A Pilgrimage to the Land of Foie Gras

by Jason Roth on August 6, 2010

I have a strong suspicion that many of the world’s foie gras critics are a lot like I was back in my anti-Brussels sprouts days.

"I'm hungry. Do you think we'll get to eat today?"

Were the lowly Brussels sprout force-fed several times a day, you can bet I would have used the fact against my mother on Brussels sprouts nights.

“Don’t make me do it! Think of the poor, innocent Brussels sprouts!”

And, just like the foie gras critics, my ultimate goal would be to use this moral crowbar to get a maternalistic ban on a whole category of foods. In their case, meat. In my case, vegetables.

But let’s not minimize the moral position of the foie gras critics. If they were against foie gras merely on the basis of taste, that would be several notches up from where they are currently. In the typically dishonest fashion of animal rights activists, their true goal is concealed or understated until later. Their ultimate goal is to ban the production and sale of all meat. Yet even though they’re (supposedly) shocked and appalled by the slaughter of innocent animals, what they want you to think they’re shocked and appalled by is simply the method of feeding one particular breed of animal. It is a crowbar, and they intend to use it. (It’s as if these people read Animal Farm, the stuff about tyranny went over their heads, and all they got out of it was that animals talk and have feelings.)

Whether you like foie gras or not, it’s worth familiarizing yourself with what it is and the process used to make it. Every foodie – make that: every adult who understands that animals lost their claim to the concept of “rights” the moment they were invited to the First Continental Congress and they responded by laying eggs, mooing, and/or eating their young – everyone needs to understand that the attack on foie gras production, and on your potential enjoyment of it, is a control freak’s giddy employment of your own ignorance and emotional anthropomorphism against you. Goose and duck liver today, leather tomorrow. Steak, pork, fish, and chicken the day after that.

There’s enough information out there now to help an honest person to make a decision about foie gras. This Village Voice article is one starting point. This Anthony Bordain clip is another. An article in Edible Hudson Valley is also worth reading. Just understanding why foie gras can be produced in the first place is an important point to learn. (For example, the next time a critic tells you the enlarged goose liver is “diseased”, you’ll know that producers just exploit the goose’s naturally occurring pre-migration state.) This stuff is especially important because the general public do not consider themselves to be foie gras aficionados, another thing the critics know well. There will likely not be protests in the streets against foie gras bans. Therefore, it’s up to all those who care about food to be informed and to speak up.

Cruising around in the land of Cyrano.

While vacationing in France this year, I had the opportunity to visit a goose foie gras farm. My wife and some friends saw the geese, learned more about the production process, and witnessed the gavage (force-feeding) first-hand. We also got to eat and bring back a ridiculous amount of the stuff. (Would you believe me if I told you dinner after the tour consisted of foie gras two ways, duck ham, escargot, and frogs’ legs? Well, I’ll gladly provide proof a bit later.)

It was an opportunity for a group of us to show an iota of interest in where our food comes from. And yes, the idea of an animal being force-fed, as tasty as the resulting product might be, raised an eyebrow. How bad was it, anyway?

Canoeing down the peaceful Dordogne river (post-paddle-splashing war).

The Dordogne region is the foie gras capital of France, located in the southwest part of the country. We stayed in a village named Beynac-et-Cazenac, wisely recommended by Rick Steves. Beynac is a fairy-tale village, with the Château de Beynac standing prominently at the top of a hill, the medieval castle occupied by the French during the Hundred Years’ War. Just across the Dordogne river is Castelnaud, England’s fortress during the war.

Seemingly endless hills follow you as you canoe lazily down the river, and as if that isn’t enough, actual cro-magnon cave paintings are available for touring nearby, before or after a lunch of foie gras sandwiches. The mere existence of these sandwiches, a few slices of foie gras on a fresh baguette, is a revealing glimpse into the unique French ability to appreciate such delicacies and their insistence in making them a part of their everyday lives. Did I mention that Dordogne was also the home of the Périgord truffle? It all almost makes you want to preserve your senses, if only the wine also weren’t so tempting.

I'm waiting for the force-feeding (by the waiter, after the goose farm tour).

Elevage du Bouyssou is a farm near Sarlat, and can also be found in the Rick Steves France guide. We arrived after what would have been a pleasant drive through cute French towns, had it not been necessary to test the limits of our rental car and retrace our tracks several times trying to find the damn place. Fortunately, (a) we were the only four people planning to take the tour that day, and (b) the friendlier-than-necessary tour guide (the farmer’s wife) was actually patient enough to direct us to the farm by cell phone. (I was blissfully ignorant at the time of what the iPhone bill would look like.)

If I were a PETA lunatic, I guess I'd be calling this place Auschwitz.

The thing that hit me as I walked on the farm was that nothing was hitting me. It was a farm. White asparagus on one side, geese at an early stage of growth on the other. It was “just” a farm, but it was also a farm that was part of a tradition going back hundreds of years, if not thousands if you count the Ancient Egyptians. What I consider a delicacy, this farming family considered a livelihood. It’s kind of amazing that simply stepping on the farm, you realize that (apart from the fact that Customs is going to grill your ass when you get back on American soil), like all other of man’s best creations, it all starts from an intelligent selection of raw materials from nature, and an application of an intelligent, goal-directed process by man. In fact, the farm itself is an amazing symbol not of “living with nature”, but of tweaking it, arranging it, modifying it, obeying it in order to command it. This foie gras stuff doesn’t grow in cans.

