California Foie Flap: Hold the Panic

Last Friday, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said California was once again free to enforce a ban on foie gras. PETA rejoiced. Chefs bristled in anger. The news came so abruptly, it felt like an end-of-the-week data dump. Its swiftness caught Michelin-star chef Josiah Citrin of Santa Monica’s Melisse off-guard, and it also caused mass confusion amongst diners. I saw more a few people on my social media feed fearful that they had just a couple of days to sneak in a sliver of fatty goose or duck liver before it disappeared from the menu.

Fear not – now is not the time to rush out and stuff your face with foie. It’s not going anywhere, at least for the near future.  The ruling leaves a two-week window for groups to appeal the decision. When this happens, it will initiate a process of deliberation that will effectively put the kibosh on implementing the ban for months. This is most assuredly a “when” and not an “if” scenario. The most famous name in the foie gras game, New York’s Hudson Valley Foie Gras, has already gone on record saying they’ll appeal the ruling, much like they did when the first ban dropped in 2012. By the time you read this, they may have already filed their appeal.

You shouldn’t panic about never being able to eat foie gras in California again, either. The ban restricts the selling of foie in restaurants, but not necessarily the serving of the delicacy. This creates a massive legal loophole that renegade chefs were happy to exploit through complimentary foie and unusual marked-up offerings five years ago. Thanks to this loophole, a $32 serving of crostini bread with raspberry compote wasn’t an oddity. It was code. That completely legal dodge is still part of the ruling, and I suspect that if the ban does go into effect, a greater number of chefs will take advantage of its presence. It probably won’t take too much leg work to find these rebels, either.

If you’re against the ban, don’t treat this ruling as an impetus to engage with the ruling’s ardent, sign-toting supporters. If you enjoy foie, the ruling undoubtedly upset you. Even if you’re ambivalent toward the delicacy, you may view the decision as an intrusion of personal freedom, something that you may find as digestible as a fast food burrito consumed at 1:00 AM. In either case, chances are great you’re socially ensconced in a social hive of like-minded individuals, ready to commiserate over the potential loss of a culinary indulgence. It’s in your best interest to keep it confined to such strata.

The most vocal advocates of the ban tend to be extremists in the animal rights movement. This is certainly the sector of the anti-foie movement that gets the most attention. Giving death threats to chefs will grab a fair share of headlines. These unsavory people are nothing more than a rich vein of frustration for foie aficionados. They are not interested in having genuine discussions with you about the issue, but they have no problem prodding and provoking to get a rise out of you. If I may be so bold as to inject a little hockey parlance, they are the equivalent of an on-ice agitator; a player that will engage in dirty, if not occasionally dangerous, play, but will turtle and hide when confronted by their actions. These players and their actions tend to remove dignity from the game (more so than the “goons,” but that’s a topic I’ll dive into if I ever start a hockey blog). Conversely, the loudest of the anti-foie advocates tend to strip relevance from the general cause of animal rights due to their behavior. This sector also seems to lack regard or awareness of the damage their actions do to their general ideology, which makes them look unhinged. That’s reason alone to not engage with them, no matter the promise of catharsis you may think it may offer.

However, if you side with the foie ban yet reject such pot-stirring tactics, this is the time to let your voice be heard. The crux of the foie flap is almost wholly focused on a lack of humane treatment of geese or ducks. When this nugget is not forcibly encamped in “good vs. evil” slots, it can become a touchstone to explore overarching concepts of growing and raising food. If you’re a rational ban supporter, you’ll find those on the other side of the fence more than willing to engage in this level of conversation. There’s a reason for this. When food is elevated to a certain degree, it can double as a key component of an ongoing educational process driven by the discussion of concepts and ideals. A talk about the ethics of foie gras and how it correlates to humane methods of food production fits this process rather well. It’s a discussion worth having. Unfortunately, because of the extremists that lay claim to your point of view, you will have to be the one to initiate the dialogue. But don’t be afraid to start this conversation. Instead, take comfort in knowing the late Charlie Trotter was on your side.

There will be plenty of time to have this type of talk. Foie gras is still on the menu in California, and will be for quite a while. Based on what happened the last time around, I don’t think the ban will survive the inevitable appeal process, although as someone that enjoys foie gras, this could be admitted wishful thinking. We shall see.