Sunday, May 18, 2008

Foie Gah!

The Chicago City Council has decided to repeal its municipal ban on foie gras, the French delicacy of fattened duck or goose liver, nytimes.com’s Diner’s Journal reported last week. The ban had originally been instated in 2006 in response to animal rights groups who claimed that the treatment of poultry raised for foie gras—which includes force-feeding the birds fats and starches to make their livers swell—was excessively cruel. 

I wrote an article about the foie gras controversy last year and found the topic to be slightly more nuanced than I had expected.  Sticking pieces of metal down animals’ throats is undeniably appalling, but the abuse that goes down on chicken farms is both more inhumane and more widespread.  Foie gras producers have claimed—perhaps not entirely unfairly—that they have been made scapegoats in a system that favors agribusiness over small-scale farmers.

As soon the ban’s reversal was announced, Diner’s Journal readers made their voices heard in the comments section as pompously, caustically, and redundantly as can be expected from Times-reading food snobs and activists with too much time on their hands.  The PETA crowd piped up with heartfelt defenses of “innocent animals.”  (I suppose ducks with a criminal record are fair game.)  In response, one Robert Rothman wrote:

Come to think of it, [force feeding] sounds like a wonderful thing to do with those who insist on dictating what other people can and cannot eat. The liver would undoubtedly be inedible — prohibitionists are full of bile — but at least it would get them to mind their own business and stay out of other people’s kitchens … Then again, if we allow people freedom to eat what they want, next they might demand freedom to think what they want, and then where would we be?

I don’t quite follow how Rothman can be both in favor of cannibalizing people who disagree with him and in favor of the freedom of thought, but I’ll try to let it go.  In any case, he misses the point entirely.  A foie gras ban is not a paternalistic policy presupposing that citizens need assistance to do what’s best for themselves.  No one has credibly suggested that we should ban foie gras because it is in the citizens’ self-interest not to be able to consume the delicacy.  I can’t speak from first-hand experience, but I’ll take others’ word for it that foie gras is delicious, and that consuming it increases one’s happiness. 

The trouble is, the suffering that goes into making foie gras seems to outweigh whatever joy it may bring to the eater.  It may be a mostly symbolic gesture to prohibit a product that most consumers never taste.  Still, I’d be prouder of a government that takes small steps to minimize agony than one that panders to whiny self-styled gourmands who na├»vely think of eating as a form of free speech affecting no one but themselves.

It’s a tough call, but I think my favorite Diner’s Journal comment comes from Jon, who defends foie gras by asking, with singular rhetorical brilliance:

Have you ever seen a duck write beautiful music or build a space shuttle?

Take note:  If you’re not a composer or an engineer, you, too, deserve to be force-fed with a with a metal tube.  Then, finally, we musical prodigy NASA technicians can feast on your fattened livers in peace.

1 comment:

Nora said...

I wonder who could possibly have been lobbying for the repeal-- do the French have an unusually large sway over the Chicago city council?
Beautifully written, as always.