CHICAGO — News readers in the Windy City this fall might be forgiven for thinking they've stumbled into California by mistake.
Last week the city council approved a far-reaching smoking ban; now, they're following in California's footsteps again as they consider outlawing another un-PC indulgence: foie gras.
If the bill passes, the world's hog butcher will become the first city to restrict sale of the delicacy (California's ban won't take place until 2012). It passed out of committee and could be brought to a council vote as soon as Wednesday.
The issue hasn't exactly taken Chicago by storm; most residents don't even know what the buttery tidbit is, much less care that it's threatened. But the debate surrounding foie gras (pronounced fwah-grah - French for "fatty liver") has picked up nationwide, and Chicago has become a battleground that pits restauranteurs against each other, and has gourmands facing off against animal-rights activists.
"Our laws are a reflection of our society's values, and our culture does not condone the torture of small innocent animals," says Joe Moore, the Chicago alderman who proposed the ban, though he acknowledges he hasn't visited a foie gras farm and isn't sure if he's ever eaten the food. "It's not a matter of personal choice."
The reason for all the fuss is the artificial fattening process used to produce the duck or goose liver: To get the desired richness, the birds are force-fed starting at 12 weeks, by metal tubes pushed down their throats. After two to four weeks of feeding, when their livers are up to 10 times the normal size, they're slaughtered.
It's a description to make even dedicated carnivores squirm, though foie-gras advocates say it isn't as harmful to the birds, who lack humans' gag reflex, as it sounds.
A growing chorus of animal-rights groups has worked to make eating foie gras the ethical equivalent of clubbing baby seals, and the target of a small flurry of laws.
Massachusetts is considering a similar ban, and bills made progress in Oregon and New York this year before losing steam. The Illinois Senate has unanimously passed a bill outlawing production in the state (which has never had a foie gras farm), and a proposal will soon be introduced in Hawaii.
Last year California became the first state to ban the sale and production of foie gras , but it gave a grace period to a California producer, one of just three foie-gras farms in the US.
In Chicago, the controversy began in part as a battle of words between chefs. Charlie Trotter, the local celebrity, made it known he disapproved of the farming practice and had stopped serving foie gras in his eponymous restaurant.
When Mr. Trotter heard that a rival chef, Rick Tramonto of the equally acclaimed Tru, had called him a hypocrite for singling out foie gras while serving other, perhaps other questionably farmed meats, he insulted Mr. Tramonto's intelligence in the papers. In the tit-for-tat, Trotter facetiously suggested that Tramonto's liver should be eaten.
The issue might have stopped there, but it brought foie-gras farming to the attention of Alderman Moore, who said he was horrified as he learned about the production. Trotter has stopped short of endorsing the ban, though he continues to keep it off his restaurant's menu.
For his part, Tramonto says he's mostly disappointed at the prospect of the ban, which would take effect 30 days after it's passed.
"I think government stepped into a situation where they're going to start to dictate what we can eat and what we can't eat," he says. He serves foie gras every night at his restaurant in a variety of ways: as a cold terrine, in sauces, sautéed and served with seasonal fruit.
Tramonto says he shies away from serving some foods - such as threatened fish - but after visiting foie-gras farms, he considers them more humane than many of the factory farms that produce chicken and pork.
"There are a lot of other bigger fish to fry than these little foie-gras farms," he says.
Activists say they're hardly condoning other factory-farming practices, but they see foie-gras production as both a particularly abhorrent example and a reachable target.
"Foie gras is extreme cruelty," says Gene Bauston, the president and cofounder of Farm Sanctuary, which has led the charge against the food. Birds undergoing the force-feeding pant and have difficulty walking, he says, and their livers cease to function.
"I've seen ducks that have come out of these places, and I'm convinced the practice can't be done humanely."
But workers at Hudson Valley Foie Gras, the nation's largest producer, say people need to resist the urge to anthropomorphize when they view the practice. They point out that the American Veterinary Medical Association decided not to criticize the practice after investigating it.
"We're an easy target because there are so few of us," says Marcus Henley, operations manager at the farm. In addition to a gag reflex, he says ducks lack the soft tissue in their esophaguses that would make a tube uncomfortable. "There's been a considerable amount of research done to answer these questions: Is the process harmful, does it hurt the animals? And the research shows that it does not."
If the ban passes, only a dozen or so restaurants in Chicago would be affected, but chefs, like Tramonto, feel strongly about their right to serve it.
Mayor Richard Daley has backed them, declaring that the city shouldn't be in the business of dictating what people eat, while one foie-gras-serving chef - Didier Durand of Cyrano's Bistrot - found his restaurant vandalized after he testified against the ban.
In France, meanwhile, where 80 percent of foie gras is still produced, a different kind of law was passed this fall. Fearful of European attempts to ban the practice, legislators officially declared the delicacy part of France's heritage, lending it the same cultural protection as Loire Valley castles and the Eiffel Tower.