Friday, March 30, 2007

Deconstructing Foie Gras

Until this past week, I had never considered the idea that a food could be ironic, although I suppose that this is not a particularly novel idea. Surely, if a random group of people were asked to volunteer their thoughts on culinary irony, they could quickly offer up some interesting ideas. Or perhaps, as it seems to happen so often, they would just ignore the question and argue among themselves about sports. Or about the role of law enforcement within municipalities that have been zoned for recreational anarchy.

But if you could get these random people to briefly focus on the topic of food irony, perhaps by getting them all together for a meal, they might address it and share their thoughts -- even if while doing so, they succumb to the urge to tribe-up, square-off, and argue. One tribe, for example, might be focused on a cosmically cynical flavor of food irony, discussing Wonkaesque concepts like manna from heaven and gobstopper loaves of bread. The other team, secretively huddled on the opposite side of the table, might be passionately endorsing a slapstick neo-conservative flavor of irony. The kind that manifests itself in socially darwinistic food concepts such as the global consolidation of commercial farming, excessive property taxes, and cannibalism. To complicate matters, that second group might also split into two factions, with half of the members refusing to formally recognize the irony in cannibalism.

Lucky for me, I sometimes experience moments of lucid conformity, during which I can recognize the social error of my actions. So I occasionally know better than to deliberately arrange people around a dinner table for the purpose of discussing politically charged topics. Besides, I had already done my own thinking on this issue, and I was feeling too rundown to deal with the repercussions of presenting the topic to the table for discussion. My dining companions would never know it, but I had just been granted a new perspective on the karmic implications of French tasting menus. More specifically, I came to see a profound irony in that fatty, slightly diseased, goose liver that French people (and foodies around the world) call foie gras. Let me explain.

Last week I unexpectedly found myself in the idyllic French countryside, tasting wines from barrels in the cellars of some top Burgundy and Chateauneuf du Pape wineries. The trip was organized by some local wine professionals, some of whom by the way, are also cyclists. Ok, so we did not cycle, but we did talk a lot about cycling. I'm doing my best to keep the blog real in the absence of good cycling weather.

The trip had two primary objectives: To taste some yet-to-be-released wines from the 2005 and 2006 vintages, and to eat at as many three star Michelin rated restaurants as possible in a four day period. Of course, while dining at these restaurants, we would be ordering the tasting menu. This meant that we would eat somewhere between seven and twelve courses of food each night. It was the pursuit of this latter goal that led me to rethink my relationship with foie gras.

French haute cuisine, or "high" cuisine, is notorious for its abundance of rare ingredients, impeccable visual presentations, elaborate preparation techniques, and high animal fat content. The dishes seamlessly combine the aesthetic inspiration of a painter, the alchemy of a witchdoctor, the exacting execution of a ballroom Tango, and the nutritional value of a truck stop stroganoff. In a few words, French haute cuisine can be summed up as rare, artistic, manipulated, and fatty. So, it seems logical that foie gras (French for "fat liver") is often considered the quintessential anchor ingredient in haute cuisine tasting menus.

For those unfamiliar with how foie gras is produced, please note the following. Prior to winter, wild geese and ducks naturally tend to overeat and store fat. As a result their livers get a bit fatty and enlarged. When cooked, their meat, especially the liver, develops a smoother and richer consistency and flavor. It is this extra fatty meat that makes late-season game birds generally more desirable to consumers. If a goose or duck somehow manages to consistently eat an exceptionally large amount of food, over the course of a week or two, its liver can become so fatty as to enlarge to several times its normal size. This enormously fatty liver is called fois gras.

But wild birds are not so self-destructive as to gorge themselves to the point of causing fatty liver disease (a condition medically known as hepatic steatosis), so poultry farmers have to intervene. The birds are force fed, by way of a tube feeder, for a period of two weeks before harvesting to produce commercial foie gras. While certainly not artistic in its raw form, foie gras definitely fits the haute cuisine profile of rare, manipulated, and fatty. In fact, the manipulation of the birds has recently become quite a hot topic. I won't get into that further, but if you Google "fois gras" you find an enormous amount of activist angst and a notably weak defense from the foie gras producers.

Ok, so back to the main point. Near the end of my adventure in France, I was starting to run down a bit. The constant feeding on rich food had been slowly getting the better of me. During our third night of tasting menu dining, I began to feel as if I was losing my sovereignty to the army of tuxedo-clad waiters who were endlessly delivering plate after plate of haute cuisine masterpieces. Five or six courses into that meal, I began to wonder if I could even finish. After all, we had not even gotten to the cheese course, or the pre-dessert course. Never mind the dessert and the post-dessert courses. I was experiencing a moment of weakness, but then I thought, "I'm almost there. This is our last three star tasting menu of the trip. Tomorrow night is only a two star. How hard can that be? Just tough it out and enjoy it". I was telling myself the same sorts of things that I might during the last days of an epic bicycle tour.

And in that moment of weakness, when I was digging deep to find the strength to sprint for the finish, the troupe of waiters returned to the table to unveil yet another course of rigorously prepared haute cuisine. As the plate covers came off (in unison, of course) I found myself looking down at yet another offering of foie gras. And not just any offering. This was simply a huge slab of foie gras terrine. But, please don't let my reckless choice of the word "slab" belie the subtle beauty and delicate aroma that everyone else in the restaurant was undoubtedly appreciating at that moment. It was, of course, beautifully presented and painstakingly prepared.

It's just that, in that moment, I had suddenly realized the ironic potential of food. I had been embraced by an irony that seamlessly combined the angst of voluntary servitude, the pharmakonic enigma of a poisonous cure, and the delusion of moderate gluttony. What I was now seeing, which was probably quite different than what the other guests were seeing that night, was an army of waiters wielding shiny silver-plated foie gras cannons. Sensing, perhaps, that I had uncovered his true identity and intention, the nearest waiter marched over and leveled his cannon at my face. As he began to squeeze the trigger, I could see the nail on his index finger whitening under the pressure. The last thing I remember, glancing just beyond the closing trigger, were the barely visible words that had been delicately embroidered into the buttonless cuff of his shirt sleeve. Translated from French, the words read, "What's good for the goose is good for the gander".

Photo Journal

Click here for a few highlights from the cellars and countryside. I promise that there are no pictures of foie gras.