When the culture of ‘no’ leaves a bad taste

August 21, 2012

For much of the 20th century, anyone who immigrated to America generally understood they would have to sacrifice some of their beloved foods. That’s just the way it was back then, before import markets were established and U.S. farmers embraced the artisanal approach to animal agriculture and produce.

Roland Passot, chef and owner of La Folie in San Francisco, remembers when he was a 20-year-old cook in 1976 at Le Francais, once the temple of haute cuisine in Chicago. The restaurant’s chef was Jean Banchet, a Frenchman in charge of a kitchen filled with many of his countrymen. Despite being more than 4,000 miles from his Gallic home, Banchet refused to accept the limitations of his Windy City address. If he wanted to serve foie gras, he would find a way to do so in a country with no such duck or goose producers and no legal way to import the fresh stuff from France, where the vast majority of these fat, buttery lobes are produced by force-feeding birds until their livers swell to many times their normal size.

“We were smuggling foie gras in 1976 and 1977,” says Passot during a phone interview from the Bay Area. They were smuggling fresh lobes, he says, inside the bellies of fish exported from France.

Some 35 years later, Passot finds himself back in the same place he was as a young emigre who spoke no English: He will have to skirt the law if he wants to sell fresh foie gras — or any foie gras, for that matter. On July 1, a statewide ban on the production and sale of foie gras went into effect in California, generating one collective gasp from bewildered French citizens.

This time around, however, it’s different for Passot. His access to foie gras is not limited by a lack of product; America has at least two farms now that produce high-grade lobes. No, the chef’s access is limited because of people like Gene Baur, president and co-founder of the New York-based Farm Sanctuary, which worked with the California legislature to ban foie gras because of force-feeding practices that animal activists consider inhumane.

In other words, animal cruelty is the latest obstacle — along with import bans, scarcity of product or trade restrictions — that makes it difficult for immigrants to get a taste of home. Or for the rest of us to get a taste of their native cuisine.

French resistance

Thousands of words already have been published on the pros and cons of force-feeding ducks and geese, a process known as gavage. The enemy lines break down as you would think: The French and the many gourmands in their camp say gavage is merely an amplified version of a duck’s natural gorging instinct before migration. Animal protectionists view gavage as completely “outside the bounds of appropriate conduct in our society,” as Baur tells me, and say it should be banned.

What neither side disputes — or disputes much — is that far worse animal agriculture practices exist and that foie gras was targeted for one simple reason: It’s a defenseless prey of French origin.

“I would say [U.S. foie gras consumption] is less entrenched, so it’s an easier target,” Baur says. “Most people in the U.S. don’t consume it, so their defenses don’t pop up as fast as with pigs.” (France, incidentally, produces about 80 percent of the world’s foie gras and consumes about 90 percent of it.)

The fight over foie gras underscores the uneasy class divide in a country where everyone is supposed to have a shot at the American dream. The expensive delicacy known as foie gras (Grade A lobes range from $50 to $100 per pound), in all its unctuous preparations, pokes at the sensitive underbelly of the underprivileged, who can resent the rich and their highfalutin tastes. Foie gras’s very name reminds us of our complicated relationship with France, the country whose culinary traditions are the foundation of much of American gastronomy but whose independence in the face of war led to that ridiculous rebranding known as “freedom fries.”

In his book, “The Foie Gras Wars” (Simon & Schuster, 2009), Chicago Tribune writer Mark Caro looks at the battle over the delicacy from every conceivable angle, including the French-American divide over the product. Reached last week, Caro neatly encapsulates the common man’s view of foie gras.

“It’s a dish with a French name that’s hard to pronounce and it involves ducks, and we really like ducks,” he says. “Who’s going to stand up for the right for rich people to eat” such a thing?

Some chefs in California are. They’ve formed the Coalition for Humane and Ethical Farming Standards to try to overturn the ban. It seems only appropriate that chefs would take up the cause. Not only do they have a vested interest, but many were trained in schools that emphasize French cooking techniques. Some, like Passot, are from France, where the tradition of foie gras runs deep. It’s as though they owe it to France to fight for foie gras.

But Passot doesn’t like to frame this as a battle to save one of France’s delicacies in California. The Lyon native likes to put this in democratic terms: freedom of choice. What one eats should be a personal decision, based on one’s own moral compass. Bans are un-American, he says.

“Governments are dictating what we can eat and what we cannot eat,” he says. “We’re closer and closer to becoming a communist country.

Jacques Haeringer, chef and proprietor of L’Auberge Chez Francois in Great Falls, takes a similar stance on outright bans against foie gras, one of the signature products of Alsace, where his late father, Francois, was born. “I think the forces that don’t want it should educate people,” Haeringer says. “Then the people who don’t want it won’t order it.”

