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Ever since the city of Chicago instituted a ban on foie gras, opinions for and against the boycott have swelled in proportion to those fatty duck and goose livers. Animal rights activists say the birds are subjected to close confinement, filthy, often torturous, conditions and gavage – the process of inserting a tube down the birds’ gullets, then pneumatically pumping a cornmeal mixture into their stomachs until their livers balloon up to 10 times their normal size. The foie gras industry, conversely, is crying foul, claiming that foie gras production is no less humane than other forms of agribusiness and that ducks and geese don’t mind being force-fed. Furthermore, they say, local, state and federal governments (not to mention superstar chefs Wolfgang Puck and Charlie Trotter) have succumbed to protester propaganda.

Indeed, evidence supports both sides of the controversy, but chefs here in Orlando are united in their resolve to continue offering the delicacy to patrons. Even a sizable protest outside Winter Park’s Luma on Park failed to ruffle the feathers of executive chef Brandon McGlamery. “I don’t have a problem with foie gras,” he declares. “If I saw it on a menu, I’d order it myself.”

This resolute sentiment prevailed among many of the chefs I spoke to. Several were more than a little perturbed by the negative publicity surrounding this delicacy deemed by many to be the acme of gastronomic pleasure.

“It’s an easy target,” says a top-name executive chef from a top-name restaurant who requested anonymity. “Why don’t `the protesters` go after the poultry industry? Chickens are treated far worse.” Another local chef/owner echoes the sentiment: “I understand the position of `the protesters`, but it’s no more wrong to serve foie gras than it is to serve beef, chicken, fish or any other meat. We educate ourselves on the way things are done and who we source.”

A valid point, to be sure, and perhaps foie gras is the new fur, but Nick Atwood, campaigns coordinator for the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida, dismisses such notions, charging those who profit from animal abuse are quick to point the finger elsewhere. “The fact that animals are suffering worse somewhere else doesn’t make it OK for you to abuse an animal. If chefs who serve foie gras believe chickens suffer abusive treatment, I would encourage them to experiment with egg- and chicken-free dishes.”

He adds, “I agree that the suffering of chickens in egg farms is a bigger problem, both in terms of numbers and severity of abuse. But the campaign against foie gras is unique in that foie gras is an expensive appetizer, a luxury item. You’ll never hear someone say they use foie gras to feed their family. The culinary adventures of wealthy foodies cannot justify the suffering of thousands of ducks and geese each year.”

Foie gras isn’t a fixture of Chez Vincent’s menu (somewhat unusual for a French restaurant) but for chef/owner Vincent Gagliano, it’s more a question of demand than ethics: “We’ve found that it’s not something our guests will try if they haven’t eaten it before, but we will offer it if someone calls a week in advance and requests foie gras for their dinner party.”

In other restaurants around the country, awareness has resulted in cruelty-free (or less cruel) alternatives appearing on menus. This “ethical” or “humane” foie gras is made from the “naturally fattened” livers of free-range geese and ducks – fattened by unlimited free-feeding, not force-feeding – or chicken livers, or in some cases tofu. But ain’t nothing like the real thing, and matching foie’s extraordinarily rich, silken, mousse-like texture has proven difficult. So far, anti–foie gras campaigns have had little impact on local restaurants serving the posh nosh, but Dezeray Rubinchik, direct action coordinator for the Animal Activists of Central Florida, is set to turn up the heat in the coming weeks, promising to engage in “large protests against local targets.”

Whether it’s veal, Chilean sea bass, factory-
farm chicken or foie gras, dining can force us into a moral quandary, often making the decision to eat (or not to eat) a trying exercise. Some will argue that we’ve earned an evolutionary right to ingest what we please by virtue of being at the top of the food chain; others will argue that our superior standing necessitates compassion, and dining with a conscience.

In her book What to Eat, nutritionist Marion Nestle writes, “The choices you make about food are as much about the kind of world you want to live in as they are about what to have for dinner.” So much for worry-free dining. Faux gras, anyone?

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