a visceral knowing, that it’s time to stock the larder for the coming winter.  Pig-killing time, mushroom-drying days, sausage-making moments. What you see as traditional dishes might well be called survival foods by the people who created them.

If you look at the signature (traditional) foods of French cuisine*, or at least what people consider those to be, you’ll end up with a long list for your pantry, including some luxury foods like truffles and foie gras, among other things.

Truffles command blood-curdling prices, so expensive that in comparison even saffron seems more like the turmeric sold in huge crinkly bags in Indian grocery stores than a spice worth its weight in gold. Definitely not something you or I can afford to buy every day, truffles don’t take up any room in my pantry, though truffle oil does. I still say that adding truffle oil to a dish is a bit like Winston Churchill staring across the room at the vermouth bottle while he mixed his martinis – not gonna help much when it comes to tasting the real thing.

Foie gras? Ah, fatty liver. More accessible than fresh truffles.

Let’s talk about foie gras,  a quite controversial subject now, caught up as it is in increasingly fraught conversations about gastronationalism, tradition, and animal rights.

Foie gras is indeed “part of the [French] cultural and gastronomic patrimony, protected in France.” And small golden-hued cans of the stuff crowd French grocery shelves everywhere, particularly in the southwest regions of the country. You’ll see it for sale everywhere in the relatively unspoiled Ariège region of southern France, nearly every shop featuring foie gras paté in cans and whole livers vacuum-packed in plastic.

I know what you’re thinking: what about that foie gras bit?  How can anybody with an ounce of compassion possibly eat foie gras these days? You know that “they” force feed those poor ducks (the male Moulards anyway) and geese, the “gavage” procedure, where 24-hours of food in the form of a grain-rich milkshake is pumped into their stomachs at least twice a day for ducks and three times a day for geese in the last few weeks of their lives. Close to the end of gavage, those birds waddle around like tiny spinning tops about to tip over. Their livers increase in weight from about a fourth of a pound to as much as one-and-a-half to two pounds.

Looking at pictures of ducks being force-fed reminds me of that movie, Iron-Jawed Angels, where Hillary Swank played U.S. suffragette Alice Paul, who endured force-feeding while in prison.

What you need to know is that foie gras is as old as civilization — over 2500 years ago Egyptians noticed that ducks and geese stuffed themselves on figs before their migration flights. Like camel’s humps, geese and duck livers pack in those extra calories in little fatty deposits. According to James Villas, the French word for liver comes from the Latin word ficatum, or figs. The Romans dubbed foie gras fig-stuffed liver or iecur ficatum. Some food folklore surrounds foie gras, as several sources suggest that the Jews learned to make foie gras while captives of the Egyptians and once they were free, spread the practice through Europe. Silvano Serventi, in his 2002 work, Le Livre du Foie Gras, debunks that attractive theory. But Michael A. Ginor devotes several pages to the idea in Foie Gras: A Passion (1999).

A fifth-century Greek poet Cratinus wrote of “geese-fatteners, the earliest written reference to the artificial fattening of geese.

So, you see, foie gras is not new.

And, contrary to the cries of anti-foie gras activists, who have succeeded in getting foie gras banned in Chicago restaurants, the gavage process likely is not as bad for the goose/duck as it is for humans. Remember that geese and ducks can swallow a whole fish, because their flexible esophaguses expand in ways that those of humans cannot.

Another case where humans anthropomorphize animals.

Don’t get me wrong, I am all for humane treatment of animals, but after living overseas in extremely poor countries, where humans suffer far worse than most animals do, I sometimes find it hard to understand how we’ve gotten to the point where we have aisle after aisle in the grocery store stuffed with high-quality food and toys made especially for pets when we have people starving in our midst. I mean, come on, there’s even a chain store devoted entirely to pets!

Getting back to gavage, it seems apropos here to quote chef and culinary teacher Madeleine Kamman on the topic:

Today’s forcefeeders are mostly women and those I have observed at work in France have always been gentle people, many chatting to the birds and stroking their back plumage. The birds, contrary to what one might imagine, always seem eager to receive their patée of corn kernels, pork fat, and salted water and push at one another for access to the feeder and to their water trough. (p. 899, The New Making of a Cook)

Foie Gras Butter

¼ pound Grade B foie gras

½ cup unsalted butter + 2 T., softened

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Pinch of quatre épices

Sauté the foie gras in 2 T. of the butter until golden and cooked through, anywhere from 3 to 5 minutes. Drain on paper towel. Chill in refrigerator for 20 minutes. Put foie gras the ½ cup butter, and seasonings in the bowl of a food processor and run machine until mixture is creamy. Chill.

Use on canapés or toast points, corn-on-the-cob (!), grilled steak, pasta, etc.

To be continued …

________________

For an interesting discussion of traditional foods in Europe, see:

Everything You Need to Know about Foie Gras, Document prepared by CIFOG (French Interprofessional Committee for FattenedWaterfowl). © 2005. Edited and translated into English by Karen Cuchet. Version 1.

Michaela DeSoucey, “Gastronationalism: Food Traditions and Authenticity Politics in the European Union,” American Sociological Review 75 (3): 432-455, June 3, 2010.

*Signature French foods include cassoulet, foie gras, truffles, cheese, croissants, baguettes, sauces.

© 2010 C. Bertelsen

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7 comments

  • I agree, it’s been blown out of proportion. What many advocates don’t realize is this: Once upon a time, people ate what they could because there wasn’t any other choice. We now have the luxury of choice, thanks to many agricultural practices. We may pick and choose what to eat. That allows people to protest certain foods eaten by others. Only when people have that choice will you see things like the foie gras wars happening. In my experience, people without food tend not to be as picky, though they will resist eating if the food available is not like their traditional fare (as happens when certain donated foods arrive in relief shipments).

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  • I’ve always been a fan of foie gras and find the whole brouhaha here (U.S) silly. It makes me want to go live in France again. Thanks for a well written, informative post about one of the best things on the planet to put it ones mouth!

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  • I wouldn’t want to eat it. Don’t like the way the ducks are force fed. I could never be a vegan either.
    betsy

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  • Sharon, good to hear from you. Yes, foie gras is a most interesting metaphor, should we say, for the whole issue of tradition versus modern ideas about farming.

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