Introduction to Foie Gras and its Cultural Value Research Paper

by Jason Shaw
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Introduction 

           It’s not a debatable fact that food is the reason life exists on earth.

Nevertheless, the production, consumption, and the effects of food on the lives of people and the environment are subject to many issues and controversies. Consequently, in the multiple disciplines dealing with food and other related subjects, the political, economic, anthropological, and environmental implications of different foodstuffs and their production have been the focus for many stakeholders (Pollan, P. 174). These debates and controversies, however, mainly focus on animal-based foods whose environmental and cultural aspects are more relevant to human life (Pollan, P. 89a). The treatment of animals during and before the preparation of food and the production of food derived from animals is a thorny issue for animal rights activists (Milligan, P. 156). The economic and cultural significance of food, however, outplays the controversies and political intrigues arising from food production, preparation and consumption practices. This paper explores foie gras, a delicacy in contemporary society with rich historical origins, cultural importance, and extensive economic and political implications. Thus, the paper addresses the economic, political, anthropological, environmental, biological and cultural aspects of foie gras in this regard.

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The History of Foie Gras

Agricultural production and consumption of bird delicacies is not a practice among the human race that has recently been invented. However, among the ancient Egyptians, the way of fattening birds just before their slaughter and consumption is thought to have started in 2500 BC. The Egyptians realized they could be fattened by overfeeding the birds. Notably, the liver, a delicacy regarded relatively highly in many cultures of the world, was more fattened by the forced overfeeding of birds. Many artistic impressions on the walls and floors of ancient structures and tombs reveal that people began to forcefully feed birds, such as the geese, with their hands to fatten them for food. From Egypt, bird feeding has spread to other regions, such as the Mediterranean and parts of Europe. Nonetheless, for quite some time, Egypt remained known for the practice. It was during the Roman era that foie gras emerged as a separate type of food, prompted by the Romans’ positive results of fattening practices on sowing. In modern society, France and Hungary are known to be major producers and consumers in other countries of foie gras, duck / goose liver, particularly fattened by force-feeding / gavage or non-fattened duck / goose (Thorpe, P. 36). 

Introduction to Foie Gras and its Cultural Value Research Paper

The process of force-feeding involves providing corn to the birds, more so among the French, where foie gras is a popular delicacy. Foie gras has a rather delicate, rich, and buttery taste, unlike ordinary duck or goose liver, and is often sold as a whole liver or liver parfait or mousse. Foie gras may accompany other dishes or meals in addition to being consumed on its own. While laws and regulations have been enacted by other countries against the production and sale of foie gras, it is a protected cultural and gastronomic heritage for the people of France. As a consequence, France has remained the world’s biggest producer of delicacies. However, other regions, primarily Europe, also consume large quantities of foie gras produced in France and the United States. Hungary, Canada and Bulgaria are the other large-scale foie gras producers. In different regions of the world, there are different types of foie gras produced and consumed. Whole foie gras, which consists of whole cooked or half-cooked liver lobe(s), is the most common among these types. The other type of foie gras is made of assembled pieces of liver that are sold in metal cans or glass containers, like the previous type. Foie gras nutrition information is always indicated on the packaging material used, as is required for any packaged or tinned foodstuffs.

For instance, the following table shows the nutritional data of foie gras as recommended for adults in the United States. 

  Nutritional Value
Per 100 grams
  Protein 
11.4g
  Energy
1,999Kj (462kcal)
  Dietary Fiber
0.0g
  Fat
43.84
  Carbohydrates
4.67
  Riboflavin (Vitamin B2)        
0.299 mg (25%)
  Niacin (Vitamin B3)  
2.51 mg (17%)

