I want my foie gras!

Outspoken foodies Anthony Bourdain and Michael Ruhlman sound off about New Jersey's plan to ban the duck delicacy -- and how the food police are ruining America.

Published October 5, 2006 11:35AM (EDT)

It's been a bumpy year for America's chefs -- in April, Chicago barred foie gras from its restaurants; in September an E. coli outbreak prompted groceries to chuck every shred of spinach from their shelves; and just last week New York City's Board of Health proposed a sweeping ban on artificial trans fats that could affect every restaurant from Popeye's to Pearl Oyster Bar.

And lest foodies hope they might once again chew with impunity, now comes news that trouble is brewing in New Jersey. Michael Panter, a Democratic assemblyman in that state's 12th District, has picked up on Chicago's lead and announced his plan to introduce a bill banning the sale of foie gras in his state. Foie gras, a classically French delicacy of fatted duck liver, is created by using a tube to overfeed ducks -- a contentious practice known as "gavage" that has made producers the frequent target of animal rights activists. Since Friday, when Panter's intentions were reported by the Associated Press (and picked up by the International Herald Tribune), the food blogosphere has erupted into a buzz of debate and despair. While a ban on foie gras in New Jersey, of all places, might not seem the stuff of controversy, the Garden State happens to be home to D'Artagnan, the 30-year-old company that pioneered foie gras farming in the United States. With D'Artagnan its likely casualty, Panter's law could effectively cripple the production and consumption of foie gras not only in New York City's great temples of gastronomy, but in restaurants and homes around the country. Suddenly our ambivalence about duck livers has started looking like a story of national import.

Leading the alarm call about Panter's proposition have been Anthony Bourdain, the irascible chef and bestselling author who now hosts the popular Travel Channel show "No Reservations," and Michael Ruhlman, the author of "The Soul of a Chef," and co-author of "The French Laundry Cookbook" and "Charcuterie." Their approaches to food may be different -- Bourdain is a brash New Jersey native with a history of antagonizing picky eaters while Ruhlman has made his name as an earnest advocate for artisanal culinary craftspeople -- but both men agree that Panter's bill, and the California and Chicago legislation that preceded it, is not really about whether breeding ducks for foie gras is humane or inhumane. Instead, they argue, it is an emblem of the potential dangers of trying to legislate something as private and personal as eating habits -- and a sign of the difficulty Americans still have understanding where and how they get their food.

In the interest of taking this lively discussion to the people, over the weekend Salon asked Ruhlman and Bourdain to hash out their arguments. Here's what they had to say.

Michael Ruhlman: So what made you decide to wake up from your celebrity-chef slumber for this fight?

Anthony Bourdain: This is serious. This is my home state we're talking about and this issue affects my profession -- not to mention one of the most beloved people in the food world. This is like someone breaking into my apartment and stealing my television. It's personal.

I take it you're talking about your friend Ariane Daguin, owner and founder of D'Artagnan, the New Jersey company that produces and supplies foie gras and other duck and charcuterie products to cooks throughout the country?

Ariane is a seminal figure in America's food and restaurant revolution. She began D'Artagnan in 1985 when French chefs were wondering why they couldn't get the kind of food here that they had back home. And yes, her business mainly sold foie gras, which at the time was not available in the United States except in the form of imported canned purée.

I remember the way things were before her -- ducks were skinny, frozen, flavorless, gray. But thanks to D'Artagnan, along with foie gras, Americans got all kinds of things: the wonderful breast of the Moulard duck, called magret; the duck fat; bones and consequently sauce; confits; sausages; terrines. So Ariane is not just the foie gras lady -- she was a Gertrude Stein to a veritable salon of hotshot New York chefs who instinctively reached out to her if they needed something -- fresh truffles, or dried Tarbe beans for cassoulet -- she'd find a way to get it. She became a one-woman supply train for every French chef in New York and consequently any American chef with aspirations to be among the best. And she did all this at the exact moment when American chefs were ready to take off.

You've been known to be less than kind to vegetarians, not to mention the vegans, God help them. So is this just another of your bobble-head-doll rants?

I know I'm in peril of being thought of as some kind of culinary Ted Nugent. But for chrissake, I find hunting for sport appalling. You know how I feel about fur, about cosmetics testing on animals.

