Contested Tastes: Foie Gras and the Politics of Food

Contested Tastes: Foie Gras and the Politics of Food

by Michaela DeSoucey


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691183183
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 12/04/2018
Series: Princeton Studies in Cultural Sociology , #76
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Michaela DeSoucey is assistant professor of sociology at North Carolina State University.

Read an Excerpt

Contested Tastes

Foie Gras and the Politics of Food

By Michaela Desoucey


Copyright © 2016 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-8283-0


What Can We Learn from Liver?

In the summer of 2003, animal rights activists targeted the Santa Rosa, California home of Didier Jaubert, a French-born lawyer and entrepreneur, and his American wife, Leslie. Their house was splashed with red paint, the locks on the house and garage doors filled with glue, and "murderer" and "stop or be stopped" spray-painted on the house and car. Jaubert was a partner in a soon-to-open business venture called Sonoma Saveurs, a specialty shop and café, located in a historic adobe building on the plaza in downtown Sonoma. The café would feature a variety of locally made artisan food items, including foie gras. The day after the vandalism, an anonymous poster on an animal rights website called BiteBack wrote, "We cannot let this restaurant open ... Jaubert needs to hear that people will not tolerate this atrocity."

Jaubert's business partners were Laurent Manrique, the French-born corporate executive chef of the Aqua Restaurant Group in San Francisco, and Guillermo and Junny Gonzalez, the owners of Sonoma Foie Gras. Two nights after the attack on Jaubert's home, Manrique's Marin County home was vandalized in a similar way by "concerned citizens," as they were called on BiteBack, which also posted the two men's home addresses. Red paint was thrown at his house, paint thinner splashed on his car, the garage door and car locks sealed with glue, and the words "murderer," "torturer," and "go back to France" spray-painted on his property. The next day, Manrique found a videotape in his mailbox. The video was shot from the bushes in his front yard and showed him in his living room playing with his toddler son. An unsigned note was taped to the video. It read that that his family was being watched and demanded "stop the foie gras, or you will be stopped."

Two weeks later, activists broke into Sonoma Saveurs and caused an estimated $50,000 worth of damage to the historic building. They covered walls, appliances, and fixtures with red paint and graffiti ("foie gras = death," "end animal torture," "shame," "go home," and "misery"). They poured concrete down the drains where sinks and toilets were going to be installed. Then they turned on the water, flooding the building as well as its neighbors, a jewelry store housed in another historic nineteenth-century building and a women's clothing store. A gloating account of the attack was posted soon afterward on BiteBack. The tactic of pouring concrete represented "the forcing of high density feed down the throats of ducks. The damage this will do to the plumbing symbolizes the damage done to the ducks' digestive systems by force feeding them." Additionally, the flooding would "punish" Guillermo Gonzalez for "depriving the ducks he tortures to make foie gras of water in which to preen and bathe." The post continued, "Now Guillermo will be sure to have a swim when he opens the door."

No one directly claimed responsibility for these acts, and no arrests were made. After adjusting the business plan and menu and forsaking the original logo of a smiling duck, Sonoma Saveurs opened later that year, but closed soon after. The Sonoma County police chief described the attacks to reporters as a "sophisticated campaign of domestic terrorism." Upon the advice of local law enforcement, Manrique installed a security system at his home. "I came to America because it is the land of free speech," he told a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. "But all of this, involving my family like this, is going way too far." Manrique left the venture soon after receiving the videotape, citing obligations to his restaurants in San Francisco. Jaubert, too, called foie gras part of his cultural tradition and pleaded for more reasonable forms of protest than vigilantism. As he told the Sonoma News:

If you don't like foie gras, I can understand. If you don't want foie gras to be sold, you can demonstrate in front of the store, you can write letters to the editor. But to destroy a historical building, to attack a family's home, to do this at night and to be proud of your actions — this is very difficult for me to understand.

Who Cares About Foie Gras?

This event, and those that followed elsewhere in California and around the country, centered on a particularly contentious food item — foie gras (pronounced fwah-grah). This specially enlarged "fat liver" of a goose or duck is a popular food in French cuisine and one that animal rights supporters find morally repugnant. The debate centers on how foie gras is made. To enlarge and fatten the liver, the goose or duck is fed measured and increasing amounts of grain (typically corn and/or a mash of corn and soy) through a specialized tube or pipe during its last weeks of life. This process is called gavage in French, which most easily translates into English as force-feeding, and the person doing the feeding is the gaveur (if a man) or gaveuse (if a woman). During the gavage period, which ranges between twelve and twenty-one days depending on the farm, the bird's liver grows six to ten times in size and increases from approximately eighteen percent to up to sixty percent fat by weight. A duck foie gras averages about 1.5 to 2 pounds (compared to about four ounces for a non-force-fed liver). Gavage and its product, foie gras, are alternatively acclaimed and reviled by different parties.

