Tag Archives: foie gras

I is for Iron Bridge Wine Company

A while ago I promised that I’d make Columbia’s Iron Bridge Wine Company my I spot because I felt the restaurant had been dealt an unfair hand by animal rights vandals. My sense of righteous indignation, which usually leads me into trouble, led me to a nice wine spot.

 IBWC, located in what I remember from childhood as a biker bar, is perched along Route 108 facing one of the few pastoral scenes left in Howard County. Inside, the décor is all dark wood and rich red draperies that stop just this side of the Moulin Rouge or a R&B slow jam video. The bar is beautiful, and I wish we’d spent our happy hour there, especially since they have a $20 bottle special on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Instead we went for a wine tasting class in the adjacent dining room from what the restaurant calls “Iron Bridge University.”

IBU was a deal for $25 – samplings of two whites, two reds and a port from Spain and Portugal. The students were arranged around a tall center table set up with five different wine glasses and the teacher (Waiter? Bartender? Sommelier?) talked for 45 uninterrupted minutes about older versus newer vines, appellations, and Portuguese geography. It was like drinking from a fire hose hooked up to a hydrant full of wine. The grapes were good, and the price was right (especially since it got us 10% off our total bill), but I didn’t learn one single thing. Maybe my cohorts and I aren’t ready for Iron Bridge University. We’re more Iron Bridge Community College, or Iron Bridge Reform School for Naughty Girls who Sit in the Back of Class and Giggle.

 My favorite selection was a not-quite-sparkling white that we ordered a bottle of after class . I’m a sucker for anything carbonated (soda, beer, seltzer, champagne, prosecco, etc), and it was a decent match for Annie’s roasted veggie pizza as well as the complimentary tuna tartare appetizer that came with the class. My two fellow “students” were offput by the super-sweet port, but personally I think tastings are for sampling the more outlandish stuff that you wouldn’t necessarily buy a whole bottle of on spec. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. I generally like port (albeit more in winter), but it was still too sweet for me.

 We also ordered “grilled cheese” off the menu, which was a grilled round of brie served with crostini and macerated strawberries. Grilled brie sounds weird, but was quite tasty and I’d love to try it on the grill at home. Lulu, as she did at the Diamondback Tavern, housed a plate of risotto quite happily. In honor of the original foie gras protesting that inspired my trip, I order the chicken liver and foie gras pate, oddly presented in two Chinese soupspoons with crostini (a bit bready for the task at hand) and truffle butter (to die for). I enjoyed all the richness, but I still don’t quite understand why people throw down over this stuff. Doesn’t seem worth the fuss to me, from either the gourmet or animal rights angle.

The service wasn’t as silky smooth as I’ve seen in some high-end spots, but it was still quite good. They were generous with the extra crostini, and when our server didn’t know the answer to a question, she admitted that she didn’t, looked into it and relayed an answer back to us. I asked for a wine to go with my pate, since I have no idea what the traditional pairing would be, and the bartender offered up a crazy-rich white that was a terrific match. It was the only drink I tried that wasn’t from the tasting menu, but it was great. The wine list at IWBC has some great bargains for down-and-outers like me, and some pricier choices for the fat cats. Definitely worth the trip to HoCo.

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Well that’s just ducky

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.

I is for Irate

I usually don’t pick out my AHH spots too far in advance, but after this I’m reserving the I spot for Iron Bridge Wine Company in Columbia. which has been vandalized twice in the past month. The first time, on March 23, anti-foie gras protestors took credit for the act. This time, no one has stepped up, but it appears to be the same group.

I have had foie gras exactly once in my life, at 1789 in Georgetown. It tasted like meat butter, and I was undecided on if I liked it or not. I’ve read Fast Food Nation and Consider the Lobster. I’m aware that other cities have banned foie gras for ethical reasons. I realize that gavage is not all the fun you can have with your feathers on for the ducks. But I do not like violence or destruction or waste, which is what vandalizing a restaurant in protest of one dish on their extensive menu is. Restaurants are tough businesses to keep afloat, and repeated  vandalizations don’t help the bottom line. Foie gras protestors, vote with your wallet, protest outside the building and start a petition to outlaw foie in Maryland. Just keep it legal. You’re winning more foes than friends. How many people eat foie per year anyway? Wouldn’t it be more effective to lobby against unethically raised cows or chicken?

Arguably my aforementioned distate for violence and destruction and waste could be targeted towards the people who turn living, breathing duckies into meat butter. But because of the methods employed, my sympathies lie with the restauranteurs who seem rational and professional in comparison to the childish antics of the protestors. Quoth Steve Wecker, a co-owner of IBWC: “You can be an activist. You don’t have to be an anarchist or an idiot.”

Word, Steve. I’ll see you in a few weeks.  I’m going to eat so much foie that my liver will become deliciously engorged with fat and you’ll want to serve me with toast points and truffle butter.