For a high-profile chef from New York City, it takes a certain amount of moxie to stand up at the recent Ecological Farming Conference at Asilomar and admit how much you love foie gras. It's especially provocative if you’re Dan Barber, buddy of Michael Pollan, chef of the acclaimed Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns restaurants, and very vocal advocate of local, seasonal, and sustainable cooking.
Sitting in the main reception room, a few minutes before the afternoon plenary session was to begin, I overheard Barber catching up with a farmer colleague. It seemed he’d just found out that he was expected to lecture, not just answer questions, on the panel alongside Annie Somerville of Greens and Judy Wicks of Philadelphia’s White Dog Cafe. "I'm just going to tell the foie gras story," he said, sounding exhausted, and I thought, “Foie gras? At Eco-Farm? Does this man know where he is?” After all, this is a confab of organic farmers and food-justice activists. Sure, there’s a passion for deliciousness, but in general, the talk is kale, not champagne.
Onstage, Barber was unapologetic: for all his dirt-first politics, he’s a chef in love with flavor and texture, and to him, foie gras was the epitome: sweet, fatty, unctuous, able to make anything paired with it taste fantastic.
Why? Because it is, essentially, a small amount of liver flavoring a whole lot of fat. It gets that way due to gavage, a controversial practice of force-feeding ducks and geese until their livers swell to several times their normal size. Chicago recently repealed a two-year ban on serving it in the city’s restaurants; Governor Schwarzenegger signed a bill outlawing the making and selling of force-fed foie gras in California by 2012.
Barber, however, had a mission. He followed his declaration with a detailed story of going to Spain to seek out Eduardo Sousa, a man who’d recently won France’s highest gastronomic award for foie gras. “When I arrived,” Barber related, “He was lying in the grass taking cell-phone pictures of his geese.” Sousa’s geese were pasture-raised, and his fences were only electrified on the outside against predators. Electrifying the inside would be insulting to the geese, Sousa insisted; they would feel themselves prisoners. Instead, as a third-generation goose steward, his job was to give his geese everything they needed to be happy (short of dying of old age), so they’d have no need to leave.
Sousa didn’t practice gavage; instead, he followed the geese’s natural inclination to stuff themselves before winter. Come fall, as the days shortened and the temperatures dropped, he increased the amount of food available to his geese. They gobbled, and then, fat and happy, they met their end. Living on an herb-rich pasture as well as grains, their meat was layered with flavor, pre-seasoned from the inside out. “Who was the chef,” Barber found himself asking as he ate with Sousa, “And who was the farmer?”
Back home in New York City, Barber did his research: Sousa’s method, he claimed, was the origin of foie gras. As Barber told it, Jewish communities in Egypt enjoyed foie gras as a natural by-product of winter-slaughtered geese. Upon tasting it, the pharoh demanded a year-round supply of the delicacy for the court, and so gavage was invented, to mimic the natural autumn voracity of the birds.
Earlier in the panel, restauranteur Judy Wicks had described her mission as “using good food to lure innocent customers into social activism.” Barber ended his talk by insisting, “The best decisions are almost always the most delicious.” Personally, I don’t eat foie gras, having no stomach for either the taste or the method. But for those who do, could pleasure reward compassion, making humanely-produced foie gras into a seasonal, winter-only delicacy offered by local poultry producers? It’s already a luxury item; why not make it a humane one, too?
Dan Barber, making a similar case for humane foie gras at the Taste3 Conference in Napa.