So how did I get here, defending the killing of God's creatures? As I see it, what's at stake is the individual's right to choose, the future of my profession, and good taste. Not to mention a delicious organ that dates back to the beginnings of gastronomy as we know it.

Actually, let's go back to the beginning for a moment -- not 5,000 years back to Egypt, where fattening duck liver for food may have begun -- but to the beginnings of the foie gras debate in the U.S.

I first became aware of it after the Laurent Manrique incident.

You're talking about the chef who's now at Aqua in San Francisco.

Laurent is a great chef, a really nice guy -- and a third- or fourth-generation Gascon at least -- who had the temerity to open a little gourmet shop in Sonoma County [Calif.] called Sonoma Saveur, where he sold, among other things, foie gras. Three years ago, people who call themselves animal rights activists threatened him over the phone, vandalized his car, broke into his business and destroyed it.

The most horrifying thing, though, was that they slipped into his backyard while he was at work and videotaped his wife and child cuddling inside their house and sent it to him. To me that's terrorism, it's racketeering, it's extortion. Central American death squads, Colombian drug lords -- they're the kinds of groups that engage in that activity. So that got my back up. But what was even more horrifying was that even after that incident, a law banning the production and sale of foie gras passed in California.

But that ban doesn't take effect until 2012; there's still time to change people's minds.

Ruhlman, that earnest Midwestern optimism of yours may work on the Cleveland chicks, but mark my words: If things keep going like they're going, pretty soon there will be no more foie gras in this country.

I refuse to become comfortably resigned. But anyway, what happened next?

After the Manrique episode a couple of high-profile chefs who, for what we'll assume were the best intentions, joined the chorus of foie gras critics.

Do you want to name names here? Because without Charlie's support...

I've been mean enough to Trotter already -- no need to flog a dead horse, fun as that might be. But a chef had been terrorized for selling good food and it was a time of need; so to my mind, for another chef at the very same moment to publicly announce they would no longer be using foie gras, that provided political cover for the forces that wanted it banned.

And that's where, for me, the issue broadens. Telling people what they should and shouldn't eat is cultural imperialism -- and deeply disturbing. That a group of people could say, "You know, how you eat and how you've been eating for hundreds, if not thousands, of years -- traditional Jewish cuisine, Western European food since Roman times -- that is wrong and should not be allowed." I find that offensive. Ethnically insensitive, jingoistic, xenophobic, anti-human and disrespectful of the diversity of cultures on this planet, and for human history. But that's just the kind of law that has passed -- in Chicago, our second city, no less. It's a win for the forces of darkness, willful ignorance and intolerance.

And now those forces have blown into New Jersey. What do you think of the fact that in explaining his proposition, Assemblyman Panter told the Associated Press that foie gras production is a barbaric practice that has no place in civilized society?

Which ignores, well, the entire history of civilized societies.

And referred to Daguin's profits from the sale of foie gras as "blood money"?

The guy's a nitwit. Every time you gas up your car, you're spending blood money! Our whole lives are built on a heap of skulls -- human skulls! But this is an issue that has become an easy grandstand ploy; it succeeded in Chicago so now it's perceived by lazy, opportunistic politicians as a potential vote-getter. I've compared this to kicking Julia Child in the teeth. It is that offensive to me.

OK, but in all seriousness, Tony, the Chicago counsel that banned foie gras sales earlier this year is now facing widespread ridicule, and is considering repealing the law -- a move that's been backed by the city's mayor. The New Jersey bill hasn't even been introduced. Cathartic though it may be to mouth off on this issue, aren't we overreacting, just a little?

I don't think it's unreasonable to take an apocalyptic tone. Chicago and California have passed laws. Now New York is talking about banning trans fats. I'm not a big believer in frying potatoes in trans fats but I sure wouldn't want to stop anybody. And I happen to like biscuits made with shortening.

Now, if you go to Houston airport and watch group after group of people waddle by, it might well be hard to support the notion that we have brains -- clearly we're eating too much and we're eating a lot that's unhealthy. But shame people out of eating fast food. Show them alternatives. I don't think we should make foie gras or trans fats illegal. What politicians are saying is, "You, the people, are just too dumb to decide what to eat, or how much."