Renowned culinary historian Silvano Serventi writes that foie gras is "synonymous with pleasure of the senses." As a dish, it is typically served as a small-portioned first course. It can be eaten hot as a quickly seared preparation, often accompanied by a sweet fruit garnish. More traditionally, it is slowly cooked over low heat and then served cold as a pâté or terrine. It is silky in texture and rich and unique in flavor. Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain once called foie gras "one of the most delicious things on the planet, and one of the ten most important flavors in gastronomy."

While a fairly new delicacy in the United States, foie gras is a food of global origins and has long been considered a symbol of luxury and prestige. Ancient historians have traced practices of domesticating and fattening waterfowl for their livers back to ancient Egypt; papyrus scrolls and stone reliefs, including two that hang in the Louvre museum in Paris, depict the process of moistening grain to feed to geese through hollow reeds. These practices traveled throughout eastern and southern Europe (where sizable foie gras industries still exist in Hungary and Bulgaria) and took hold in France, where foie gras has played a leading role in the country's world-famous culinary canon for over two hundred years. There, until the mid-twentieth century, foie gras — made mostly from geese, but also from ducks — was primarily a seasonal food (harvested in autumn) that was reserved for fine dining restaurants and families' special occasions, especially at Christmas and for celebrating the New Year.

Following World War II and with state-financed support, French foie gras production (like that of other types of food and agricultural products across Western Europe and North America) became industrialized, enabling year-round production, lowering costs, and encouraging new consumer demand. Alongside foie gras's industrialization came substantive changes to the product itself. Most notably, the industry switched from using primarily geese to ducks due to the latter's better ability to cope with new mechanized (and more cost-effective) feeding methods. Today, while foie gras is a small piece of the panoply of French agriculture, it is a &8364;1.9 billion industry (about $2.2 billion in 2014 dollars). Eighty percent of the world's foie gras production and ninety percent of world consumption occur in France. According to national estimates, the total industry includes around fifteen thousand farms and six hundred processing facilities, ranging from small family-run businesses to national commercial firms. The French foie gras industry employs about thirty thousand people and indirectly affects about one hundred thousand other jobs in areas such as veterinary practice, retail sales, marketing, and tourism.

For consumers, foie gras is a mainstay of France's culinary landscape, always available at specialty shops, supermarkets, prepared food traiteurs, chain stores, and outdoor markets, as well as online. Restaurants from nondescript corner bistros to Michelin-starred gastronomic temples feature it on their menus. Yet, despite the widespread use of language and imagery proclaiming its authentic ties to tradition and history, these days most foie gras in France comes from a modern and industrial production model that is largely hidden in plain sight. Several firms control the large majority of the market, sell under different brand names, and take pains to downplay their commercial motives to the public.

In the late twentieth century, parallel to its industry's modernization, foie gras became increasingly viewed as an endangered asset in France's cultural treasury. In the late 1990s, duck foie gras from Southwest France was added to the country's array of specialty food products that have a European Union–designated label of "protected geographical indication." In 2005, the French National Assembly and Senate voted to protect foie gras legally as part of the country's "official gastronomic heritage." This was done ostensibly in response to concerns from other EU member states about its production ethics. This decision embedded foie gras materially and symbolically within the idea of the nation in a country whose international legacy of culinary excellence is several centuries old and a key point of national pride.

Today, the rural landscapes and small-scale proprietors of French foie gras production are identified as national treasures, and these reverential sentiments have helped transform them into a magnet for tourists. An artisanal foie gras sector is thriving in the Southwestern regions, where local governments and tourism associations promote foie gras as a unique element of cultural patrimony, gastronomy, and terroir (the taste of place). Several towns proclaim themselves the "capital" of foie gras, marketing themselves as attractive, authentic, and delicious places to visit. Visitors are introduced to foie gras as a special and artisanal, and not an industrial, product that needs to be protected. The larger industry's production conditions are omitted from these more marketable national myths and masked by sentimentalized narratives of shared history and invocations of collective memory. But how foie gras assumed this status of imperiled tradition — making it mostly (but not fully) unavailable for contestation — was not an inevitable process. Importantly, this occurred because international affairs can and do have consequences for local settings when the political climate is right.

In the United States, commercial foie gras production did not exist until the 1980s, with the establishment of two independent business ventures, one on each coast. Sonoma Foie Gras was founded in California by the aforementioned Guillermo Gonzalez, an El Salvador native who had learned to produce foie gras at a small goose farm in Southwest France. Hudson Valley Foie Gras was established by Michael Ginor, an ex–bond trader turned chef, and Izzy Yanay, an Israeli-born duck breeder, who bought and converted a rundown chicken farm in upstate New York. Before the 1980s, fresh foie gras was nearly impossible to obtain in the United States, namely because of federal government restrictions on importing fresh poultry products from Europe. Close proximity to the culinary epicenters of New York and San Francisco aided business for each farm. In the 1990s, foie gras dishes became a hot culinary trend at elite urban restaurants in conjunction with Americans' expanding tastes for gourmet cuisine. Mentions of foie gras in the New York Times peaked in the late 1990s. Hudson Valley's marketing director during that time period told me that it "was on everybody's menus. The restaurant reviewer for the New York Times would use the words 'ubiquitous foie gras dish.' So it went from this weird thing to part of the vernacular." As foie gras came into the language of prestigious restaurants, leading chefs, and affluent diners, she said, "We saw our sales go up, and everybody just wanted it. We were mostly worried that people would get bored and move on, as they always do, to some other ingredient. Not about legislation."

