Monday, January 14, 2008

Christmas Stuffing

It’s been a while…I think excessive eating over the Christmas holidays has had a negative effect on my writing skills. As usual, we celebrated in typical French style: non-stop eating between Christmas and New Years. In France, this means pulling out all the stops. Forget roast turkey. Baked ham? Please. Here, Christmas means oysters, lobster, caviar, and foie gras—and that might all be part of the same meal. Chocolates and champagne are de rigeur—vintage cognac and eau-de-vie soaked sour cherries are normal finishing touches. It’s enough to send one’s soul—and one’s cholesterol levels—soaring aloft. But then, as everyone keeps reminding themselves, it only happens once a year. What’s a few thousand calories between friends?

The French Christmas menu item that is probably the most typical is also the most difficult for Americans to swallow, namely foie gras. The reasons for the current foie gras uproar in the US remain mysterious to me: after all, we are talking about a country where the delicacy is virtually non-existent. I would be willing to bet that a vast majority Americans have never even heard of foie gras (at least until the uproar) and that the percentage of people who have actually tasted it is infinitesimal. I know, I know, it sounds gross. Ducks and geese are force-fed until their liver becomes enlarged, and then once they are killed, the over-sized organ is sold at a high price to slavering food fiends. But let’s take a step back for a minute. Foie gras is an artisanal product: the good stuff is always made on a small scale, on farms where the ducks and geese live healthy lives running around real barnyards and eating real grains and greens. Can we say the same about that flaccid supermarket chicken that is sold all over the US? Is there anything even vaguely humane about poultry farming on an industrial scale? Or for that matter, about any industrial meat or fish farming? Hmm, if I was a farm animal that was eventually going to be slaughtered one way or another, would I rather spend my days outdoors on a small farm in the country, or penned up with hundreds, if not thousands of other miserable animals in an closed factory farm? If it meant my last days would include force-feeding, I think I’d still opt for the small farm.

I admit I have a certain bias in all this. My husband’s family comes from southwest France, which is arguably the foie gras capital of the world. While there are certain food historians who insist that the idea was first dreamed up in Alsace and then drifted southward, any true south-westerner will swear that foie gras emerged fully formed—like Venus on the half shell—from the dark waters of the Dordogne River. At our family gatherings the buttery substance is reverently served as a first course with a glass of silky Sauternes and some fresh bread. Being from the area, my in-laws have the inside scoop on where to get the goods. In a tiny town lost in the forest of the Landes, there is a foie gras maker who knows how to turn chopped liver into gold. It’s a word of mouth sort of thing, and believe me, they do a land-office business.

I’ve also met people who raise their own ducks and do their own force-feeding. When you mention that the city of Chicago and the state of California have outlawed foie-gras due to cruelty to animals (and now it looks like New York may do the same), they just look at you with incomprehension as if you are too stupid to realize that farm animals eventually die so we can eat them. While it is true that thousands, perhaps millions of ducks and geese sacrifice their livers every year at Christmas time, it’s also true that you can’t claim that you are being kind to animals when you bite into a Big Mac.

I think a lot of French people think that the foie gras bans are just another version of the Roquefort boycott or Freedom Fries, i.e., another case of Americans taking pot-shots at the French. I don’t know if this is really true; I’d wager foie gras bans have more to do with vote-getting and moral grandstanding. In any case, foie gras is prohibitively expensive in the US, so the price will keep more people away then the ban. C’est la vie.


Starman said...

I was in Lyon a couple of years ago and my landlady served foie gras that had been made by her father. Probably the best I've ever had.

The Late Bloomer said...

I agree entirely with you on this: I am certainly against animal cruelty, but when people get on their high horses about foie gras, I tend to think of the same things you pointed out, namely that raised chickens in coops aren't exactly living in the best conditions. I've been trying to pay attention more and more to where my food comes from, but I have to admit I'll always have a weakness for foie gras, particularly the artisanal kind that is prepared from farm-raised ducks and geese. It's just indescribable, and if people refuse to taste it -- well, that's their loss! They don't know what they're missing.

When I was home in the U.S. for New Year's, I met a gal who sat across from me eating greasy buffalo wings in a random bar and explained how she "forbids" her husband to eat duck because of the fact that it's "hunted" and not "raised to be eaten". I was flabbergasted -- of course I respect people's food choices, particularly vegetarians, etc., but this gal was talking about forbidding her HUSBAND to eat something because of her own beliefs, ideas, or notions. I can't even imagine my boyfriend's reaction if I even attempted to "forbid" him to eat anything!

Sorry, I just had to share. Was too funny to pass up!

Really interesting piece here. Looking forward to reading more!

Zane said...

I LOVE all forms of meat (well, maybe not things like tripe) and foie gras is amazing, but prefer vegetarian diet (for ethical reasons). I have to say, it is very difficult to live in France and be a vegetarian (temptation is very strong and there is a lack of other options) but unless I know the animal has not been raised horrifically, I would prefer not to eat it. I know even if I was raised to be eaten, I would not want to grow up stuffed in a cage.

Margie Rynn said...

Starman: Apparently if you can get your hands on a good fresh uncooked foie, it's not too difficult to make. I think it's a question of choosing the right herbs and flavorings...or just plain sautéed fresh foie gras is incredible.

Late Bloomer: Thanks for the compliment! I'm noticing that there's a lot more moralizing over food in the US than here. When you've been away from home for a while, it really hits you how nuts people can get...not just about what meat you should eat, but also about what's healthy. I agree, I can't imagine forbidding my husband to eat something...that would not go down well at all with a French guy!

Zane: I try to buy Label Rouge meats (which in theory should be well treated) or at least from a local trustworthy butcher. I agree, these days you need to look hard at your food to be able to eat with an easy conscious. Eating local, in season, and from the marché helps. I've become a Jean-Pierre Coffe fan—he's got great things to say about ways of easily avoiding overly-industrialized food