The Anthropology of Foie Gras

Among certain cultures, such as the French, the rather conspicuous ceremonial role and consumption of foie gras indicate its position in signifying or identifying the cultural status or uniqueness of these individuals. Foie gras has therefore been used as a particular form of food entertainment since ancient times, not only among the French but also in ancient Egypt, where the culture of duck/goose-fattening is believed to have originated. Besides, foie gras has been consistently used as a show of hospitality and impression purposes, especially on strangers and visitors who call on their friends/relatives. Foie gras thus symbolizes not only what the community eats but also how well the community prepares and consumes its food. The other aspect of foie gras that is of anthropological value in the manner of serving the dish, which is always ensured to be entertaining, be it at home or informal settings. In other words, the grandest foods such as foie gras were often preserved for the most elegant occasions and were cuisines that one did not have to buy and consume alone without feeling guilty, greedy, or being accused of anti-social behaviors. Foie gras is, therefore, rich food that is not eaten for the mere satisfaction of one’s physiological needs; instead, it is a food that should be shared for happiness, celebrations, and impressions on loved and close ones. Among the necessary range of peoples’ behaviors, the communal consumption of delicacies such as foie gras is the most effective method of conveying messages to one another in the communities that revere it. The uses to which foie gras is put to highlight its cultural importance.

Foie Gras and Cultures

The fact that some countries produce and consume and revere foie gras more than others indicates the cultural importance of the delicacy to these cultures. Since historical times, the cultural role and influence of foie gras have taken different turns and twists in communities across the world. For instance, after the Roman Empire, which spread foie gras fell, the production of the delicacy disappeared temporarily from the European gastronomy. Researchers have cited a number of reasons for the vanishing of the treatment after the fall of the Roman Empire. First, many believe that some Gallic farmers preserved the tradition until it was rediscovered in later-century Europe. The other theory postulates that the Jewish people, migrating into north and west Europe, had learned the method while under Roman colonization and brought to Europe during the migrations. Foie gras has since become a cultural ambassador for the many communities and countries that produce and use it as food. For instance, the French consider foie gras as one of their finest food products, deeply entrenched in their tradition. Foie gras is not only considered a culinary but has also been viewed as a natural form of French art, carried from one generation to another. Importantly, many world renowned chefs have been inspired by foie gras, resulting in the development of many of the organoleptic properties of the delicacy.  

The other effect of foie gras production and consumption on culture is the pride that results from its enhancing of the gastronomic reputation of communities that produce and use it, such as France and Canada. Foie gras has since become a symbolic food for many cultures in which it is prepared in large quantities for celebrations such as holidays, domestic parties, reunions, and other festive occasions. Importantly, foie gras reflects the cultures, values, beliefs, practices, and customs of the communities that produce and consume it. This cultural aspect of foie gras is particularly essential for women and girls who are not only focused on well-brought up families but also on quality family and meal-times. This is the reason the production, preparation, and consumption of the delicacy has largely remained a family affair, even in situations where it is produced for commercial purposes. 

Preparation of Foie Gras

The preparation of foie gras begins at the force-feeding stage. The role of the physiological makeup of the bird (duck or goose) cannot, therefore, be overemphasized. For instance, the expansive throats of geese and ducks allow them to swallow and keep large quantities of food in the crop, which is the relatively enlarged portion of their alimentary canal. The food stays at the crop while awaiting digestion in the stomach, ensuring that no nutrients are wasted. During the agricultural rearing of ducks or geese for foie gras, the birds are reared on straw, first, for four weeks, and then released to the outside to feed on grass. The purpose of these practices is to exploit the dilation capacities of the birds’ digestive systems. The birds are then kept indoors for long periods, followed by a period of high-starch diets. The high-starch diet is followed by a period of force-feeding, otherwise referred to as the completion of fattening by the French. In modern production units, the birds are forcefully fed controlled quantities of feed using funnels fitted with 20-30cm long tubes, based on their progress regarding weight gain and the amount of feed ingested. Although the traditional and legal French definitions of foie gras insist on force-feeding in the preparation of foie gras, modern production practices may allow for the free feeding to fatten duck/goose livers. The ethical concerns by animal rights activists are the significant reasons for the alternative approaches to the production of foie gras. 

