Some hot button topics are so charged there's almost no room left in them for open-minded debate. Think gun control, or abortion – or, in the food world, foie gras.
That last item, the fatty liver produced by force-fed ducks, has become a culinary sideshow in recent years, a fever-pitch clash between protesters, farmers, politicians, and restaurateurs. It's telling that it took a serious entertainment writer – Mark Caro, reporter for the Chicago Tribune – to delve as far into the controversy as anyone is likely to ever get. In his recently published book, "The Foie Gras Wars: How a 5,000-Year-Old Delicacy Inspired The World's Largest Food Fight," Caro gives us a front-row seat for his intensive research into the world of foie; visiting farms and animal sanctuaries alike, educating us on political circuses, the French countryside, and the anatomy of the Moulard duck.
I asked the author if he knows why foie, hardly a common food item, has become such a flashpoint in the U.S. After all, far more people are likely to eat a factory-farmed chicken or pork chop, which carry their own controversies, than will ever indulge in a luxury restaurant dish.
There are a few parts to the answer, Caro thinks: There’s the way people relate to ducks (think Disney’s Daffy), or the anthropomorphically visceral reaction to the idea of feeding an animal through a tube down its throat.
But a large part, Caro thinks, lies in foie's very rarity. Coming out against foie gras is a way, he theorized, for people to express their discomfort with food production without dealing with the logical ramifications. A protest against the living conditions of factory-farmed chickens, for instance, might require paying more money for animal products raised in a way they consider more humane, or might lead to the lifestyle change of becoming vegetarian or vegan.
"Foie gras is safe. It's French, so it's not even American. It's expensive, so it's kind of for rich people or gourmands, food snobs. There are only three farms in the country, basically, so it's not like there's some big industry they're going to miss (if it is banned). And, it's liver. Who's going to defend liver? It's the perfect wedge issue."
During my own years as a restaurant critic, I grew to consider the endless circle of the foie gras arguments a pointless waste of time. Mentioning a foie gras dish in a review brought on automatic form letters of protest, which I answered with what quickly became my own form reply. No one’s mind was changed, or even challenged. I admire how Caro managed to enjoy the challenge of taking on “the moral whiplash” of researching such a controversy. He avoids delivering absolute conclusions in the end, leaving readers to draw their own.
"I'm trying to tell you what I learned and what I know, but not tell you what you should do with that," he said.
And I’ve been fascinated to see how readers have responded to that approach.
A protester who spent years fighting foie gras production praised the book online as "informative and brilliantly evenhanded." Star chef-author Anthony Bourdain, who has been equally public about being a foie fan, called the book "excellent and illuminating."
It’s the only spot in the debate I’ve found where the opposing sides agree. Could be it’s an approach for even hotter topics than haute cuisine.
Freelance writer Rebekah Denn blogs at www.eatallaboutit.com