Free-range prisoners

I learned that if you’re a goose, mommy needs to teach you how to fly, otherwise your warden/farmer will have no need to clip your wings. In fact, he’ll even let you walk around the yard to your heart’s content, giving you quite a leisurely life (not counting the force-feeding and slaughter part).

Whoa! We get to eat all that?

At feeding time, the geese lined up in a fenced-off, wire mesh-bottomed path inside the building. There was no screaming, mind you, nor even any complaining as far as I could tell. Admittedly, though, aside from a few, select four-letter words, I don’t speak fowl. (You didn’t actually think you were getting out of this blog post without a “fowl” joke?)

Prepping the corn for dinner.

Their food consists of dried corn that has been soaked in plain, old metal buckets overnight. The soaking helps in digestion. (I had the impression that this soaked corn was all they ate, though this Wikipedia article claims it’s a combination of wet and dry corn.)

Super-duper gavaginator.

These days, a buzzing electric pump brings the corn up through a tube and into a gas pump nozzle-like device which is inserted into the goose’s mouth.

The gavage.

The feeder grabs the next goose in line by the neck, and pulls it over. This is when you do hear some complaining by the geese, as well as right after the feeding. I guess it’s possible they might remember previous experiences and are reacting to that, but since the quacking – excuse me, honking – is timed to the moment hand grabs and lets go of the goose, it looks like getting grabbed is what annoys the goose the most.

Just another day at the office.

Here’s the amazing part. With the aid of the electric pump, the whole feeding process takes a whole seven seconds or so. Even so, it is a tad disconcerting at first to see the long gas nozzlish tube get shoved down the goose’s throat. First of all, as someone who’s subjected himself neither to literal nor figurative sword swallowing, you wonder how the hell the bird is able to deep-throat that thing without gagging. Second, you can clearly observe the end of the nozzle rubbing against the inside of the goose’s throat. Why isn’t the goose seriously flipping out?

There are scientific answers to both of these questions. The answer to the first is that the esophagus and trachea come together in the mouth of the goose, not down in the throat like in human beings. In other words, there is no gag reflex involved. The answer to the second question is that the inside of the goose’s throat is made to eat the kinds of stuff that geese tend to eat. I.e., less on the “tender as foie gras” side and more on the “scaly as a fish” side. Another way of putting it is: they’re fucking birds!

As quoted by Hudson Valley Foie Gras (who use ducks rather than geese for their foie gras):

“Unlike that of mammals, the throat of waterfowl is lined with tissue similar to the palm of our hand, permitting them to eat live, wriggling fish, spines and all, without harm, or to accept the feeding tube….The windpipe of waterfowl opens at the center of the tongue, not in the throat, so ducks have no need of a protective gag reflex and can breathe normally during feeding.”

(Dr. Lawrence W. Bartholf, 2005 President, New York Veterinary Medical Association)

In this case, a couple videos are worth a thousand words:

And here is a longer one, showing three geese being fed:

Yes, it’s a little rough for us city folk, but this is what it is to raise livestock. As the farmer’s wife said to us, “Of course they don’t like it.” It turns out that when you raise animals (or kids) sometimes you need to be a little pushy to get them to do what you need them to do. And I’m ok with that.

Feeding tools for the home goose farmer.

If you don’t have the Euros for a fancy Gavagomatic, there’s always the manual devices. Evidently, these will take closer to three-quarters of a minute or so to get all the corn down. Either way, the results are the same…

Somebody wake me up. I think I see a foie gras store.

The tour was eye-opening, in the sense that I have a better understanding for how that unbelievably delicious food product gets on my plate. I have greater knowledge, and now a greater respect, for the person whose work brings the product into being. And walking the streets of the small Dordogne towns, I can see why the residents have an endless respect for the product. There are foie gras stores, for Christ’s sake. It is part of their history and their culture.

Selling nothing but foie gras is so passé. So this guy also sells truffles.

I discovered that nothing really puts you in the mood for foie gras more than, well, seeing it all day long, talking about it, learning about it, and tirelessly calculating how much of the stuff you can actually eat on one vacation. Fortunately, after the farm tour, our hotel restaurant was kindly able to satisfy us. I knew when I mentioned my post-farm tour dinner earlier, you would expect evidence of said divine experience. Well, here it goes:

Royale with cheese for lunch. Seared foie gras for dinner.

If you're not going to eat frogs' legs and snails while in France, stay the #$@! home.

Only one thing had been missing from the meal: foie gras terrine. Problem solved. But don't forget about the duck ham.

People claim that when you pass through Dordogne, your palette can grow tired of foie gras, if only temporarily due to extreme overload. They could have something there. I will have to make several flights back to test the theory. In the meantime, can you pass the pâté?

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