San Francisco’s Humphry Slocombe ice cream parlor is known for its unique flavor selection. On a given week, your choices might include Sour Cream, Salt and Pepper, and Boccalone Prosciutto. Right now, they have a special option that will only be available until July 1st – a foie gras ice cream sandwich.
Humphry Slocombe put the sandwich on the menu in the summer of 2009. Owner Sean Vahey says that in the past few months, they’ve produced approximately three-dozen sandwiches each day, and have sold out every single one. Who’s buying them? San Francisco gourmands and just curious eaters.
Humphry Slocombe isn’t alone in its tribute to the soon-to-be-banned delicacy. Restaurants around California are featuring foie gras on their menus, creating unique and lavish dishes around the delicacy, and even holding multi-course dinners devoted to the food. Offerings include items like foie and eel terrine, seared foie with lamb’s tongue, and foie gras toffee.
Tyler Pugliese came to Humphrey Slocombe seeking a foie gras ice cream sandwich. “I went to go order it, and for a second they told me they were out of them for dramatic effect,” he recounts. “I felt this horrible thing in my throat, like someone was opening it up and shoving down despair,” says Pugliese. “But then they got out more, and I’m eating it right now, and it’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever tasted.”
Foie gras has already been banned in countries such as Israel, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. But California will be the first U.S. state to ban it. Mark Pastore, chef and owner of Incanto restaurant disagrees with the ban. He thinks that people should be able to choose for themselves what they do and don’t eat. He’s part of a group called the Coalition for Ethical Farming Standards, or, appropriately, CHEFS. The group has tried to provide an alternative to the ban by coming up with new standards for foie gras production.
Here’s how foie gras is currently produced in most places (there are some exceptions): when geese or ducks are between nine and 25 weeks of age, farmers begin force-feeding them. In order to feed them, they insert a tube down the bird’s throat. This process is called gavage, and it takes about 30 seconds. Over the course of a few weeks, the bird’s liver increases from an initial weight of around 80 grams to between 600 and 1,000 grams. While many claim that this is a painful process for the animals, Pastore cautions people not to anthropomorphize. The birds are differently built than human beings, he says.
Carter Dillard is the head of litigation at the Animal Legal Defense fund, an organization that uses the legal system to protect animal welfare. He strongly disagrees with Pastore, saying that it’s “a barbaric practice [that] essentially involves mutilating an animal’s vital organs to make them taste better and in the process the animal is suffering.” Dillard says that CHEF’s new standards for foie gras production are not enough. He says that raising animals with overly enlarged livers is cruel, no matter what.
There’s another objection to the ban – that it’s too narrowly focused. Daniel Patterson, owner of high-profile restaurants such as Coi and Plum, says that it’s ridiculous to target a food that less than one percent of the population eats. Since it is such a small industry, Patterson maintains that it’s an easier target than other meat-production processes.
The USDA estimates that in 2011, U.S. eaters consumed a whopping 25.6 billion pounds of beef, not to mention all the poultry and pork consumed in that year. Patterson says that people who really want to help should focus their attention on those big players.
When asked why the issue of foie gras has gotten so much media attention and raised so much controversy, Dillard told me that it was because it was moving beyond eating animals for food – producers were intentionally inflicting unnecessary harm for a slightly better taste.
A repeal before July 1st seems unlikely, but chefs hope to overturn the ban at the 2013 legislative session. State Senator Lois Wolk has already announced that she is considering composing legislation to aid their cause. Police and animal control officials in San Francisco have said they don’t have specific plans to enforce the ban, but there’s technically a $1000 fine per violation. So for now, people are still flocking to get their share of foie gras before it’s gone.