July's statewide ban on the production and sale of foie gras, which has been set since the Terminator gave it the green light of death in 2004, has a handful of Bay Area restaurants quaking in their boots and removing the duck liver from menus even before the summer. Others are staring down the doom with a middle finger, experimenting wildly with foie gras, catching death threats, and carrying guns as a consequence.
Ian Begg and Ryan Maxey, the owners of Txoko and its neighboring counterpart Naked Lunch in San Francisco's North Beach, haven't received protests for its comparatively quieter championing of the ingredient, which includes a foie gras centric prix fixe meal every Wednesday night and playful specials such as foie ice cream for dessert. But Maxey wonders if a recent op-ed he penned stating why the restaurant is proud to serve foie gras might draw some negative attention.
"We serve foie gras because of culinary tradition, and because we are proud to carry on a practice that began almost 5,000 years ago," Maxey writes. Txoko and Naked Lunch use foie gras in a myriad of inventive and flavorful preparations, all supplied by Artisan Foie Gras, the state's only purveyor. The unofficial signature sandwich at Naked Lunch since opening day (and the only one available every day), for example, is an Artisan foie gras torchon and duck prosciutto sandwich.
The practice of gavage, or force-feeding by tube, that occurs in the weeks before slaughter is at the heart of why so many want a permanent stop to the production of foie gras. But Maxey asserts that it is a facsimile of the natural gorging process that migratory birds use to keep fueled through long periods of time.
"First and foremost," he tells Good Taste, "I think what's important to remember is that I think it's unrealistic and somewhat silly to apply human physiology to a migratory bird. You're dealing with an animal that stores fat in its liver for long journeys in migration. You're also dealing with an animal that has no gag reflex and is basically feature made to be able to swallow whole fish. So I think the issue begins when people start to humanize their anatomy and say, 'Well, I don't want a tube stuck down my throat.' But we're not built the same way they are; we're not made to swallow fish whole. A farm like Artisan has animals that are cage free from birth until death — until they enter the gavage period, which is approximately 18 days before death, they are free range."
As the ban nears, the question of why foie gras is a target rather than large-scale meat products with higher probabilities of abuse and much wider consumption has to be asked.
"Some of the pictures [of gavage] that are spread around, I don't know where they came from because I didn't take them," says Maxey. "But in any farming situation, if you don't want to deal with an animal dying on a farm, then you might as well just become a vegetarian altogether. By virtue of the fact that we are going to keep animals in captivity and use them for food, there are going to be consequences for this.
"In terms what a farm like Artisan does in comparison to much larger operations, I think the death and damage there is minimal at best. All of the reports I've seen on them that have been done by veterinarians or people that aren't associated with PETA or Artisan have been glowing."
The sale of foie gras was banned in the city of Chicago in 2006 and repealed two years later, with an almost Prohibition Era-like secret response in between. Such a reaction is less likely here, at least among those with average wallet sizes, due to a key difference.
"If you tell someone they can't do something then there's going to be a big response to try and do that," muses Maxey. "The main difference between what was written in Chicago and what's going on here is that the bill there was essentially written so that you couldn't sell it. So guys there would say, 'Hey, here's a $20 salad and here's a piece of foie gras on the house.' In California, they're eliminating the production and sale of this item. If we wanted to get foie gras illegally, we would literally would have to drive to Oregon, Nevada, Arizona and truck it back.
"If there is going to be a black market here, it's going to be one expensive piece of foie gras."