“Foie gras” is French for “fat liver.” And that is precisely what this time-honored delicacy is: the fattened-up liver of a goose or duck. It could perhaps be best likened to a dish comprised of one part liver and four parts butter: It is absolutely, shamelessly, sybaritically delicious. Though foie gras is enjoyed in many parts of the world, especially in Europe, the United States, and China, it is a quintessentially French food—so much so that what qualifies as foie gras, at least in France, is determined by French law, which states that foie gras is the liver of a goose or duck that has been forced-fed corn by gavage, involuntary feeding by use of a tube inserted into the stomach via the mouth. Outside France, the term “foie gras” may be used to describe goose and duck liver that has been fattened by natural feeding, but to the French, who are undoubtedly the authorities on foie gras, any method short of gavage would be cause for a “coup de gras.”
The History of Foie Gras
The inspiration for foie gras, despite the controversial and “unnatural” manner in which it is made, may have come from nature itself: Migratory birds, prior to departing on their long journeys, gorge themselves on food so as to build up fat reserves to sustain themselves on their arduous pilgrimages. And men who may have slaughtered those migratory birds just prior to their departure may have realized the gastronomical benefits of their extra fat. As far back as 2500 B.C.E., the Egyptians engaged in the practice of force-feeding geese, as evidenced by a bas relief scene in the tomb of Mereruka, a royal official of the 6th dynasty, in which workers grasp geese by their necks to push feed down their throats. Apparently, the Egyptian practice of fattening geese spread to other regions because three thousand years later, Cratinus, the 5th-century Greek comic poet, describes geese-fatteners, though no specific reference is made in these early records of geese being fattened for the specific purpose of fattening their livers. By the first century C.E., however, Pliny the Elder describes foie gras as a distinct food when he credits his contemporary, Marcus Gavius Apicius, with engaging in the practice of feeding dried figs to geese in order to enlarge their livers. A duck in the wild might double its weight in the autumn months, storing extra fat throughout its body and especially in its liver, in preparation for its migration. But a force-fed duck produces a liver that is six to ten times its normal size.
The Making of Foie Gras
Toulouse geese and Mulard ducks, the latter a cross between a male Muscovy duck and a female Pekin duck, are the breeds most often used for foie gras. ( The Mulard, also spelled “Moulard,” is a sterile hybrid, hence its name, which derives from “mule,” the sterile hybrid of a male donkey and a female horse). The birds used for foie gras are usually slaughtered at approximately three months old. They are kept in a building with straw flooring for the first month of their lives; then they are put outside to graze on grasses for several weeks; thereafter, they are brought back inside for, gradually, longer periods of time before the final stage—the forced feeding. During the forced-feeding stage, which lasts 12 to 15 days for ducks and 15 to 18 days for geese, the birds are confined to tiny individual or group cages. The feeding entails inserting an 8”- to 10”-tube made of steel or rubber, to which a funnel is attached, into the animal’s esophagus via its mouth. The food consists of boiled corn mash to which fat is added in order to facilitate ingestion. This diet results in a large quantity of fat accumulating in the liver, which, as a result, takes on a buttery consistency and a yellowish color. Ducks are fed twice per day, and geese are fed up to four times per day. If an auger is used, each feeding lasts from 45 to 60 seconds. But if the more modern pneumatic pumps are used, each feeding lasts about three seconds. Use of the pneumatic pump requires making a small incision in the animal’s esophagus into which the feeding device is inserted for each feeding. According to foie gras farmers, special efforts are made so as not to damage the animals during feedings, but several studies have shown that birds oftentimes develop inflammation of the walls of the proventriculus after gavage, and records show an overall marked increase in mortality rates during the force-feeding stages of foie gras production.
Again, in order to meet the French definition of “foie gras,” the birds must be force-fed; but other nations allow the birds to achieve the fattened-liver condition by eating freely, ad libitum, to their hearts’—even if not to their livers’—content. Some purists, however—especially French ones—are convinced that this method does not produce satisfactory results. Outside France, livers fattened by such alternative methods are variably labeled “fatty goose liver,” “ethical foie gras,” “humane foie gras,” or even “foie gras.”
Another method—the manipulation of the bird’s hypothalamus—produces a liver more akin to that achieved by gavage. The hypothalamus is the portion of the brain that controls several basic drives in animals: hunger, thirst, sleep, and sex, for example. And some farmers have developed a procedure to surgically generate a lesion on the ventromedian section of the hypothalamus—a ventromedian hypothalamic (VMH) lesion—which impedes satiety, thereby causing the birds to overeat if food is readily available. The result is that such birds eat approximately twice the amount they would normally eat, fattening themselves—and their livers—in the process.
The Regulation of Foie Gras
Several nations and jurisdictions around the world prohibit the production of foie gras. However, very few places, if any, make illegal the purchase or possession of foie gras. Consequently, foie gras, despite the controversial manner in which it is oftentimes produced, is usually available around the world on menus featuring fine French cuisine. Various animal rights organizations engage in public relations campaigns to educate the public about gavage; but for many people, like the connoisseurs of veal, the the end justifies the means. And in France, pursuant to French law, “Foie gras belongs to the protected cultural and gastronomical heritage of France.” Therefore, many French and French-influenced cultures, as well as Francophiles the world over, view traditional foie gras as their birthright.
But as culturally justifiable, luxurious, and delicious as foie gras may be, a gentleman, in his capacity as caretaker of the planet, must consider the manner in which foie gras is traditionally made, making every reasonable effort to patronize the establishments that uphold ethical production standards. Every creature, including those consumed by mankind, is deserving of humanity.
Various Culinary Traditions of Foie Gras
In France, on the market, foie gras exists in various presentations, each legally defined and priced from more expensive to less expensive. “Foie gras entier” (whole foie gras) is made of two, whole liver lobes, whether cooked (“cuit”), semi-cooked (“mi-cuit”), or uncooked (“frais”). There is also “foie gras,” which is made of portions of liver, reassembled together. “Bloc de foie gras” is a fully cooked, molded block consisting of at least 98% foie gras; but if labeled “bloc de foie gras avec morceau” (“with pieces”), it must contain at least 50% foie gras in the case of goose foie gras, and at least 30% in the case of duck. There are also “pâté de foie gras” and “mousse de foie gras,” both of which must contain at least 50% foie gras, while “parfait de foie gras” must contain at least 75% foie gras. There is also a multitude of other preparations that do not have legally defined criteria. Cooked foie gras is usually sold in glass or metal containers, thereby enhancing its longevity.