Last taste of banned food – foie gras ice cream
As a Chicago ban on the delicacy begins, foodies savor it a final time.
CHICAGO — Here in Chicago – once called hog butcher for the world – foie gras has disappeared not with a whimper but with an all-out foie extravaganza.
In the months before the country's first ban took effect, the overfattened duck liver – beloved by gourmets and hated by animal-rights activists – has been featured on burgers and in desserts, at hot dog joints and at luxury restaurants, seared, foamed, and in ice cream.
Monday night marked the food's final hours, and several restaurants held foie gras feasts to bid farewell.
"We've been eating it like it's going out of style," says Barb Manny, finishing up a foie gras hot chocolate at 676 Restaurant and Bar's "outlaw dinner," which featured foie gras along with other banned or threatened foods.
She and her husband have eaten the liver twice this week, and have been to at least three other foie gras tribute meals. The ban is "a typical outcome of a long-term trend toward curtailing our behavior in all sorts of different ways," she says. Foie gras (pronounced fwah-GRAH, French for fatty liver) is a dish prized by chefs because of its richness and versatility. The controversy comes from the way it's produced: Ducks or geese are force-fed grain through metal tubes until their livers are many times normal size.
But foie gras proponents say graphic descriptions are misleading since the birds don't have a gag reflex, and that the treatment is far more humane than, say, that of a typical pig or chicken in a factory farm. In any case, they want legislators out of their dining room.
"If you don't like it, take a moral stand and don't eat it," says David Brown, a Chicago bartender, expressing a typical sentiment at 676 Monday night. "We're in a city where there are numerous problems, and this is what they've decided to fix.... We're only one election shy of a city-wide bedtime."
Ironically, the ban has raised the profile of a dish many couldn't pronounce before now, and prompted some Chicagoans to try it for the first time.
At Hot Doug's, a hot dog stand and "encased meats emporium," the menu has featured a foie-gras sausage and several sausages with foie-gras butter or mustard in recent weeks. Sales of the obscure dish have tripled at some restaurants.
Mr. Brown's wife, Jennifer, tried it for the first time a few hours before it became illegal at 676. Her verdict: She liked a version in which it was seared, with bacon and a quail egg, but was less fond of the foie gras "au torchon" with prosciutto, or the foie gras bonbons with pop rocks. Robert Gadsby, the executive chef at 676 and at Noé restaurants in Los Angeles and Houston, says when he conceived of the Outlaw Dinner he had no idea what a public nerve he was tapping into.
The foie gras ban was the impetus for the dinner, but he decided to feature other items that are also under fire, from animal-rights groups or health inspectors: morel mushrooms, briefly banned in California this winter; raw-milk cheese, which typically can't be imported; lobster, which Whole Foods recently announced it will no longer sell; and the "sous vide" cooking method, in which meats are cooked at low temperatures in a vacuum seal, newly illegal in New York restaurants.
"For centuries they've been doing it in Europe," says Mr. Gadsby of the sous-vide technique and the raw and unpasteurized cheese. "What's next? And if you take all those important ingredients away, how do you dazzle the diners?"
The foie gras, of course, was the centerpiece of Gadsby's meal, served three different ways in the beginning, and infused into a thimble glass of hot chocolate at the end for a surprisingly tasty dessert.
Not all chefs are saying "au revoir" to the delicacy. Didier Durand, chef at Cyrano's Bistrot & Wine Bar and a founder of Chicago Chefs for Choice, is encouraging fellow chefs to rebel by giving it away.
At his restaurant, he plans to sell potatoes and herbs in a garden salad for $16, with complimentary foie gras.
But while he and others mourned the loss of foie gras, others celebrated.
"This is huge," says Gene Bauston, president and cofounder of Farm Sanctuary, a group in Watkins Glen, N.Y., which has pushed to outlaw the liver. "I think this issue will raise people's awareness and make them think a little bit more about what they're eating." Already, a similar bill has been introduced in Philadelphia, Mr. Bauston says, and he expects to see more crop up in coming months.
And despite the furor, at least a few people just don't care. "It was the worst plate on the menu," says Alyssa Coiley, trying it for the first time at 676. "Now I kind of feel sorry for the ducks – it wasn't worth it."