Book Review: The Foie Gras Wars by Mark Caro

One argument that has never flown with me is that foie gras should be easy to ban because it’s an unnecessary, decadent luxury. I appreciate the slippery-slope arguments about such distinctions, but I object on more basic grounds: Food isn’t just fuel. It’s a source of pleasure, and if some people love foie gras the way others love chicken nuggets, who are we to say one dish is frivolous while the other is acceptable?

foie grasI just finished this book, subtitled “How a 5,000-year-old Delicacy Inspired the World’s Fiercest Food Fight”, and let me tell you: I am seriously jonesing for some foie gras.

Well really. You give a foodie a book that goes on for over 300 pages about the author’s exploits from Chicago to New York to belly-(or should that be liver?)-of-the-beast France, tasting the pinnacle of what haute cuisine can offer in terms of flavor, and you don’t expect me to be wiping a little drool from my chin by the end?

My move to California – where a ban on the production and sale of foie went into effect just last year – was ill-timed.

But about the book. I enjoyed it a lot and learned a great deal. I now know the entire process of creating a foie gras liver, including how gavage (force-feeding) is accomplished. I know a bit about its history, dating back to the Egyptians, and that it is mentioned in a number of Greek and Roman writings (including by such favorites as Homer, Pliny the Elder, and the poet Horace – that’s just a little historical geekery for that segment of my audience). And I even know how to make the Medieval dish “A Goose Roasted Alive” (although I don’t recommend trying it at home, and to his credit, Cato* only references it – I had to google the actual recipe).

But the most interesting thing to me personally was to discover that this whole thing is not so Cali-centric as I once thought. Caro places the “shot heard round the culinary world” squarely in his hometown of Chicago, the first American city which banned the dish – and subsequently (spoiler alert!) repealed the ban, called by Mayor Daley the “silliest” piece of legislation ever passed by his fair city.

Caro spends a great deal of time covering the fight over foie in Philly (say that three times fast), a section of the book that gets downright bitchy in its gossipy renditions of the feuds and fawnings of chefs, animal rights activists, celebrities, and politicians. Honestly I never would have pegged Philadelphia as the city where much of this worldwide fight would go down, but Caro certainly makes the players memorable and reports the saga in such a way as to make into a page-turner what is basically a schoolyard fight between bullies and victims (each side – chefs and activists – seeing themselves as the latter, of course).

Caro finally finishes up his tour-de-foie in France, the home of the delicacy, where he experiences revelations in both taste and knowledge. The final take on French production is that it is much like American farming: there are good ways to go about it that honor traditions and create excellent results without doing too much harm in the process, and then there are industrial ways to feed the masses that result in inferior product and unnecessary suffering. There is a final exploration of some recent attempts to create a more humane foie gras, which leaves us on a note of hope.

The book stridently attempts balance and often succeeds. Caro certainly seems to second-guess everyone’s motives, push their reasoning, and adds his own commentary to question seemingly-closing arguments. However, I was left with a bad taste in my mouth for the tactics and motives of the animal rights movement. For them to focus with such intensity on this issue, which affects relatively miniscule numbers of the animals in farm production and the eaters who enjoy them, leaves one with the cynical notion that this fight was waged solely because it was an easy win. Some of them freely admit this. They believe it builds momentum towards more important legislation. But another way to look at is: they picked on an easy target (rich people food) just to feel better about their mostly-failed attempts at getting this country’s food system changed.

And the saddest thing about the foie gras wars is this: the vast majority of people who voted into law bans on the sale or production of this ingredient (including much of California’s voting populace) has never tasted it, probably wouldn’t care to try it, and knows next to nothing about its actual production. Propaganda flies from both sides, but from Caro’s perspective – and he is truly trying to be an investigative journalist here – there is very little about the American way of raising ducks for foie (geese are not used in the States) that is tortuous or even very inhumane. It pales in comparison to the treatment of other poultry (like, say, the 9 BILLION chickens slaughtered every year), not to mention mammals such as sows (kept in gestation crates) or veal calves (also crated). Caro visits the farms, he watches every step of the process from the lengthy time the ducks spend living a regular life outdoors (the ducks spend 12 weeks in relatively normalcy as opposed to a broiler which would never see the light of day and only lives 32 total days anyway), to the force feedings (which turn out to be far less dramatic than he expected), to the slaughter.

Side note: there is a lot of talk about how force feeding is such a travesty because it is dominant and disrespectful of the animal (nevermind that a duck or goose will naturally grow a fat liver – though not to foie gras weight – due to migratory needs). But I don’t really see the difference between feeding an animal corn through a tube inserted in the throat (wide enough to swallow whole fish) vs. genetically engineering an animal so that it grows to a size absolutely never intended by nature in an equally-obscene span of time. I guess the difference is that in the latter example, the animal is force-feeding itself…but still. We engineered that. And we provide the necessary side products (hormones, antibiotics, feedlots) that enable the unnatural behavior.

