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Foie Gras Is Back on the Menu in California

This weekend, restaurant tables in the great state of California are undoubtedly going to be dominated by a once-verboten but now-liberated ingredient that has long been a favorite of gourmands: Foie gras. But not everyone is welcoming the news.

This weekend, restaurant tables in the great state of California are undoubtedly going to be dominated by a once-verboten but now-liberated ingredient that has long been a favorite of gourmands: Foie gras. The serving of the fattened liver of a goose or duck—a traditional French ingredient that found its way to American tables during the "Continental Cuisine" trend of the 1970s and 80s—is a practice that has been embroiled in controversy from the start, as many, but not all, foie gras producers force-feed their birds in order to produce livers that can be up to eight times larger than a normal bird liver. Over two years ago—and to the chagrin of the majority of the state's chefs—California banned the sale of the rich, creamy livers, effectively removing them from restaurant tables (although many area chefs continued to send out foie as a free treat, thus skirting the law).

That ban, which was treated with extreme scorn by chefs such as Jon Shook of LA's Animal and Thomas Keller of Yountville's famed French Laundry, was overturned yesterday by a federal judge who ruled it unconstitutional. And from Fresno to Redding, Modesto to San Bernadino, chefs are rejoicing—and planning to demonstrate that joy on the plate.

"We are freaking out," Shook told The New York Times yesterday after he heard the news. The chef said he had already ordered three cases of livers that he hoped to serve by tomorrow night. Sean Chaney, owner of Hot's Kitchen in Hermosa Beach, also wants to treat his diners to foie gras by tomorrow night's dinner service; he told the LA Times today that he had already had some livers overnighted from Hudson Valley Foie Gras, a well-known producer in Ferndale, NY.

Foie gras producers, too, are understandably lauding the news of the ban's overturn, which—should it stick—is likely to dramatically increase sales of their product. La Belle Farms is the only other domestic producer of foie gras besides Hudson Valley and is also located in Ferndale. Bob Ambrose, whose specialty-foods company Bella Bella Gourmet distributes La Belle's foie, told MUNCHIES he was ecstatic over the news out of California. He said that in addition to in-the-know chefs feeling excited to re-incorporate the liver into their menus, he felt confident that the buzz around foie gras would stir interest in diners who have never tasted, or even heard of, the product before.

"We do a lot of tastings and educational events," he said of his company, "and we find that about 25 percent of the people who come to those don't know what foie gras is." Now that it's been deemed acceptable by California, he thinks, more shoppers are going to be curious about what foie is, how it's produced, and where they can get it.

"There's some controversy to it, that's for sure," he said. "But that could be a very, very good thing. And not just in California."

Even foie gras producers who were shut down by the 2012 ban are extolling the news. For 27 years, Junny Gonzalez and her husband Guillermo owned and operated Sonoma Foie Gras, then only the third domestic producer of the duck livers. The couple studied the French technique for raising the birds, Gonzalez said, then opened their operation in Sonoma in 1986. But on July 1st, 2012, the California government shut them down.

"We left everything," Gonzalez said. "They didn't give us nothing, they closed our doors just like that."

Although the ban has now been overturned, Gonzalez said she and her husband have no plans to reopen their farm. "This has been too much for my husband and myself," she said. Nevertheless, the couple is overjoyed at the repeal of the ban. "It's great news not just for chefs and restaurants," she said, "but for foie gras lovers, too."

She and her husband count themselves among that latter category. "You know we're celebrating," she said. When asked if she had plans to eat any foie gras anytime soon, Gonzalez replied, "Yes, of course! This weekend!"

Of course, not everyone is happy to welcome foie gras back onto California plates. Since the beginning of the anti-foie gras crusade, which heated up back all the way back in 2004, animal rights groups have been its leaders, calling for an end to a practice they deem cruel due to the use of metal and plastic force-feeding tubes that pour feed down the birds' throats, with the densely caloric feed aiding in the rapid development of the birds' livers. Yesterday, the Humane Society of the United States published a press release asking California Attorney General Kamala Harris to appeal the ruling.

Paul Shapiro is the Vice President of Farm Animal Protection at HSUS. He told MUNCHIES that he and his colleagues are very emphatically not celebrating California's new ruling. And he called out the chefs and restaurateurs who are in favor of it as also being in favor of animal cruelty.

"People who are celebrating the fact that they can participate in animal abuse have a lot of soul-searching to do," Shapiro said. Despite reports attempting to debunk the common belief that foie gras force-feeding is problematic, Shapiro asserted that "foie gras is one of the most cruel and inhumane products that comes out of our factory farming system today."

The judge who ruled the foie gras ban unconstitutional, Stephen V. Wilson of the United States District Court, said it was an attempt to override existing federal law regulating poultry products, according to the Times article.

"We vehemently disagree," Shapiro said. "California lawmakers were right to ban the products of animal cruelty. And the Attorney General is tasked with defending California's laws."

For that reason, Shapiro believes that Attorney General Harris will overturn the ruling. But in the meantime, California chefs and diners will likely have ample opportunity to gorge on the prized engorged livers.

"Like any legal process," Shapiro pointed out, "this could be a many-months-long one."

Check back later this month to watch our Politics of Food video on the production of foie gras. Scope the series trailer here.