Omnivorous: The Golden Goose | Food & Drink Column | Chicago Reader

Omnivorous: The Golden Goose 

For Tribune entertainment reporter Mark Caro, Chicago's foie gras battles were a gift.

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If Charlie Trotter hadn't suggested eating Rick Tramonto's liver to Tribune reporter Mark Caro, there probably wouldn't have been a foie gras ban in Chicago.

That was back in the spring of 2005, when Caro asked Trotter—whose meat and game cookbook featured 14 fatty-duck-liver recipes—why he'd quietly stopped serving it a few years earlier. The chef told the reporter that he had become uncomfortable with the way ducks were force-fed on the farms he'd visited and decided it was a product he wanted nothing to do with. Caro dutifully called a number of chefs around town for their thoughts. Most indicated they respected Trotter's decision, though they weren't on board themselves. But Tramonto, who'd worked for Trotter before opening Tru, said it was "hypocritical." Upon hearing that, Trotter snapped, calling Tramonto dumb and taking a swing below the belt: "Maybe we ought to have Rick's liver for a little treat," he said. "It's certainly fat enough."

Trotter's threat to Tramonto's organ was one those magical moments in a reporter's career when he suddenly realizes a relatively prosaic story just blew up big. After waiting a week for the Terry Schiavo story to fade, so readers wouldn't be offended by the juxtaposition of force-fed ducks with a comatose woman on a feeding tube, his bosses put the controversy on the front page and all hell broke loose.

Caro—an entertainment reporter who'd interviewed and written stories about Tom Cruise, Steven Spielberg, Michael Jordan, and Halle Berry—says he got a bigger reaction to his piece, "Liver and Let Live," than anything he'd ever written in his 20-some years at the Tribune. In his smart, fascinating, and hilarious new book, The Foie Gras Wars: How a 5,000-Year-Old Delicacy Inspired the World's Fiercest Food Fight, he recounts how one reader in particular—49th Ward alderman Joe Moore—reacted, and how this set in motion a chain of events that would reverberate across the country.

"He didn't initially contact any animal-rights groups, foie gras producers or restaurateurs to gain more information, and they didn't contact him," Caro writes. "The week after my story ran, he simply took action and proposed a ban on the sale of foie gras in Chicago."

Caro, who ended up writing eight stories on the controversy, was intrigued by the intensity of feeling on both sides. As a "quote unquote ethical omnivore" who'd stopped eating red meat but liked foie gras, he wanted to get to the bottom of how this extravagant delicacy most Americans have never even tasted could inspire so much loathing and passion.

Caro took a seven-month leave to interview animal advocates, restaurateurs, and politicians and visit battleground states like California—where a ban on foie gras production goes into effect in 2012—and Pennsylvania, where a vicious Philly street fight between activists and chefs broke out in the wake of a proposed ban one month after ours.

"I think that the ban in Chicago had a big effect that, frankly, wasn't really reported on much," Caro says. "I think the stuff in Philadelphia was in large part an offshoot of Chicago. All these different legislatures kind of took it up after this burst of publicity about Chicago."

Caro did what many on both sides of the issue haven't—he visited foie gras farms, three in the U.S. and more in France, where duck and goose liver are sold in gas stations and farms invite tourists on foie gras weekends to butcher their own fowl and jar the organs. His observations of gavage and the slaughter and butchering of birds starkly contrast with the sumptuous meals his hosts fed him, featuring slabs of seared foie gras the size of chicken cutlets.

"I was like, 'This is where I'm losing the animal people,'" he says. "But I had to do it. I really try to say, 'This is what I've seen, this is what I know,' but not, 'This is what you should think.' Intellectually, as you analyze some of this stuff, there are a lot of charges against the industry that are inconsistent. But that's not to say it's an absolute good/bad sort of thing."

In fact, Caro is scrupulously fair to both sides, vigorously playing devil's advocate on the issues—though PETA vice president Bruce Friedrich told me he didn't think he consulted enough avian scientists. Caro's not shy about exposing the absurdities on both sides either, from an appearance by Cyrano's chef Didier Durand's pet duck, Joe Moore, to an underground dinner where an attempt to make foie gras cotton candy goes horribly wrong to a whiny protester's cruelty complaint against a restaurateur who tied up her dog within earshot of the protesters' clamorous demonstration.

Some actually benefited from Chicago's short-lived ban. Doug Sohn of Hot Doug's couldn't have bought the publicity he got when he became the first and only restaurant owner to be fined for defying it. Ariane Daguin of D'Artagnan, the country's largest supplier of foie gras, told me her sales tripled in Chicago after the ban was passed. And Joe Moore (the alderman, not the duck) received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from animal advocates (including a whopping $77,000 from anti-puppy-mill crusader Jana Kohl), which helped enormously in his victory against opponent Don Gordon, who in turn received about $9,000 from the Illinois Restaurant Association and others on the pro-foie side.

The Chicago City Council repealed the ban much as it had passed it—with little debate on the floor—and the repeal had a cooling effect on the other fights the ban had inspired. In Philadelphia the controversy seems to have died down—protesters have moved on to other issues, and legislation is dormant—and last March the Maryland state legislature backed off its own proposed ban. But that's not to say the foie gras wars are over. A ban on production is afoot in Maine (where there are no foie gras farms), and Caro predicts the pro-foie forces won't let California's ban go into effect without a fight.

As for Caro, he says he's always asked whether he thinks gavage is torture, and for all he's seen he still doesn't know. "I'm not a duck," he says. "And there's so much that's relative. How uncomfortable are they? The animal rights people are like, 'Look, ducks are prey animals. They're not gonna show you how much pain they're in, so you can't tell.' And then other scientists have said, 'Look, there's really no reliable way to measure pain. There's no reliable way to even measure stress.'"

But the net effect of his experience is that Caro was swayed by at least one of the animal-rights arguments: eating factory-farmed chicken is far worse in terms of suffering than eating beef. Today he finds himself consuming a little more red meat than he used to, and much less chicken. He hasn't personally banned foie gras, but after his cholesterol level skyrocketed during his research, he's only had it a handful of times since he finished.v

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