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 repealed the ban, called by Mayor Daley the “silliest” piece of legislation ever passed by his fair city.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.

Free Movie Nights in San Diego! (led by yours truly)

If you live around the San Diego area, please come to my movie nights!

March 4:  “Food, Inc.”

March 18:  “Food Fight”

Movies are FREE.  Please RSVP for childcare.

More about these documentaries:

Food IncFood Inc. is a look at our nation’s food industry and how it has negatively affected our health. It was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary (2008).

Food Fight offers an overview of American agricultural policy, food culture, and the organic food movement, with a focus on California’s contributions to cuisine.Food Fight

Stasi McAteer will guide us in discussing these films.

Location: St. Andrew’s by-the-Sea Episcopal Church

1050 Thomas Avenue, Pacific Beach

For more information and to RSVP for childcare, please contact Deann Ayer at 202.486.0690 or deann.standrewspb@gmail.com

The true cost of food

I’m reading The American Way of Eating by Tracie McMillan. It’s the story of her undercover investigations working at WalMart, Applebee’s, and in the farm fields of California. If you’re looking for a quick primer – that reads more like a novel than a textbook – on the crazily complex food system we’ve developed in our country, this is your book.

McMillan’s experiences in the farm fields were most eye-opening to me, as she reveals not only the sorts of things we can wrap our heads around (even if we don’t like the idea), like worker injuries going unreported, the brutal pace of picking, the punishing weather conditions, and the environmental juggling act a farmer goes through to grow food in a desert like California’s central valley. Sure, we wouldn’t want to deal with these things ourselves, but we might think well, people choose that job, they need the pay, and it’s how we get our food, so OK.

But it’s not so simple. Take, for one, the requirement that workers in California receive minimum wage. A big step forward for farmworkers, it was thought. What McMillan discovered, however, was that her pay was doled out by piece, not by hour, and then her hours were adjusted to reflect minimum wage. In other words, one day she worked eight hours picking twelve buckets of garlic – $19.20 by piece rate. So her check says she worked two hours, not eight, since minimum wage is a little over $8. She has the math skills and pays close enough attention to notice this – plus, she’s a legal and temporary worker, both of which give her security in quitting and/or writing about the problem. But this commonplace practice is so underpenalized when it rarely comes to light that it’s definitely worth the cheating company’s risk in doing it (see p. 96).

Whether or not their hours are properly reported, even at minimum wage, farmworkers (who have the hardest of the food supply’s chain of jobs) are grossly under-compensated for their labor, when one considers the profit margin of fresh produce. McMillan made the aforementioned $19.20 for picking twelve buckets of garlic, and this amount nets the farmer only about $153 (they’re not getting rich either). Through an incredibly complex series of negotiations between wholesalers, distributors, and retailers (which McMillan doesn’t even bother trying to explain in detail), that garlic reaches stores, in a sleeve that is just under a pound, and sells for $1.99 in smaller grocery stores, but up to $3.38 at WalMart (which does almost a quarter of this country’s grocery business).

So in the end, the amount of garlic for which McMillan did a full day’s backbreaking labor netted her $19.20 in pay; at the smaller grocery it will retail for about $600; at WalMart, those same twelve buckets cost the customer $1,014 (p. 82).

What is all that money paying for, exactly? Profits for WalMart, sure…but that’s just a portion of it. McMillan states, “most of the price tag at the store pays for the system that moves it from place to place…By the time an apple ends up in the supermarket, the entire cost of growing it accounts for just about 16 percent of the price, while the other 84 percent goes to the complex infrastructure that got it there, what industry experts call marketing.” (28)

Ah, yes – don’t you love thinking about 84% of your food dollar going to pay for marketing the food to you?

It’s not paying the wages of the worker who picked it, that’s for sure. But would paying a fair wage increase our cost so dramatically that we could no longer afford food? Hardly: “increasing farm wages by 40 percent would increase the average American’s family produce bill by about sixteen dollars a year” (29, emphasis mine). I think I can eat that cost, if it means a liveable wage for someone who’s working their butt off to pick my peaches.

She goes on to say, “if I were really stuck here working in the fields…I’d want to know why, if the cost of food is such a great concern, we don’t focus on figuring out how to make marketing cheaper. And I’d want to know why, if my wages don’t change retail price much, I couldn’t just get paid a better wage.”

Why, indeed?

Hopefully you are wondering about now how to combat this system – or at least, I hope, how to stop contributing to it?

  • 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.

My kitchen smells so goooooood….

Photo by Ree Drummond, The Pioneer Woman herself. I hope mine tastes as good as this looks.

