What the Foie?

David unwrapped the package and set it on the kitchen island. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it? I should take a picture,” he said.

I leaned forward to find an attractive angle of the beige brick. As I drew closer, I caught a whiff of the thing and gagged. I wrinkled my nose and jerked my head away. “Ugh, it smells like cat food,” I said.

“Cat food doesn’t cost 31 dollars a pound,” David snapped.

“Geez, don’t take it so personally. It’s not like I said you smelled bad.” David put his finger on a mousse-y nugget that had fallen from the block and put it in his mouth. I tried not to let disgust show on my face. “And, anyway, it’s okay for me to not like everything you like,” I said. “It just happens to be my personal opinion that foie gras — or any kind of meat paste, especially if it includes liver — is gross.”

It had taken some skilled googling to find a place in San Diego that still sold the soon-to-be-illegal delicacy. The bill Arnold Schwarzenegger signed in 2004 to ban the stuff in California goes into effect on July 1. In the middle of July, we’re traveling to Martha’s Vineyard to celebrate a milestone birthday for David’s mother, for whom David is preparing an extravagant feast. One dish in particular — a foie gras crème brûlée — requires experimentation to perfect the recipe.

I’d conducted a search on my iPhone earlier that morning while following David up and down the aisles of Great News! as he looked for ramekins and new oven mitts. “Any luck?” David asked when he found me ogling the toaster ovens.

“Every thread is interrupted by haters,” I said. “Look at Yelp — someone asks where to get foie gras in San Diego and 90 percent of the answers are people arguing over whether or not the OP is evil for wanting any in the first place. I called Whole Foods, but they said they only had ‘goose mousse,’ which might be less fatty, but it’s basically the same thing — bird liver.”

David grabbed my phone; 15 seconds later he handed it back to me and said, “Bristol Farms. La Jolla.”

“Sweet, I’ve never been to that one,” I said.

As we laced our way north along the scenic coastal route, I asked David if he was bothered by the idea of his food being tortured. “That’s a tough ethical question,” he said. “In this country — especially more than Europe and Asia — we are removed from the process that goes into the making of our food. We just don’t think about it.”

“Yeah, but if you did,” I said. “I mean, if I had to kill my own food, I’d probably be a vegetarian. But I don’t. As long as someone else does the dirty work, I don’t care, I’ll eat it. But that’s what butchers are for. Think of our friends — chefs who’ve told us they don’t enjoy killing the food they prepare, but they have no qualms about the animal being killed for the sustenance and pleasure of their patrons. But I’m not just talking about the food-chain stuff, the killing — I’m talking about the suffering. If something tastes better because it’s suffered, would you still eat the tastier version?”

“But that’s exactly what most people don’t understand about foie gras,” David said. “Ducks and geese have no gag reflex, their esophagus and breathing tubes are separate, and their throats are lined with some tough stuff — they swallow huge fish whole, and those take a lot longer to go down than the few seconds during which they’re fed on one of the three farms that produce foie gras in this country. It looks like suffering to us because if someone shoved a tube down our throats, it would hurt like hell and choke us. But that’s because we’re mammals, not birds.”

I pulled into the parking lot of what was about to become my new favorite store. “They have everything,” I said, wide-eyed and spinning down each aisle as David followed behind me, smiling. As gourmet goods go, the market was truly super. I left David to order the foie gras while I perused the cheese selection. I met up with him just as he was collecting his goods from the woman behind the counter.

“By the way, I’m not sure this will be available after the first of July,” said the woman.

“I know,” David replied. “That’s why I’m here today — I’ve got to get it while I can.”

Because David was going to make a few batches for testing, we invited a handful of friends to help him taste. “Your mom’s going to love this,” I said. “But, man, it smells bad.”

“Then go stand over there instead of hovering over it and complaining about the smell,” David grumbled.

I said sorry with my face and stepped back. “Seriously, though, she’ll really like this — that is, if you can get any foie on the island. Speaking of which, you still need to call Cronig’s and find out if they carry it; otherwise, we’ll have to bring some down from Boston.”

I watched as David scooped a section of the pâté into the blender and added cream, black pepper, and port wine. “Is it bad that I don’t care?” I asked of his back. “I mean, the reason I don’t like this stuff is because of the taste and texture — but I put it in the same moral category as any other animal product we eat. If they ban this based on ‘cruelty,’ isn’t that just a slippery slope to banning all animal products?”

“I’m surprised people don’t protest things we throw into the pot while they’re still alive — like lobsters. Or oysters! They’re eaten alive,” David said. He dipped his finger in the bowl and smiled when he tasted the mixture. “It’s good.”

“I’ll take your word for it.” My lip curled involuntarily. “I think a fondness for rich food is in your Hungarian bones. Just think about the usual fare at your parents’ house: eggs, sausage, sour cream, and of course, foie gras. Which brings me back to what I was just saying: your mother’s going to love this.”

“That’s the point,” David said.


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