Foie gras was meant to be forbidden following a ban that went into effect two years ago. But as many foodies know, this bit of fatty duck or goose liver can still be scored at restaurants if you’re in the know.
Foie gras has simply gone underground in Sacramento, and around Northern California as well.
With a little wink, some chefs might offer $20 toast points that come with a complimentary surprise. Others may simply offer it for free to a few favorite customers as an off-the-menu indulgence. It’s not illegal to possess foie gras in California. You just can’t sell it.
Fifty folks will be able to sample this forbidden food Saturday at La Toque restaurant in Napa. This culinary event is titled “The State of American Foie Gras” featuring six chefs, including Sacramento’s own Patrick Mulvaney.
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But to keep the event in step with the letter of the law, you can’t buy a ticket. The event is free to winners of a contest held on La Toque’s Facebook page, where entrants can submit a short post about “why California’s foie gras ban is foolish.” Entries are also accepted at firstname.lastname@example.org until Tuesday.
The event highlights the second anniversary of the foie gras ban in California, which went into effect July 1, 2012. For some chefs, the fight over foie gras isn’t over.
“It’s the principle that a vocal minority shouldn’t be telling us what to do, whether it’s what we eat or who we marry,” said Ken Frank, La Toque’s owner and executive chef. “Foie gras has a long, distinctive culinary history, and I don’t like them taking it out of our tool kit.”
The fuss over foie gras stems from its production methods, which are prohibited in the United Kingdom and Germany. Duck and geese are force-fed via a funnel and long tube to engorge the liver, a process called gavage to create this rich, buttery food. This type of feeding was banned statewide by the passage of SB 1520 in 2004 but allowed a 71/2-year sunset for the law to take effect.
The pro-foie gras camp points out that ducks naturally gorge themselves, to the point of swelling their livers, before migration. Robert Gordon, former president of the New Jersey Veterinary Medical Association, visited a New York foie gras farm in 2005 and found the animals actually lived a pretty good life.
“I didn’t see any evidence of stress among birds that were tube-fed,” Gordon told The Bee in 2012. “In fact, many were trying to push their way to the front because they wanted to go next.”
Some local chefs flouted the statewide ban by serving foie gras for free. In some cases, the foie gras was shipped to Nevada and then brought into Sacramento, like a gourmet smuggling mission. Two anonymous citizen complaints were ultimately sent to the county about The Kitchen and the former Restaurant Thir13en serving foie gras as a complimentary item.
Enforcement of the law, which carries a $1,000 fine if violated, has remained nearly nonexistent. According to Zeke Holst, spokesperson for Sacramento County Animal Care and Regulation, no further complaints about foie gras have been logged in the past two years. No Sacramento restaurant has received a foie gras-related fine.
The fact is, food politics moved on from foie gras a long time ago. California chefs and restaurant owners have been more concerned recently with battles over minimum wage hikes and glove laws.
Possible legislative support for overturning the foie gras law also seems to have disappeared for now. Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, originally voted “no” on SB 1520 because she generally opposes single product bans. Wolk also voiced the possibility of authoring new legislation to repeal the ban – but that has yet to happen.
Now, it’s Frank who wants to rally the foie gras forces again. He knows it’ll be a fight. Frank was sued in 2012 by the Animal Protection and Rescue League for serving free foie gras at La Toque, but prevailed after the Napa Police Department found no cause for action.
He’s now preparing for the Saturday event, which includes a variety of foie gras tastings and discussion with Guillermo Gonzalez of Sonoma-Artisan Foie Gras, a California producer that was essentially shut down following the 2012 ban.
“Across the state, chefs are still serving foie gras quietly,” said Frank. “There’s always been a high demand for foie gras. At the end of the day, if you don’t like foie gras, don’t eat it. Let the market make up its own mind.”