…because I am cooking this:

The Pioneer Woman’s Spicy Dr. Pepper Shredded Pork

I’m making it for three reasons:

1) I live in Texas now, and I believe there is some kind of law here that you have to cook with Dr. Pepper on a regular basis. If there is not, there should be.

I know there’s a law that Dr. Pepper must be offered in every restaurant. I’m sure of it. Also there is an addendum that you should probably oughta offer Diet DP as well, to please the womenfolk, as they say.

This has been problematic for me, as Diet Dr Pepper is my achilles heel when it comes to what I affectionately term “cancer juice.” Yes, I am powerless before its strange chemical-laden flavor profile and tiny, tiny bubbles. To hold the Big C at bay, I have promised myself only to drink it when I can get it on tap, much as my husband has pledged to the Guinness Brewing Company.

Anyway, I’ve been hearing for some time about adding soda (usually Coke) to various braised meat recipes and thought hey, since I’m in Dr Pepper land, I’d better go that route instead.

PLUS, our local grocery chain, the fine H-E-B (which is growing on me greatly), offers a CANE SUGAR version of Dr Pepper that DH (who refuses the diet stuff) actually prefers to the HFCS-sporting original.

So we actually have “Dr B” in tonight’s pork (brief aside: Dr B is clever and all, but nothing will ever beat Dr Thunder for genius brand lifting), with sugar from our friends at Imperial Sugar formerly of Sugar Land, Texas, where I shop at the Farmer’s Market. What a fine Texas meal this is turning out to be.

2) Speaking of shopping locally and H-E-B, they have the freaking best tortillas ever. They even have a machine to make them (“El Machino” in Chevy’s parlance) that keeps the kiddos entertained whilst Momma visits the wine tasting station. Yes, I really am enjoying my local grocery store. And I get their tortillas almost every week, hot off the press, and it really is a challenge to keep the family from eating the whole bag before dinner is on the table.

So I intentionally look for dinner dishes that will give me an excuse to buy these flattened globs of white flour & fat. Yum O.

3) Most importantly, this all came about because I had a pork shoulder to use up from the wonderful Jolie Vue farms. Since moving to Houston not quite two years ago, I haven’t had much luck finding a CSA for veggies that I love. They’re all either too expensive (I was super spoiled in California by the cheap produce), don’t deliver close enough to me, don’t have enough variety (see: spoiled by California), or some even use pesticides, which is SO last century.

But, I had the fantastic fortune to meet Honi Boudreaux (gotta love those Bayou City names!), a genuine force of nature herself, at a talk I gave last summer at t’afia restaurant (where I also got to visit with the amazing Monica Pope, a true believer in the Slow Food cause). Later I asked the Boudreaux’s (Boudreauxes?) to come and talk at my church for my series on Slow Food: Slow Worship.

Our piggies rooting in their personal pecan forest

In the midst of all this, I got super excited about their farm and signed up for home meat delivery, which is an incredible bargain at $220 per delivery but unfortunately I can only afford to do it every second or third month (which is fine, because there’s enough meat in there – and we eat meat infrequently enough – that it lasts that long).

This is, by the way, exactly what I want to encourage all of you to do: eat locally-sourced meat from a rancher or farmer whom you know personally, who will let you visit the farm and meet the animals, who treats them with respect and honor as God’s creatures, and who uses a “glass house” butcher. No funny business in this meat. It’s so much more expensive, and it’s worth every penny. When I can’t afford to eat meat like this, I simply don’t eat meat.

OK this is getting long…my point is that like with a veggie CSA (“Iron Chef Veggie Box” we call it around here), a meat CSA loads you up with all these weird cuts you wouldn’t normally cook, or bother purchasing. At least we wouldn’t.

So in the last few weeks I’ve made a brisket (divine) and now this shoulder which will become carnitas (sort of…not fried). We had a pork belly the first month. Those things go for like 60 bucks a pound in NYC! It was out of this world braised in an agave glaze. AND we got to render the lard and wound up with cracklins (which I put in mac and cheese…OMG).

Anyway we have been really thrilled with getting local meat and I really can’t stress enough how much more delicious it is than the supermarket junk. It’s becoming impossible for me to eat white pork anymore (did you know pork isn’t actually “the other white meat”? That was made up by pork producers to convince consumers to believe the lie that pork isn’t red; a pig will only have white meat when it’s been kept out of the sun). Forested pigs like ours have a beautiful marbled ruby or garnet color to their meat, and the taste is truly beyond compare.

So now that I’m salivating (and I have like four more hours to wait, dang it!) I’d better stop writing about this shoulder. BUT I will ask a favor from any foodie readers out there: we have a NECK of all things (it’s either pork or beef, I honestly can’t tell and it’s not labeled) and also a huge blob of pork fat to use up. Any ideas???