Leisure: A Matter of Taste

  • Sheila Gibson Stoodley

Didier Durand became an outlaw on August 22. Chicago law deemed it illegal as of that date for restaurants to serve foie gras, yet the chef and owner of Cyrano’s Bistrot & Wine Bar, a 10-year-old French restaurant in the city’s River North section, continued to offer the delicacy to his patrons.

Chicago Alderman Joe Moore initiated the ban on foie gras because of his perception of how the meat is produced. “Birds, in particular geese and ducks, are inhumanely force fed, via a pipe inserted [in] their throats several times a day in order to fatten the livers,” Moore said in an April 6 release. “The process that is required to produce this so-called delicacy is totally unacceptable, and I want to make this dish both unpopular and unavailable.” Moore and his city council colleagues passed the measure in a voice vote on April 26, and Mayor Richard Daley failed to veto it. Daley has since called the foie gras legislation “the silliest law they’ve ever passed.” (In mid-September, some city council members expressed support for repealing the law; events continue to unfold.)

Durand, who has offered foie gras at Cyrano’s since it opened, seems to agree with the mayor’s assessment. “A duck can pick up a whole fish and swallow it,” says Durand, who raised foie gras ducks during his childhood in Bergerac, a town in the Dordogne region of France. “It doesn’t chew because its neck is expandable. When it is force-fed, it does not get hurt.” Moreover, says Durand, he sees the city council’s vote as an assault on his craft and his roots. “It’s not just about a piece of liver, it’s about the way I like to cook,” he says. “I am personally offended. I have been attacked, and for the sake of the duck, I will fight.”

He is not fighting alone. On the day that the law went into effect, several other Chicago chefs added foie gras to their menus as a most succulent form of civil disobedience.

Chicago is not the sole foie gras battlefield. California passed a bill two years ago that would begin prohibiting production and sales in the state in 2012, and legislatures in New York, Illinois, Oregon, and Massachusetts have considered, or are considering, statutes that would affect the availability of the delicacy. But Chicago’s ban spurred America’s few foie gras producers to join forces and defend their livelihoods. “The Chicago city council’s action was a wake-up call that we had to get together, that we had to hang together or hang separately,” says Mike Hacker, spokesman for the Artisan Farmers Alliance (AFA), a foie gras advocacy group that formed this past summer and is a party to a suit that Durand’s advocacy group, Chicago Chefs for Choice, has filed to challenge the law.

The availability of foie gras may be threatened by American lawmakers, but another rich and rare treat, caviar, is confronting a greater peril. Indeed, certain Caspian Sea species of the sturgeon fish that produce the eggs are on the brink of extinction. When the Soviet Union fell, the system through which it managed caviar production also collapsed. The territory on the northern shores of the Caspian Sea split into Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Russia, and the upheaval led to years of overfishing.

 

Stocks have dropped so drastically—perhaps by as much as 90 percent—that most of the region’s beluga, osetra, and sevruga caviars recently were barred from foreign markets. The United Nations’ Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the organization that grants export quotas for Caspian Sea sturgeon products, refused quotas for 2006 to all producing nations except Iran, which convinced CITES that its Persian sturgeon population could withstand a harvest. Iran was allowed to ship almost 100,000 pounds of eggs.

The other four Caspian countries will not receive quotas until they can prove that their sturgeon stocks are large and diverse enough to sustain a harvest. Because most species of sturgeon mature relatively late in life, the fish populations’ recovery period could be long, assuming that poachers do not drive the sturgeon to extinction first.

The American supply of Caspian beluga was exhausted soon after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service banned imports in late October 2005. Holiday demand will consume what remains of the last of the region’s osetras and sevrugas that were harvested in 2005. (If packaged properly and kept well, imported caviar can retain its integrity for a year.)

Importers have been planning for this day. After years of struggle and trial and error, sturgeon farming operations now are producing suitable gourmet caviars. Petrossian, an importer headquartered in Paris whose Armenian founders are credited with introducing the French to the treat 86 years ago, began selling farmed caviars in 2001. Browne Trading Co., a gourmet purveyor in Portland, Maine, embraced farm-raised products 10 years ago and this fall introduced a sampler of six caviars from around the world. Five are from farms in France, America, Germany, Italy, and Bulgaria; the sixth is wild Persian caviar from Iran.

