Marylanders celebrate high holy days with crab feasts. You get a basket of some of the most beautiful, blue-tinted and darkly speckled creatures from the sea and boil them alive with a firey shower of Old Bay. Then you disembowel the now-rosy animals by hand, stuffing yourself to overfull and commenting how there’s no better way to spend a summer day. Such things tend to inure you against the horrors of butchery.
I am not sentimental about animals. I didn’t grow up with any pets, aside from short-lived goldfish, which are notoriously bad at cuddling and doing tricks and all those other anthropomorphic things. I love food so much that I instinctively recoil from anything that limits culinary possibilities. But I also like to think of myself as a Good Person, as most of us do, which is why I enjoyed the evenhanded exploration of the ethics of foie gras in Mark Caro’s book The Foie Gras Wars: How a 5,000 Year Old Delicacy Inspired the World’s Fiercest Food Fight.
Caro is a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times who was drawn into the fold of foie due to a professional slap flight between two noted Windy City restauranteurs, Charlie Trotter and Rick Tram0nto. Trotter removed foie from his menu for ethical reasons, a move that eventually culminated in a city-wide ban on selling the fatty duck livers, produced by force-feeding the birds to the point of obesity. Gourmets balked at the idea of having a treasured item removed from their menus. Animal activists balked that anyone would argue a delicious tidbit was worth the torture of innocent animals. Conservatives balked that such a specific law should be imposed upon restauranteurs and consumers when everyone could just let the market decide that engorged duck livers weren’t worth the ethical or financial trouble of eating or producing them. So Caro went on a journey from Chicago to New York, California and France to see what the fuss is about. Surprising, it’s about quite a lot — ethics, culture and commerce, to name just a few.
Caro explores how and why other places have banned foie gras. Surprisingly, Israel is at the top of the list. Foie has roots in Europe’s Jewish communities — it’s basically a high-end version of schmaltz, the beloved Kosher poultry fat schmeared on bread by bubbes the world over. It was one of Israel’s first export industries. (The book mentions that Maryland briefly considered a ban, but it ultimately didn’t go anywhere. Still, the incident made producers nervous that a state “without much of a culinary scene” (!) would likely enter the foie fray on the side of the animals and their cohorts.)
Besides the halls of the Israeli Supreme Court, Caro explores duck farms in the U.S. and in France, talks with animal activists and participates in the process himself, sending the readers interest in foie — as well as his own cholesterol score — through the roof. The activists and chefs and farmers make for better reading than the aldermen; Caro does his darndest to make the Chicago city council’s parlimentary procedures seem dramatic but it is a thankless task.
The Foie Gras Wars is not for the faint of heart, since even the mildest description of the most humane abbatoir may leave you reaching for a veggie burrito afterwards. But it’s worth plowing through the icky (if well-written) parts to explore the ethics of fatty duck and goose livers. Caro gets contradicting stories about the amount of suffering the birds experience during force feeding — advocates say they don’t mind, detractors say it’s torture — because there’s basically no one who investigates such matters that doesn’t have a stake in the outcome. People who turn their nose up at the cruelty of foie happily power down Purdue oven stuffer roasters, even though said chickens are treated much worse than the average foie bird. Don’t eat veal because you don’t want to support the industry? Veal is a side business for the dairy industry, so you’re going to have cut out cheese and cream and milk as well to make that stand.
But just because it’s hard to avoid cruelly treated animals doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t. And surely just because we can’t attain the ideal of veganism doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do our best to minimizing suffering in the world. Right?
The foie gras debate can seem like a twee Rich People Problem, but its implications are larger. The idea of suffering, and the argument that ends can justify means, is not wholly divorced from other issues, like President Obama’s decision to withhold pictures of tortured detainees.
Does the end justify the means when the end is sustenence? What about pleasure? What about tremendous pleasure that can’t be achieved in any other way? What about the hypocrisy of being sentimental about one animal or one food and not another?
What about when the end is national security? What if short-term gains are ultimately more damaging to America’s interests? Are images of suffering unnecessarily inflamatory, or necessary to make informed decisions about how we live our lives and enjoy our freedoms? (That last one applies to both detainees and ducks.)
Philosophers, presidents, chefs and citizens struggle with these questions every day. They stare back at us from the television screen, from a plate of seared foie served with quince and toast points, and from our paper box of Chicken Nuggets with Sweet and Sour Sauce. Freedom of choice can be a terrible, magnificent burden.