“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.
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.)