Thursday, November 12, 2009

Recent Reads: The Foie Gras Wars

In the past fifteen years, foie gras has gone from an exotic ingredient that was virtually unknown and unavailable to American eaters to a staple of high end restaurant menus. As its popularity has increased, so has the controversy surrounding the dish made from the fattened livers of geese and ducks. Chicago Tribune writer Marc Caro explores the controversy surrounding foie gras in his superb book, The Foie Gras Wars: How a 5,000-Year-Old Delicacy Inspired the World's Fiercest Food Fight.

Writing in an informal, journalistic style, Caro covers many fronts of the foie gras controversy but focuses on his home town of Chicago, where the fatty livers were subject to a much publicized ban. Starting with Chicago chef Charlie Trotter's personal decision to stop using foie gras, he follows the politics of the Chicago ban from enactment to repeal. While Chicago is the focal point, Caro spends ample time on other far-flung locales, from the streets of Philadelphia, where the controversy reached a fever pitch, to Israel, whose supreme court banned the livers, to foie gras farms from France to California.

Seeking to fairly represent both sides of the controversy, Caro gives voice to foie gras producers, restaurateurs and animal rights activists alike, presenting each in a sympathetic light and allowing each to make their own arguments about the ethics of foie gras. In the end, he does a good job of not taking sides and presenting each side respectfully, though he seems to slightly favor the foie.

The Foie Gras Wars is less culinary history than cultural history, touching on such non-culinary issues as activist tactics, agribusiness and even old-time Chicago politics. For this reason, interest in this work should go beyond the narrow group of people (like myself) who have a specific interest in foie gras.

Caro is an engaging writer with a healthy sense of humor and the book is a joy to read from the first page. If you are at all interested in food ethics or just looking for a good read, I highly recommend it.

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