All that to say that I, like – I think – Caro, don’t really get, when all is said and done, what all the fuss over foie gras was about. It was a distraction, a side issue, and a waste of resources – energy, time, and money.

Here is what it accomplished:

  1. Animals rights activists can claim a small victory. They may have momentum towards bigger things, but I doubt it, because…
  2. Regular ol’ meat-eating folks – your friends buying Tyson chicken at the supermarket and McDonald’s hamburgers – can feel like they did real good by those poor tortured animals. They can go on buying their battery cage-produced eggs with a clear conscience because hey, when the issue of animal torture was put to a vote, they did the right thing and said “no” to duck torture. Which, I repeat, produced a product none of them were going to eat anyway.

Yeah. Big win.

Oh and the other thing it accomplished: California’s only producer, Sonoma Foie Gras – one of the two sizeable producers in the entire United States (the other is Hudson Valley Foie Gras in New York) – was put out of business. He basically ran a family farm, and was an immigrant from El Salvador. Now I’m not going to argue that his business was worth suffering on the part of others, obviously (old slavery argument). But what I will point out is that people are still eating foie gras in every other state. And where are they getting it? If not from Hudson Valley, then from Canada and France, where the standards for animal welfare are far lower than in the US.

In other words, all this ban did was transfer the business out of our country, and hand it to people who treat the animals far, far worse. Bravo!

This was a really fascinating book. It was like foodie pulp fiction, with plenty of gore and sass, drama and betrayal. And oh yeah, some very titillating in-depth descriptions of foie dishes.

Which, thanks to the events chronicled, I shall not be consuming anytime soon.

*Editorial note: That was an honest brain fart changing “Caro” to “Cato”…but I loved how it shows my knowledge of historical writers, so it stayed in.

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See This Next

Out today in theaters and available to download on iTunes: a new movie from the producers of Food, Inc. that explores the problem of hunger in America.

I’ve made no secret of my personal gratitude for the WIC and food stamps programs, both of which I have utilized (along with patronizing and working for food pantries).

This is a complex issue but I trust these filmmakers and producers to explain it clearly and spur us all to action (see link for resources from Bread for the World to spark discussion and engagement in your community).

Check it out!

What you can do

Been writing on some heavy stuff this week, so I wanted to end the series on a positive note, with some ideas on how you can help make a difference in the lives of the people who pick your food.

Even I have found myself getting increasingly depressed as I think about my own small ability to change anything. Yeah, I’ve changed my shopping habits, and yeah, I write about it on here and maybe somebody somewhere reads it (though from the number of comments this series has garnered – exactly ZERO – I doubt it). Maybe we’re all just too tired and disheartened to think about changing the world any more.

Well, for what it’s worth, here are some things you can do. And I’m stealing some from other people because frankly I’m spent after reading and writing about this stuff for a week!

Here is the “Take Action” page from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, about whom Tomatoland is written.

From Barry Estabrook’s original article, The Price of Tomatoes:

In the warm months, the best solution is to follow that old mantra: buy seasonal, local, and small-scale. But what about in winter? So far, Whole Foods is the only grocery chain that has signed on to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) Campaign for Fair Food, which means that it has promised not to deal with growers who tolerate serious worker abuses and, when buying tomatoes, to a pay a price that supports a living wage. [UPDATE: Trader Joe’s has since signed on; CIW’s Take Action page linked above has sample letters you can send to your local grocery conglomerate]

When shopping elsewhere, you can take advantage of the fact that fruits and vegetables must be labeled with their country of origin. Most of the fresh tomatoes in supermarkets during winter months come from Florida, where labor conditions are dismal for field workers, or from Mexico, where they are worse, according to a CIW spokesman. One option during these months is to buy locally produced hydroponic greenhouse tomatoes, including cluster tomatoes still attached to the vine. Greenhouse tomatoes are also imported from Mexico, however, so check signage or consult the little stickers often seen on the fruits themselves to determine their source.

And I’m going to steal from myself, too – here’s the little guidelines I wrote earlier this week, in my post about Tracie McMillan’s The American Way of Eating:

  • To start, buy as much produce as you can locally. Cutting out the cost of distribution systems and nation- or even world-wide transportation goes a long way towards keeping prices low. If the farmer’s market seems to expensive, go at closing time – you’ll get great deals on whatever’s left.
  • If possible, join a CSA, which will ensure that your money goes straight into a farmer’s pocket (then get to know the farmer, and ensure he or she is paying a fair wage to fieldworkers).
  • Avoid large farming corporations (even organic ones), as their infrastructure prohibits paying close attention to conditions in the field (most subcontract their labor anyway), and their corporate obligation to profit requires them to cut corners (sadly, it is often easiest to hurt people, rather than product).
  • Avoid huge retailers like WalMart that make plenty of money off other goods but mark up the cost of fresh food (since it spoils and therefore cannot be bought in the huge quantities that are their advantage over smaller competitors). An orange may cost 50% more at WalMart than the local grocery store simply bc it doesn’t fit their pricing scheme (see McMillan, 136-7, for her comparison shopping between WalMart and the local Mexican grocery).

