Meat the Dilemma

Review by Jennifer Howard
Sunday, April 5, 2009; Page B07


How a 5,000-Year-Old Delicacy Inspired the World's Fiercest Food Fight

By Mark Caro | Simon & Schuster. 355 pp. $25


The Truth About Food

By Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson | Norton. 288 pp. $24.95

A friend of mine who waited tables at a French restaurant had a faux menu he liked to recite. It began like this: "Pâté de foie gras -- made from the liver of a small goose who's had its foot nailed to the floor and food stuffed down its throat through a tube until its organs explode."

That is not a precisely accurate description of gavage -- the ancient art, if we can call it that, of force-feeding geese and ducks to enlarge their livers for our delectation -- but it sums up the general feeling, on this side of the Atlantic, that foie gras crosses the line between delicious and decadent. People who will happily tuck into a rare steak, never giving a thought to the killing floor of the slaughterhouse, dislike the idea of torturing waterfowl to turn their organs into super-fatty treats for dining elites.

A local foodie fight got Mark Caro, an entertainment reporter for the Chicago Tribune, interested in whether foie gras lives down to its reputation. In 2002, Charlie Trotter, one of the Windy City's celebrity chefs, quit plating the stuff at his eponymous eatery. This is a man who "serves up just about anything that once drew breath," Caro writes in "The Foie Gras Wars," his entertaining if overcooked and overlong look at the foie-gras follies.

What put Trotter off his fancy foie? "It's done in a mass-produced farming style where literally there's tubes being jammed down their throats," the chef told the reporter. "We have cases of ripped esophaguses, chipped and broken beaks and ripped feet." Another chef, Rick Tramonto, took Trotter to task for hypocrisy: "Either you eat animals or you don't eat animals." Then Trotter got out the steak knives: "Oh, OK. Maybe we ought to have Rick's liver for a little treat. It's certainly fat enough."

That salvo sent Caro off on a foie gras fact-finding mission. If there is a culinary equivalent of shoe-leather reporting, our enterprising reporter has done it for this book. He toured the handful of U.S. farms that produce the stuff. He hung out with animal-rights activists who see foie gras as an easier target than, say, hamburger. He traveled to France to see gavage as it has been practiced on small farms for generations. While there, he took part in a "foie gras weekend" where guests eviscerated and dismembered birds and boiled the fatty, fleshy bits into potted treats. He ate foie gras mi-cuit, sliced on toast, whipped up with a dash of pig's blood, potted in crème brûlées, even, in one chef's misguided attempt at creativity, put through a cotton-candy machine.

As a vegetarian, I was predisposed to find the subject upsetting, but Caro's descriptions of foie gras production and preparation were less gruesome than I anticipated (though mention of pig's blood did make me wince.) What that says about the cruelty of foie gras I don't know, and Caro doesn't either. He describes himself as a "trying-to-be-ethical meat eater," which means that he has put some thought into how much his food may disenjoy its journey from the farm to the dinner table. That puts him ahead of our culture's prevailing "don't-ask/don't tell policy." "We don't associate chicken with an animal kept in an overcrowded barn; we think of it as a pink slab laying on cellophane-wrapped Styrofoam or as something molded into a 'nugget' " he writes. "Collective denial has been our modus operandi."

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