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With foie gras ban, chefs say state is force-feeding morality

A law against serving the fatted liver of ducks and geese goes into effect Sunday. As some restaurants host farewell dinners, a gaggle of chefs, farmers and connoisseurs sees it as a feather-headed intrusion on culinary freedom.

June 27, 2012|By Jonathan Gold | Los Angeles Times Restaurant Critic
  • Frederic H, Briwb . AFP / Getty Images
Frederic H, Briwb . AFP / Getty Images (m471m2pd20120627135135/600 )

If you want to eat foie gras in California before July 1, especially at a feast dedicated to the smooth, super-fatted duck liver, your pâté may be seasoned with a grain or two of political theater.

Outside Santa Monica's Mélisse earlier this month, there were news trucks, a cordon of friendly police officers, protesters waving crumpled posters showing unhappy waterfowl and rumpled counter-protesters with their own propaganda fliers, dancing around the periphery like boxers waiting to get into the ring.

Inside the oddly subdued restaurant, between bites of foie gras-topped salmon and spoonfuls of foie gras mousse, diners at the benefit for the pro-foie gras lobbying group CHEFS discussed liberty and curtailed freedoms when they weren't being distracted by the provenance of the Pinot Noir. Some of the waitresses modeled tight T-shirts printed with toque-wearing ducks and the slogan "touche pas à mon foie gras" (don't touch my foie gras) . On them, it looked good.

Practically every night in June saw another multi-course foie gras menu staged in another famous restaurant — another succession of foie gras terrines with jelly and foie gras with grapes and pie crust; shaved frozen foie gras piled in drifts among the vegetables like so much duck-liver snow. Foie gras ice cream actually became a cliché. A new wave delicatessen got into the act with foie gras doughnuts.

Chefs have been selling foie gras like it's going out of business. And in California it is.

On July 1, SB 1520, the bill that bans the production and sale of both foie gras and foie gras byproducts (including feathers for down jackets and comforters) goes into effect, and anybody wanting a legal taste of the stuff is going to have to do it in another state. After June 30, a restaurant that serves foie gras — typically produced via gavage, a process in which ducks or geese are fed through tubes inserted in their throats — can be fined up to $1,000.

That's a lot of money to flout what is, in essence, a morals clause.

Which raises the question: In a period when New York Mayor Michael R. Bloombergpushed through a regulation banning supersize soda, California banned the sale of sharks' fin soup and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia asked whether the federal government could force an individual to buy broccoli, can kitchen morality be legislated? Do the ban's largely vegan supporters see it as a first step toward a larger ban on meat? Does a prohibition on products obtained from over-fattened ducks and geese protect animals or erode liberties — or both?

"It's not just foie gras,"' says Josiah Citrin, the chef and owner of Mélisse. "Most people don't eat [it], so they think it doesn't have anything to do with them. The problem is, what's the next step, chicken?"

Chef Rafael Lunetta, of Santa Monica's JiRaffe, insists that the production of foie gras is not cruel. "The animal that is best treated on the farm is invariably the best animal for the plate," he says. "If an animal is stressed out or mistreated, you can taste it."

Will we soon see foie gras outlets pop up alongside the fireworks stands and discount cigarette houses at the state line in Nevada? Doubters should consider this: An itinerary for New York City foie gras tourism popped up in my email box last week.

I was thinking about the foie gras ban as I sat in a Canoga Park sushi bar recently, enjoying an omakase-style tasting menu that suddenly veered into a bluefin tuna course. When environmentalists talk about endangered oceans, bluefin, the largest and most majestic of tuna, is usually one of the fish they have in mind. Bluefin is at the very top of the ocean's food chain — catching the fish could be compared to lowering a hook onto the Serengeti and pulling up lions. And, unfortunately, bluefin is both prized and extremely delicious — a single fish can end up going for more than $50,000 at the famous Tsukiji market in central Tokyo.

The population of Atlantic bluefin has plummeted more than 70% since 1970, and the only restraints on consumption are voluntary: Responsible chefs, such as Citrin and Michael Cimarusti at Los Angeles' Providence, long ago took bluefin off their menus.

But Cimarusti, for one, does not make the leap from fish to fowl. "Our foie gras comes from a company that treats its animals with respect and dignity,'' he says. "Or at least with as much respect and dignity as you can show an animal raised for slaughter. I have no qualms about serving it. But if I serve bluefin or Chilean sea bass, I am supporting the extinction of a species. There's a huge difference."

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