While the finest can rival the best of the Caspian catch, farmed caviars remain the product of a controlled environment. “We can’t reproduce the depth of flavor that you get from the wild, because [the wild fish] eat differently. Their diet cannot be duplicated,” says Rod Browne Mitchell, owner of Browne Trading Co. “[Farmed caviar] has a different flavor, not necessarily worse or better. It’s like a great Bordeaux or Burgundy in that you have differences [in the harvests] depending on the year.”

Farmed products have expanded the market, introducing varieties from species of sturgeon other than the familiar beluga, osetra, and sevruga. “Different fish have different flavors,” says Armen Petrossian, president and CEO of the company that his father and uncle founded. “It’s like comparing a Merlot to a Pinot Noir, comparing two different types of grapes.”

Although they share an enthusiasm for farmed caviar, Petrossian and Mitchell disagree on whether CITES’ suspension of trade is a positive development. Mitchell says it has “caused pain to the industry as well as benefited it” by giving the caviar farms the opportunity to meet the demand that wild Caspian caviar can no longer satisfy. Petrossian, in contrast, says, “I think the ban is the worst decision that has ever been taken,” because he believes that the absence of legal trade, however small and restricted, will boost the black market. Citing the example of the U.S. embargo on Cuban cigars, he says, “By blocking it, you only create demand for something that is not allowed . . . Each time you close the door, the illegal market gets more money. It’s a vicious circle.”

Mitchell expresses confidence that the CITES action will frustrate most illegal caviar purchases in America. “If [the black marketers] are outside the country, they can’t ship it, and it will be bad,” he says, explaining that because caviar is a highly perishable form of contraband, it spoils in transit. “People in the country who say they have [forbidden caviars] are mislabeling. How do you prove it is labeled correctly? You need an export license . . . Fish and Wildlife, they check people,” he says, referring to the U.S. agency that polices caviar. “They go online, they go to stores, they look, they buy, they have agents who actually catch people. And if we see anything funny, we let them know about it. Anybody who is in the industry legally wants to support CITES. Nobody wants to make the sturgeon extinct.”

Petrossian fears that smugglers will find ways to reach those who want to flout the ban. His own research leads him to believe that the black market sold 100 tons of Caspian caviar in 2005, which equals the amount that was exported legally that year. “Some people who are crazy about beluga will pay a fortune for it. Some of my customers tell me, ‘I like beluga. You cannot supply it officially, but I like this caviar. I’ll get it from another source,’ ” Petrossian says, returning to the flaw he sees in the CITES arrangement. “It punishes the good and rewards the bad. Customers are punished because they can’t have the caviar they want at whatever the price. The bad get more money. The legal [operators] get no money. The balance is not normal.”

Not surprisingly, Petrossian believes that any laws against foie gras will have a counterproductive effect, making the forbidden more desirable. Indeed, according to Michael Ginor’s book Foie Gras: A Passion (John Wiley & Sons, 1999), this has happened before in America. During the 1970s, U.S. law barred imports of fresh, uncooked foie gras because of an avian disease that affected the foie gras–producing regions of France. But a coterie of French chefs in America wanted the genuine article enough to smuggle it into the country. Jean Banchet, who ran a French restaurant near Chicago in 1973, told Ginor about concealing the goods in his luggage: “A few times, I made the mistake of packing it in Styrofoam boxes; when the inspector saw it . . . he would just throw the whole box of foie gras in the garbage, right in front of me.”

Foie gras is one of several foods that Petrossian offers in addition to caviar, and in 1972, it introduced American chefs to mi-cuit (French for “half-cooked”), livers that were cooked precisely to the point that would render them acceptable to the U.S. government for importation. But Petrossian is no longer involved with French foie gras producers. “I did it for a long time, and I only dropped it because it became too industrial for me, and that was not my interest,” he says.

