Foie gras, or fattened liver of ducks and geese, is an ingredient synonymous with luxury. It's a staple of the French cooking that still defines the upper echelons of fine dining, but it has also found wider appeal in the hands of today's creative chefs, who deploy it in everything from macarons to Vietnamese-inspired pho (Wylie Dufresne's cheekily named “Pho Gras”). Even rappers are beginning to shift their filet-mignon dreams toward the luxe liver: “Foie gras at every meal,” brags Action Bronson in his 2012 track, “Brown Bag Wrap.”
Yet for all its popularity in culinary circles, foie gras is also one of America’s most controversial ingredients. Animal rights groups claim that foie is a "diseased" product because it requires the force-feeding of ducks, called gavage, which these groups view as inhumane. In 2012, the entire state of California banned the production and sale of foie gras.
Before 1984, fresh foie gras was not even available in the United States, aside from the black-market variety, smuggled illegally from France inside monkfish. Ariane Daguin, the owner of D’Artagnan—the largest distributor of foie gras in the United States—took note of this scarcity when she came to the U.S. from Gascony.
For all its popularity in culinary circles, foie gras is also one of America’s most controversial ingredients.
“There was huge potential in America, but nobody knew what fresh foie gras was,” says Daguin. By 1984, D'Artagnan was the sole distributor of domestically-produced foie, and the product caught on like wildfire (Daguin's customers included heavyweight chefs Charlie Palmer and Daniel Boulud). At the same time, animal rights activists began targeting the product.
We wanted to explore the ethics of the ingredient first-hand, so we took a trip out to the Hudson Valley Foie Gras farm, where D’Artagnan ducks are raised, to see how it's made. As we visited the stress-free, well-cared-for ducks and watched them go through their force-feeding, it quickly became clear that there's more to foie than the nightmarish factory-farm scenes we'd seen before on YouTube.
On our trip, we also quizzed Daguin—one of the country's foremost foie experts—about the factors that make foie gras so expensive, why domestic foie gras production is different from factory-farmed foie gras in other parts of the world, and much more.
Ariane Daguin is an encyclopedia of foie gras knowledge. She is the owner of D'Artagnan, which supplies foie and other luxury ingredients to the nation's top restaurants, as well as home cooks via D'Artagnan's mail-order service. Daguin is also a French expat, cookbook author, and inspiring entrepreneur.
Here, Daguin debunks the myths of foie gras history, production, pricing, and ethics.Click to start the list