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foie gras

21 february 2022

Norman Kolpas' global history Foie Gras is a very pro-foie-gras book, be warned. Kolpas acknowledges the controversy over the delicacy. But he comes down in favor of ethical production. And he goes into raptures about the exquisiteness of foie gras and the unending inventiveness of chefs who work with foie gras.

Kolpas does the pretty stuff first, so let's invert his procedure and get right to the bad. Foie gras is produced by force-feeding waterfowl – historically, geese; today, mostly ducks – till their livers grow abnormally large. The process mimics a natural one, the gorging that keeps birds alive on long migrations. Their livers grow not only huge but deliciously soft and creamy. Foie gras production has become iconic for the abuse of food animals.

Kolpas counterattacks head-on. Foie gras production, at least the best of it, isn't as bad as you'd think for the animals, and even if it were? It is still a better life for the ducks in question than for battery laying hens and fryer chickens, for dairy cows, for veal calves, for farmed salmon. Anyone objecting especially to foie gras ought to strike most eggs, chicken, milk, and quite a lot of meat and fish off their menus.

The argument can be countered: I try to buy pasture-raised eggs, for instance, and chicken that at least purports to be on the free-range side of things, though "free range" is too often a euphemism. But then suppose that the best-raised foie gras ducks suffer no more than the best-raised laying hens? Unless one is a strict vegan, it can be hard to seize a moral high ground.

Not that I represent much demand for foie gras. The last time I ate any was in Paris, three years ago, as an ingredient in a gizzard salad that was pretty dreamworthy. One is not sure how high the liver percentage might be in such items. Foie gras can be eaten with minimal processing, or it can be stretched and extended into all kinds of different patés and mousses, and I suspect I was getting slices of the latter with my gizzards, given the profusion of the stuff. But I have not eaten any since, and rarely ate it before. Foie gras doesn't sit on the shelves of my supermarket next to Pop-Tarts and Chef Boy-Ar-Dee. Nor does the local Dairy Queen feature Foie Gras Blizzards.

Though Foie gras, as Kolpas shows, has worked its way into many a dessert in recent years, including ice creams, cotton candy, and a spread called Foietella. Foie gras has bolstered burgers and pizza – and of course featured in many a fabulous highbrow concoction, including presentations as faux ashes and snow, or the contents of glass "shooters," or truffly sushi, or the contents of edible artificial fruit.

Escoffier, in 1903, wasn't as ambitious. He served foie gras with "a garnish of noodles, macaroni, lazagnes [sic], spaghetti and even rice" (27-28). There seems to be no bad way to serve good foie gras, and it can step into any echelon of the culinary scale.

Kolpas includes recipes for foie gras cornmeal cakes and mashed potatoes with turnips, among other preparations. For the abstemious, he includes a recipe for "faux gras" which consists of mushrooms, chickpeas, nuts, miso, and a raft of flavorings assembled in the food processor. At that point I'd just retreat to my mother's recipe for chopped chicken livers.

Kolpas, Norman. Foie Gras: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2021.