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As I was reading through my backlog of Food Arts magazines (which, unfortunately, weren’t forwarded to my Parisian address), I paused at a humorous article about the French President’s recent attempts to promote Foie Gras to the American Palate. Hats off to him, he clearly has no idea what he is undertaking….it seems Americans have evolved into a culture with the utmost contempt for offal-eating, no matter how luxurious of a product you try to market it as. Of course, fatty livers have never been a mainstay in our diets, and most of us have seen no disruption in our lives by the recent banning of the delicacy in California. But,  the French lawmakers are still disturbed, and worry that a ban in California could spread to other states or countries, and challenge their “right” to export this “great french product.” Apparently President Hollande has taken action in defense of his favorite treat, and  has been sending samples to US lawmakers in hopes of persuading them to change their minds about Foie Gras. His plans for retaliation also include encouraging a reciprocal boycott on California wine in France.

The President visits a Foie Gras farm in a show of solidarity.

Now, I really don’t know what France can actually do about the California ban even with their best efforts, but I couldn’t help smiling at their characteristic allegiance and defensiveness to their favorite product (or the fact that, once again, French politicians are fighting the wrong battles and proving themselves useless). France produces nearly 20,000 tons of Foie Gras annually, but 80% of it never leaves France anyway. The banning in California probably will have very little effect on any Foie Gras producers in France, the same as a banning of California wine in French restaurants probably isn’t much to faze California wine growers. It all is just too much to be taken seriously. Silly French.

However, I am interested in Hollande’s defense of Foie Gras as an important part of France’s gastronomic heritage (a statement which of course earned him the black spot of death from PETA). Granted, I don’t think that “gastronomic heritage” is reason enough to continue abusing animals, but as a historian who enjoys studying food for its cultural value, giving foie gras a deeper look has been an interesting exercise.

You see, Foie Gras has been produced since ancient times. Since the birds are easily kept, sustainable, and have a natural capacity for weight gain, they became a mainstay in diets around the world. It was the Egyptians who first discovered wild geese developed fatty livers in preparation for their long migration, and then replicated it by force feeding. In Europe, the traditions were carried on first by Romans and then by Eastern European Jews, who eventually carried it to France. It’s easy to forget that not too long ago, people depended on the duck and goose fat for everyday life—-cooking, preserving, for making necessities such as candles or soap, or even medicinal properties. The fatter the duck, the longer it could sustain a family. Every part of the duck was, and still is, used. To many people, a fatty liver was a byproduct that came with the extra fat production, even if an especially delicious one. It was also an excellent source of income should one want to sell it, as Foie Gras has always been known as a luxurious product, eaten by kings.

Unfortunately, many ducks raised for foie gras today are raised by  large factory farms, not the smaller family-owned farms that President Hollande would like you to think. Such is western production  these days. BUT, I have had the opportunity to visit a foie gras farm and witness the ducks being fed, and I am here to say that, small farm or big farm, it’s not really a pretty sight.  It is, however, an issue that is very relevant to French cooking, and anywhere foie shows up on the menu, and anyone who eats meat has a responsibility to be educated about how these animals are treated. But mostly, I just find it interesting. IMG_1265When we arrived, the ducks were enjoying life in the field. Ducks becoming foie gras are only moved indoors and force-fed the last two or three weeks of their life, and for the rest of it, they enjoy a relatively carefree existence. However, in the aim of full disclosure, these ducks and geese rarely ever see more than a few months of life in all.

IMG_1282The ducks in the barn generally seemed happy enough and all appeared healthy, if a bit dirty, as they awaited their feeding. Done right, the birds are not hurt by the process. They were quacking and flapping as any duck would, could walk around in their pens, and none seemed traumatized, stressed, or in pain, although I’m sure the process was is an enjoyable one for them (how would you like having a metal rod crammed down your throat?). There is a strong incentive to be gentle with the birds, as those who are mistreated or otherwise damaged (broken bones, bruising, etc) are reduced in price or sometimes unsellable.

The feeding takes no more than a couple seconds per duck. It is still carried out much the same way as it was a hundred years ago (even if the machinery has gotten a bit more complicated, the idea is the same). The feeder uses a plank of wood to make a barrier for the ducks, catching them one at a time between his legs, quickly dispenses the pre-measured feed into their stomachs via a long metal tube, and then releasing them on the other side of the barrier. One man is easily able to feed a hundred ducks this way in a relatively short time. The ducks, in fact, get used to his presence and his scent, and as a result are actually calmer with him than they would be if they were subjected to different people every time.

the old days...

the old days…

....and today.

….and how we witnessed it last month.

The farm I visited takes 100% control of its operations, from raising the baby birds to putting the finished meat in tins. After seeing the ducks being fed, we were led to the slaughterhouse.

IMG_1290Birds are dipped into electrified water and shocked, then turned upright in those cones to have their throats slit.Overall, it makes for a quick and painless death.They are then defeathered, and sent along via conveyor belt to the next station.

IMG_1295The bird is hung up on these racks, when make access to the liver much easier and as noninvasive as possible. Again, the idea is to treat the bird carefully, to minimize bruising, and the fewer cuts, the better. From this position, the legs can be removed and the liver pulled out without trouble. In France, it is nearly impossible to buy a duck with it’s liver still intact outside of the Perigord region.  Luckily, we were able to acquire two back in Paris, and I shared briefly about the experience with you then. However, i declined to post the video, but I’m uploading a snippet now. It’s fascinating to see how all the organs fit in the animal, and how HUGE the liver is in comparison to the body of the duck. incredible.

Anyway, this was not meant to be a political post, and I think everyone should follow their own conscience in regards to what they will and won’t eat. I am certainly not trying to persuade anyone one way or another, but i found it all interesting. If, in fact, you’re not opposed to a little offal in your life, it’s worth a taste (as long as you’re not in California).