Dwight Eisenhower supposedly observed that “you can’t legislate morality.” Whether or not he was the source of that quote, it was proven correct last week when a federal judge in California overturned the state’s ban on sales of foie gras. The ban had been in effect since 2012, although the law was passed nearly a decade earlier. It had spawned a contentious debate with animal rights activists on one side, and chefs and consumers on the other.
Foie gras is the fattened liver of a duck or goose, produced by force-feeding the bird over a long period of time. Although the French lay claim to it as part of their cultural and gastronomical heritage, there’s evidence that the practice goes back to the early Egyptians. Wherever it originated, the process isn’t pretty. A feeding tube is inserted down the bird’s throat, and a pre-measured amount of food is injected into the esophagus. Throat damage is common, and mortality rates are higher during the feeding period.
To gourmands, the morality of the issue is largely beside the point. Foie gras is prized for its rich, buttery texture, and for many it has become the hallmark of haute cuisine and aristocratic indulgence. It isn’t exactly good for you, either, being high in fat, calories and cholesterol. Even so, the repeal of the ban was greeted with joy by Bay Area chefs, and foie gras immediately reappeared on the menus of some of the area’s top restaurants.
It’s doubtful that lovers of foie gras actually enjoy the concept of ducks and geese enduring abusive treatment for their culinary pleasure. For them, the issue is one of individual rights. Is someone empowered to consume foie gras or 32-ounce sodas if they want to, or does the state have the right and/or obligation to stop them? The underlying questions are even more troubling: What are the limits of hedonism and gluttony, and do animals live and die to fuel our indulgences? The debate will be with us for a long time, and no amount of lobbying or litigation will provide an answer.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012) and Moonshine Nation (Lyons Press, 2014); for more information, go to amazon.com