This city, with a history of stockyards and steakhouses, has erupted over a matter of greater culinary delicacy: foie gras.
Aldermen may vote this month on a proposal to make Chicago the first U.S. city to ban the sale of the fattened livers of force-fed ducks and geese. The debate has split the city: On one side is one of Chicago's best-known chefs, Charlie Trotter, who will not serve it; on the other is Mayor Richard M. Daley, who says foie gras should remain on restaurant menus.
Amid the back-and-forth, Cyrano's Bistrot and Wine Bar in the city's tourist-heavy River North neighborhood had a window smashed and a door smeared with fake blood last month after Chef Didier Durand protested any ban.
"The main obstacle is that nobody around here knows what it is or how it's produced," says Alderman Joe Moore, 47, a Democrat from Chicago's North Side who proposed the ban after learning about the treatment of ducks from Trotter. "We're more of a steak-and-ale kind of city. This is different than killing and eating a cow; you're actually torturing little animals before you eat them."
Foie gras producers can fatten a duck liver to 12 times its normal size by pouring a pound of cornmeal down the bird's gullet three times a day for as many as four weeks before slaughter. Protests against the technique, which animal rights activists liken to torture, emerged after the freshly prepared dish gained popularity in the United States in the 1990s.
Producers such as Hudson Valley Foie Gras, based in Ferndale, N.Y., say waterfowl are not harmed in the process because the birds naturally overfeed to build energy for weeks before their biannual migrations.
In Chicago, 19 restaurants list foie gras on their menu, according to Tribune Co.'s Metromix guide. Sales to the area have doubled in the past couple of years, said Jacques Bissonnette, export manager for Palmex Inc., a foie gras producer in Quebec and one of three in North America.
"People are ordering foie gras more than ever because they don't know how much time they've got left," said Jorge Chaux, a waiter at Cyrano's Bistrot, which police say was vandalized the night after Durand spoke against the ban at a city council meeting Oct. 25. Durand was traveling and unavailable to comment.
The Norfolk-based advocacy group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) supports bans on foie gras. While Trotter does not support government involvement in menu selections, the chef said he is comfortable with his role as an accidental leader in the movement against foie gras, which typically is served as an appetizer for about $15 to $20.
"I'm not exactly Mr. PETA, but I've been to a couple of foie gras farms," said Trotter, 45, whose namesake restaurant offered the delicacy until about four years ago. "I've witnessed the process, and it's grisly, to put it mildly."
Daley, 63, has said restaurants would probably serve foie gras under different names should the ban win approval by the city council. "Our inspectors can't go out and test it," Daley said recently, adding that he enjoys foie gras, according to the Chicago Tribune. Daley's office declined to elaborate.
The proposal passed unanimously in the 14-member health committee on Oct. 25 and needs 26 votes to pass the full council, said Moore, who has been calling fellow aldermen to discuss the merits of the proposal. He may bring the ban to a vote at the next council meeting on Nov. 30.
"One chef told me he sells it to less than 10 percent of his customers," Moore said. "It's a luxury for the wealthy."
The practice of force-feeding geese began with the Egyptians almost 5,000 years ago, and French chefs have refined the technique for more than two centuries. Until the late 1980s, when the first commercial foie gras farms opened in New York and California, U.S. diners were limited to cooked, tinned blocks of imported pate.
Hudson Valley Foie Gras says it produces more than 220 tons a year, or about 75 percent of the U.S. total, from farms opened in New York's Catskill Mountains 14 years ago by former bond trader Michael Ginor and Israeli-born duck breeder Izzy Yanay.
California last year banned the force-feeding of birds and the sale of foie gras starting in 2012, becoming the first state to pass such a restriction.
The Chicago City Council could vote at month's end to ban foie gras, a rich pate made by force-feeding ducks and geese.