On a Fox News show last spring, in a debate pitting Assemblyman Panter against Ann Coulter (following her disparaging remarks about New Jersey 9/11 widows), Panter defended his colleagues' calls to have retailers pull her books. Do you see a correlation between the two substances he wants off our shelves?

I may find Ann Coulter utterly loathsome and reprehensible on every level, and I would greatly enjoy throwing a shit pie into her face, but the idea of yanking any books off shelves scares the hell out of me. This reeks on so many levels. Along with other wrong-headed, easy-fix, knee-jerk reactions to perceived food scares, Panter's attitude paints a gloomy picture of how we might be forced to eat in this country if the frightened, righteous people who want to ban everything because it might be unsafe get together with all the people who want to ban everything because it might be cruel, and the people who want to ban everything because it might be unhealthy. It's the perfect storm.

The worst thing is that foie gras isn't even one of the more horrible examples of raising animals -- and it's such a small sector of the food supply. But it's an easy target because it's fancy, and associated with the French, and the videos people see are lurid.

Cruelly raised foie gras -- the poor animals you see in the videos in tiny pens with tubes being, as they always say, "shoved down their throats" -- is bad foie gras. None of us would buy that stuff. That's not what we want, and that's not what D'Artagnan sells. In proper foie gras farming, the same feeder tends the duck every day, and more often than not, it's the duck who approaches the feeder. They have room to run around, to live a good, natural life -- even a pampered one -- compared with the horrifying and vastly more widespread practice of raising battery chickens.

Most Americans seem only to hear about foie gras bans relative to the so-called inhumanity of their force feeding. Just a little investigation reveals the fact that these ducks have to be super healthy to support all the weight they gain. It's also been widely reported that they have no gag reflex and their throats are naturally tough due to the way they eat in nature. And accounts by the journalists who've had unrestricted visits to these farms -- like Mark Caro of the Chicago Tribune and Lawrence Downes at the New York Times, for example -- all suggest these ducks are far from inhumanely treated. The opposite in fact.

They live much better lives than any chicken that's been sold by the colonel, that's for sure. And really these ducks arent doing anything that a porn star doesnt do on a regular basis.

Funny. But we are in agreement. In my opinion, the four farms that grow ducks for foie gras in this country -- especially the largest ones, in New York and California -- they ought to be made examples of by our legislators, not as places of animal torture, but rather as models of humane farming. Unlike factory hogs, which have their tails painfully cut off and never see the light of day before winding up as cheap grocery store pork, the billions of chickens that live packed wing to wing and live in their own ammonia-reeking waste, or the feed-lot antibiotic-laced beef -- if I had to come back today as an American farm animal destined for the dinner table, I'd choose to be a Moulard duck raised for my fat liver in a heartbeat.

Yes, it seems to me that the activists for whom the suffering of animals is unbearable, their lobbying against foie gras is not just bad time management, it's cynical time management.

Billions of chickens, hogs and beef are being harmed -- that's carnage on a far vaster scale -- but big agribusiness is a difficult and powerful target. They don't get much bang for their buck, from a political standpoint. It's much easier to go for the small artisanal farmer with little resources and no lobbying group in D.C.

And as an aside, as a reader of the news, I have to say it disturbs me that while people are being force-fed in Guantánamo Bay, politicians are wasting an hour or a minute complaining about poor ducks. Hell, Whole Foods is worrying about freaking lobsters and mollusks.

Yes, I did hear that the conditions the oysters used to live in at Whole Foods were just deplorable. But now they each have their own personal trainer.

Look, if you don't want to patronize a business that serves foie gras, don't go there. Running full-page ads telling people how evil you think it is -- that's also a legitimate enterprise, in my view, and one that's been effective in the case of anti-fur activism. But particularly as I travel so much and have come to know so many other cultures older than ours -- to criminalize ways of eating, to suggest that we've all been wrong since Roman times, well, that kind of interference scares me. It's like an American tourist traveling around the world stopping over in different countries, and saying, "This is wrong and you should stop that -- because me and my privileged, well-fed, white friends in our comfortable shoes think so." I respect people's decisions. You don't want to eat foie gras? Don't eat it.

But the intended bill on foie gras in New Jersey is not a breath of fresh, sensible air, it's a whiff from the crypt.

By Salon Staff

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