To keep it simple: buy fresh, buy local, buy in season, buy from small farms, and cut out as many middlemen as possible.

And to finish, some hope: things are getting better in some respects. The CIW’s “Campaign for Fair Food”, seeking to raise wages by “a penny a pound” and ensure basic rights for tomato pickers started in 2001 and has successfully enrolled Taco Bell (2005), McDonald’s (2007), and Burger King, Subway and Whole Foods (2008). The next years were spent fighting the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, which initially resisted (even though the wage increase was entirely paid for by the buyers and didn’t affect the Exchange or growers one way or another – except to ask them to treat their workers better). They finally relented in 2010 and now the extra pennies, previously sitting in escrow accounts, are finally reaching the workers for whom they were earmarked.

The CIW’s next target is grocery stores, and from their website I gathered that they have added to Whole Foods’ early participation the signature of Trader Joe’s and several food management companies (e.g. Bon Appetit, food supplier to many of the colleges with which I’ve been affiliated) to the growing roster of companies on board with the Campaign. Sadly, the rest of the major grocery chains – including WalMart, which takes in ONE of every FOUR food dollars in the United States (more than the next three grocery corporations combined) – have yet to sign on. Read more about the Campaign for Fair Food here: http://ciw-online.org/101.html#cff.

Summing up: big campaigns definitely help, but it’s also the choices you and I make every day that eventually will turn around the whole system. So don’t you be discouraged, and I will try not to be either!

Think you care about modern day slavery? How’s that tomato tasting?

“Any American who has eaten a winter tomato, either purchased at a supermarket or on top of a fast food salad, has eaten a fruit picked by the hand of a slave.”

Tomatoland, p. 75

Yesterday I wrote about tomatoes as a case study for farm worker rights – or rather, the lack thereof. This issue came to my attention when I heard an interview with investigative journalist Barry Estabrook on one of my favorite food shows, KCRW’s Good Food.

Estabrook was talking about the winter tomato industry in Southern Florida, and he began describing conditions there that sounded like fiction or ancient history. People chained up to sleep, forced labor without escape, beatings by “field bosses”, transportation in vans crowded with 25 or more men lying on the floor and not released for days, urinating into jugs and sharing maybe one bag of chips for sustenance.

But this is not history. It is now. It is happening. Right. Now.

Why? So that we can go to the grocery store and buy tomatoes in winter. So that we can go to a fast food restaurant and imagine we are having a “healthy” lunch of a salad. So that we can add a “vegetable” to our sandwich or burger, no matter the time of year.

But it’s fair to say that most of us had no idea this was happening. I didn’t, and I follow food news pretty closely. Fair enough.

But now you know.

If you’re like me, you probably think of modern-day slavery as human trafficking for sex, or maybe child soldiers. Both are abhorrent. Both have become big ISSUES that churches take on. Christians are all up in arms about modern slavery, but despite the fact that the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 was instigated over an agricultural slavery case, none of us seem to realize that this hits a lot closer to home than we’d care to admit.

I’ve been thinking about why this is; why are we so gung-ho about stopping slavery in the sex trade, and ignoring it in the produce aisle? I don’t think it’s just ignorance. Does any of this feel like it might be true?

  • For the average American and certainly average Christian, the sex trade is fairly easy to look down upon. We are confident that we would never participate in such an unsavory activity, so it makes us feel superior to work against it.
  • Sex slavery also is, well…sexy. It’s salacious. It’s forbidden. It’s a lot more titillating than tomatoes.
  • It seems worse to us, as Christians, because we have a long and complicated history with the body and with sex generally. We’re quicker to jump on sexual sin than almost any other kind. It just “feels” more wrong. (maybe because it “feels” so right?)
  • Most of those trafficked in the sex trade are women and children. They seem more like victims than do teenage to middle aged men, most of whom are in this country without documentation. (never mind that many of them came seeking legitimate work and were forced or tricked into the situation that led to them being literally sold to a crew)

Maybe I’m terribly cynical, but I fear something: what if Christians aren’t forming organizations around and donating in huge numbers to the small groups fighting food slavery because this would touch our lives directly.

We participate in this slavery because it gets us what we want: a winter tomato, good prices at the market, a false sense of adding something nutritious to our fast food meal. We are sacrificing lives for convenience and economy.

Perhaps you might say that this is how the business runs, and we can’t control what they do, it’s not our fault. Yes, I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what people said about plantation owners, too. And who says we can’t control them? Activists have been stamping out slavery – and changing entire political and economic systems – since William Wilberforce and others organized boycotts of sugar in the 18th century, a hundred years before our country nearly split over the issue. 

If you truly care about human trafficking then you need to educate yourself about agricultural slavery and add it to your fight.

And – unless you know exactly where they come from – stop eating tomatoes in winter.