By the mid-2000s, Hudson Valley employed two hundred people and was producing about three hundred and fifty thousand ducks a year, distributing its products through gourmet food purveyors across the country. Sonoma Foie Gras, later rebranded as Sonoma Artisan Foie Gras, was producing about seventy-five thousand ducks a year before was it shut down by California's ban on foie gras's production and sale in July 2012. In the late 1990s, ex–Hudson Valley employees started raising foie gras ducks at nearby LaBelle Farms, which produces about one hundred and thirty thousand ducks a year. A fourth operation, Au Bon Canard — a two-person farm outside of Minneapolis that produces around two thousand ducks per year — was founded in the early 2000s. While multiple economic interests are indubitably involved in its operations, the US foie gras market was worth about twenty-three to twenty-five million dollars in the late 2000s — 1/100th the size of the French industry.

For US consumers, foie gras is a curiosity. Calling it an industry (five hundred thousand ducks out of the ten billion animals that traverse the American food system each year) is almost laughable. A typical modern chicken plant in the United States processes more birds in a single day than Sonoma Foie Gras did in an entire year. Foie gras's price point puts it out of most Americans' reach: its retail cost is around seventy dollars a pound, and it is available to consumers primarily at upscale restaurants and gourmet food stores. Most people in the United States don't know what it is; even fewer have ever tried it. Where foie gras has made a mark is among an influential group of restaurateurs and chefs, many of whom have entered the realm of celebrity as cultural taste-makers. Foie gras dishes have graced the menus of some of the country's most celebrated restaurants. And foie gras found a fan base among a crop of "omnivorous" and "adventurous" food lovers who seek out unusual, exotic, and exciting eating experiences and take food very seriously — people who are often and sometimes pejoratively called "foodies."

Foie gras, however, is not just a symbol of gourmet cuisine; it is also a matter of moral politics and contention for people who believe abstention is not enough. In the United States and elsewhere, foie gras production is heavily criticized on ethical grounds. Detractors argue that the practice of force-feeding ducks and geese with a twenty-to-thirty-centimeter-long tube — typically made of metal — to enlarge and fatten their livers is an obvious case of animal cruelty. Though activists attempted to raise public awareness of foie gras's existence in the 1990s, beginning with a 1991 "investigation" by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) of Hudson Valley Foie Gras (then called Commonwealth Enterprises), their impact was limited. In 1999, after receiving letters from animal rights organizations and concerned celebrities, the Smithsonian Institution cancelled a panel discussion and tasting organized to promote Foie Gras: A Passion, a newly published book by Michael Ginor of Hudson Valley Foie Gras. These and a few other actions received little notice beyond animal rights circles and a few brief newspaper articles.

Then, at the turn of the twenty-first century, the stars aligned for foie gras's opponents. A month after the vandalism to Sonoma Saveurs, San Francisco ABC television affiliate KGO aired clips on its evening newscast from a short film called Delicacy of Despair, produced by a group called The film (which remains available on the Internet) showed the group's "undercover investigations" and "open rescues" — a common direct action tactic where activists remove animals from farms or animal operations for "rehabilitation" while documenting the conditions in which they were found — of ducks at Sonoma Foie Gras and Hudson Valley Foie Gras. Immediately after the broadcast, the Los Angeles Times reporter who had earlier reported on the Sonoma Saveurs vandalism contacted the head of the Animal Protection and Rescue League (APRL), a law student turned animal-rights activist named Bryan Pease, who had collaborated with the team in trespassing onto and secretly videotaping operations at foie gras farms for the previous three years. Pease invited him to sneak onto Sonoma Foie Gras's grounds with him and three other APRL activists and a video camera the following night. The Los Angeles Times story — which detailed how the group squeezed into the barn through a gap in the wall and took four ducks with them (out of the fifteen hundred there) — ran the next day. Guillermo Gonzalez sued Pease in civil court for trespassing and theft; Pease and In Defense of Animals, a legally oriented animal rights group, countersued Gonzalez for breaking anti-cruelty laws.


Excerpted from Contested Tastes by Michaela Desoucey. Copyright © 2016 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Preface xi

Chapter 1 What Can We Learn from Liver? 1

Chapter 2 Vive le Foie Gras! 27

Chapter 3 Gastronationalism on the Ground 66

Chapter 4 Foiehibition110

Chapter 5 The Paradox of Perspective 147

Chapter 6 Conclusion 195

Notes 209

Bibliography 243

Index 259

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