Ginor, who founded Hudson Valley Foie Gras in 1989, helped chefs overcome the obstacle posed by U.S. import law by supplying fresh, domestically grown foie gras and duck products from his upstate New York farm. In addition, his livers had different qualities than the French ones because he raised a different duck, the Moulard, which is a hybrid of the Pekin and Muscovy species. “[The foie gras] stands up to heat much better, and that opened the door to a slew of hot preparations that tremendously helped the growth of the popularity of foie gras, especially in the United States,” he says, estimating that 80 percent of the foie gras that is served in this country is served hot.

Ginor, who opens his farm to visitors by appointment, is happy to describe the “optimum method” that he and his business partner, Izzy Yanay, developed to transform birds into meat: Feed the fowl a diet that is 90 percent corn and 10 percent soy for 28 days, three times a day, in 10-second sittings, to yield a liver that weighs from 1.3 pounds to 1.7 pounds. He emphasizes that the employees who feed the ducks do not use a pneumatic, or compressed-air, system to force the grain down the birds’ throats. Each feeder is responsible for 350 ducks, and the farm processes 7,000 ducks per week. Asked to define what constitutes humane treatment of birds raised for meat, Ginor says, “That they’ve got space, proper food, water, that they’re not abused—punched or kicked—by a caretaker, and that their environment is clean and maintained. We do all that very carefully.” He claims that the mortality rate for his ducks, which averages 3.2 per 100, is low by poultry farm standards. “I came into this field purely for the love of the product,” he says. “I don’t think of myself as a processor or a slaughterhouse; I think of myself as a culinarian.”

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), the country’s oldest and largest professional organization for doctors who treat animals, may not hold as high a view of Ginor, but they also do not fault his practices. The AVMA last year declined to adopt a resolution that would have opposed and condemned the force-feeding of birds. Veterinarians Robert Gordon and Thomas Munschauer visited Ginor’s facility on behalf of the organization prior to the vote, and their findings influenced the decision. The doctors reported that the ducks they saw did not appear stressed and seemed to be well cared for. The AVMA revisited the question of force-feeding at their July 2006 convention and again chose to remain neutral.

Charlie Trotter probably would not wish to be identified as a player in the Chicago foie gras fracas, but he is nonetheless involved, and his experience shows the grief that can attend an effort to maintain a subtle opinion on a heated topic. The chef served the delicacy at his eponymous Chicago restaurant and contributed a recipe to Ginor’s book, but three or four years ago he quietly removed it from his menu after touring three foie gras operations. (Trotter has not identified the facilities. Ginor insists that his was not one of them, and he says that he has invited Trotter to visit.) When animal rights advocates learned of his attitude toward foie gras, they lauded him as a hero, and the language of the Chicago law praises his actions specifically.

But Trotter, who did not respond to requests for an interview, has refused to align himself with the anti–foie gras forces. In a March 2005 Chicago Tribune article, he said of Farm Sanctuary, an animal rights organization that prominently opposes the delicacy, “These people are idiots. Understand my position: I have nothing to do with a group like that. I think they’re pathetic . . . I have nothing in common with that left-leaning kind of ideology.” Also, he declared his reluctance to support a bill banning foie gras production in Illinois, saying, “I would never go so far as to say we should stop these people from doing it.”

The aftermath of the Chicago city council’s attempt to prevent restaurants from serving foie gras validates Petrossian’s view that outlawing a delicacy makes it more attractive. Soon after the measure passed, diners who, until the law was passed, had never heard of foie gras began ordering it. Given Chicago’s history with Prohibition, the citizens may have been acting on principle. Whatever his patrons’ motivations were, chef Durand says that his bistro sold three times the amount of foie gras that it normally would in late spring and early summer. Other city chefs have reported similar spikes.

Browne Trading Co., 800.944.7848, www.browne-trading.com
Charlie Trotter’s, 773.248.6228, www.charlietrotters.com
Cyrano’s Bistrot & Wine Bar, 312.467.0546, www.cyranosbistrot.com
Hudson Valley Foie Gras, 845.292.2500, www.hudsonvalleyfoiegras.com
Petrossian, 800.828.9241, www.petrossian.com

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