Besides the forced feeding and fattening, the other important stage in the preparation of foie gras is the practical process of getting the meal ready. Among the essential elements in the preparation of foie gras is the low heat, more so for the French foie gras, mainly made of goose meat. The goose foie gras requires to be made over lower heat levels than the duck-based foie gras commonly prepared in other regions. The duck foie trained in areas such as the U.S is served hot, rather than cold or cool, accompanied by other dishes such as pasta and steak. In other countries such as Hungary, goose foie gras is first fried in goose fat, poured on the foie gras, then left to cool or eaten while warm. Alternatively, goose foie gras may be roasted or smoked over a cherry wood fire. However, in the traditional French setting, foie gras is served cold (at or below room temperatures) in the forms of mousses, foams, terrines, pâtés, and parfaits. Besides, some people prefer to flavor their foie gras with mushrooms, truffles, or brandy. Foie gras is thus a luxury dish among the French who eat it during special occasions such as New Year’s Eve or Christmas (Katherine, P. 213). The internalization and commercialization of the foie gras have also led to the preparation and serving of hot forms of the delicacy in other regions of the world where foie gras could be pan-seared, roasted, grilled, or sautéed. 

Economic Importance

The production and consumption of foie gras are not only culturally essential, but it also has enormous economic importance. In the U.S, for example, the foie gras industry is a relatively rapidly growing agricultural sector is in cities such as New York, where the industry generates millions of dollars in terms of economic output. The foie gras industry also provides employment opportunities to the citizens of the various countries producing and consuming its products. Besides workers in the foie gras agricultural firms, foie gras production also employs chefs in the hospitality industry. In addition, the poultry farms that engage in duck and goose rearing for foie gras production also pay taxes, thereby contributing to the economic development of their home countries and destination countries in case of export and import trade on foie products. The economic and ethical issues related to foie grass have somehow led to many contentious political issues.  

Politics and Controversies

The production, preparation, and consumption of foie gras have caused many political, ideological, and cultural controversies since historical times. In particular, animal rights activism has been a significant source of resistance to the production and use of foie gras as food in contemporary society. In particular, the forced-feeding aspect of the production of foie gras has been the bone of contention between animal rights and protection activists and the producers of foie gras. Moreover, the health consequences to the birds of an enlarged liver have also caused a lot of debates and resistance from animal rights and protection groups. As a result of the efforts of these animal rights activists, many a nation has enacted laws and regulations that prohibit the force-feeding of birds to achieve enlarged livers. Furthermore, some jurisdictions have even banned the sale of foie gras because of the traditional production method of the delicacy. The force-feeding and the fattening processes particularly irk the animal rights activists since it entails a 12 to 18-day feeding of corn marsh to the birds by the insertion of a tube through the animals’ esophagus (Baur, P. 34). European Union nations such as Turkey and Israel are some of the countries in which resistance to foie production and consumption has been at its peak. 

The producers and the consumers of foie gras have, however, fought back the efforts of animal rights activism to render their business and delicacy non-existent. In their efforts to counter the wave against the production and consumption of foie gras, the producers of foie gras assert that it is not uncomfortable to the birds, mainly the force-feeding that animal rights activists vehemently oppose (Anderson, P. 121). In addition, the force-feeding has never been proved to be a health hazard to the birds. In fact, in France, an experimental survey conducted by the National Institute of Agronomic Research in Nouzilly, discovered that there is no evidence of aversion between the birds and their human fowl feeders in foie production firms. Instead, the survey found that a healthy level of attraction existed between the birds and their feeders. That the force-feeding is a harmless process has therefore been confirmed by the absence of negative behavioral responses between the fattened birds and their feeders. Otherwise, if the force-feeding process were harmful, the empirical survey could have reported negative behavioral responses.

 In addition, the research did not report any increases in the level of stress hormone known as corticosterone in the birds. There was also a low culling rate among the birds, indicating that there is no high mortality rate associated with the production of foie gras as asserted by the opponents of foie gras production (Serviere & Guy, P. 53). Besides the European Union members, individual states and cities in the U.S, such as the city of Chicago have also banned the production and use of foie gras in the past. Chicago, for instance, banned the production and selling of foie gras between 2006 and 2008 but reversed the decision later after a widespread criticism of the ban (Fox, P. 1). