delicacies

Foie Gras May Be Cruel. It’s Definitely Irrelevant.

A restaurant critic on the waning days of a luxury ingredient.

Ducklings at D’Artagnan, a New York company that produces foie gras. Photo: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Ducklings at D’Artagnan, a New York company that produces foie gras. Photo: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg via Getty Images

I hadn’t given much recent thought to foie gras until I saw the news that the old French delicacy will soon be be banned in New York. The story reminded me of a time very early in my career as a restaurant critic. One of my dining guests at a long-vanished French establishment in midtown was a young Parisian, and he became swept up in the moment, which is not uncommon among first-time guests of restaurant critics and their expense accounts. He called for a crock or two of cassoulet and, despite my stern looks, a second helping of ultrarich foie gras that was smothered, I dimly recall, in sweet apples. To drink: glass after glass of Sauternes.

When we finally staggered onto the sidewalk after dinner, he offered a polite thank you for a very enjoyable evening, and then woozily threw up his dinner perilously close to my shiny, newly purchased shoes.

After that grim evening, I never quite looked the same way at this onetime totem of culinary luxury, and in recent years, to be honest, I haven’t actually looked at it much at all. Sure, like many boomer gastronomes, I enjoy the occasional smooth, cool terrine of engorged duck liver, but like many overpriced gourmet signifiers (whole lobsters with drawn butter, caviar-topped blini, $100 shavings of Italian truffles), that seared lobe of foie gras, dripping in some overly sweet sauce, feels like some relic from a long-vanished age. You could argue that the flavor profile is delicious, I suppose, but it is also cloyingly familiar; it weighs on that expense account (and, as my doctor might point out, on cholesterol levels); and, if you encounter it night after night, the novelty tends to quickly wear off quickly.

Will I miss foie gras if it disappears entirely from the dining scene? Not really, because in most of the trendy restaurants around town which I write about these days, it’s been off menus for quite a while. During the course of the great culinary leveling that has taken place over the last decade or two, the dish has slowly been replaced by other rabidly Instagrammed gourmet signifiers from around the globe (sea urchin plucked fresh from the icy waters off Maine, mushrooms foraged in gnome-infested forests, opulent slivers of fat-streaked A5 wagyu from pampered Japanese cows). What’s more, today’s discerning, confident young diners are more likely to take their culinary cues from Japan or China, not France, while spending their cash on simpler pleasures, like spiffed-up hand rolls; world-class meatballs; sweet, steamed rice rolls; or lovingly composed egg-salad sandwiches.

So, the ban is a win for people who argue that foie gras is cruel (and, yes, a looming disaster for beleaguered duck farmers upstate), though, as countless others have pointed out, you could make similar arguments about the treatment of nearly every other animal that finds itself on the dreaded Homo sapiens’ “delicious to eat” list.

“There are all sorts of other things that we could ban as food instead,” one bemused, vegan-trending friend pointed out to me the other day, before proceeding to mention, more or less off the top of her head, hyperintelligent octopi, endangered wild tuna, or those belching cows that contribute so much methane to climate change. Even lobsters have their vociferous defenders in this voluble, politically charged era, after all, and when you start to consider all of the forbidden delicacies over the centuries that have gone in and out of fashion — terrapin soup, peacock tongues, the fabled ortolan — even the most avowed Francophile carnivore would probably admit that after a long and impressive run, the age of foie gras may be soon coming to an end.

Foie Gras May Be Cruel. It’s Definitely Irrelevant.