Forbidden fruits and fish

The thing is, governments dictate what we can and cannot eat on a regular basis, and immigrant communities are often the ones who suffer from the regulations. The American government can be a real hindrance to favorite foreign foods, whether it’s fresh ackee (a West African-Caribbean fruit that contains toxins), Scottish haggis (its sheep lungs keep the product out of U.S. markets), tropical pufferfish (another toxin carrier) or Atlantic bluefin tuna (strict catch quotas), to name a few.

Governmental bodies, of course, usually have good cause for restricting your access to certain foods. It might be to save an endangered animal. It might be to save your life. It might be, as with foie gras, to improve the lives of the animals sacrificed. Or in the case of shark fins, it might be a combination of factors.

The United States bans the practice of finning — removing a shark’s fins and discarding the rest of the animal — as well as the importation of fins separate from the carcass. Five states, including Hawaii and California, have instituted even tougher laws, forbidding the sale, trade and possession of shark fins altogether. Then there are trade restrictions on three vulnerable shark species, such as the great white and basking sharks.

Still, despite those limitations, scientists estimate that between 26 million and 73 million sharks are killed annually worldwide, the majority for the lucrative shark fin trade, centered in China and Hong Kong. Jill Hepp, director of the global shark conservation campaign for the Pew Environment Group, says that last year Hong Kong reported shark fin imports from 83 countries. It’s little wonder that Pew estimates some shark populations have declined by as much as 80 percent.

Ping Gu, a manager at Hunan Manor Restaurant in Columbia, has seen the public sour on shark fin soup, a pricey bowl ($40) he used to serve.

“We took it off the menu,” the manager says. Hunan Manor will still prepare the soup for large parties, but the restaurant needs at least a week’s notice. Why? Because he has to search for shark fins. “There aren’t any stores that carry it,” he says. “It’s hard to find.”

Shark fins are not as hard to find, however, as pufferfish, also known as blowfish or fugu, which the Japanese consume as a kind of legal drug. After trained chefs remove the parts of the fish that contain potentially lethal toxins, fugu retains enough traces of the tetrodotoxin and/or saxitoxin poisons to cause a minor, drug-induced high. “That’s why people have been eating blowfish in Japan for so many years,” says Nobuyoshi Kuraoka, owner of Restaurant Nippon in New York.

Kuraoka says he is the only person who can legally import blowfish into the United States. He worked with the FDA for five years in the 1980s to earn the right. Now during fugu season, approximately October to February, he imports about 440 pounds of tiger blowfish from Shimonoseki to JFK airport, where FDA and other inspectors review the catch. “There’s a mark on the skin that looks different from the other 15 or 16 species of blowfish,” Kuraoka says. “So the inspector of the FDA can easily recognize this as tiger blowfish.”

Why tiger blowfish? Japanese officials have determined that specific parts of the fish, when removed by a licensed chef, are virtually free of poison. “Ironically, this blowfish is the safest fish imported into the United States,” Kuraoka says.

Only members of Kuraoka’s Tiger Blowfish Buyers’ Association can purchase fugu from him. Kaz Okochi of Kaz Sushi Bistro in downtown Washington is one of the association’s 48 members, and he buys fugu about twice a year. In some ways, the thrill is gone once the tiger blowfish reaches Okochi for his five-course dinner (priced at $150 per person): The risk of death by poison has been removed. “It’s already safe,” he says.

Compared with shark fins and blowfish, Scottish haggis is a relative breeze to secure in the D.C. area. You can just drive over to the Scottish Merchant in Alexandria, which carries an American-made version of Stahly brand haggis. Or you can head to Wheaton, where the reopened Royal Mile Pub makes its own haggis. The only question is whether it passes the sniff test with real Scots.

American-made haggis is “pretty authentic,” says Darren Burgess, second secretary of the Scottish Affairs Office in Washington. But “it’s not the real McCoy.”

More to come?

Given the threats posed by inexpertly prepared blowfish (to humans) or finning (to shark populations), you can understand the impulse to ban or severely restrict the availability of these products. But foie gras? Ducks are not endangered. Humans are not in peril. Why outright ban it?

Consider what author Michael Pollan wrote to me via e-mail: “Banning foie gras makes legislators feel like they’ve actually done something, when they’ve only discomfited two little, powerless farms.”

To Baur of Farm Sanctuary, the ban question no doubt smacks of the age-old quandary of whose life is more important: the human or the animal? His mission, he says, is “to prevent suffering” and to “prohibit something that is outside the bounds of appropriate conduct.”

So why not ban chicken, given the cruelty inherent in mass poultry farming?

“That’s a good question,” says the longtime vegan. “I think that’s one that needs to be discussed.”

One can barely imagine how many immigrant dishes that ban might affect.

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires ingesting more calories than a draft horse.
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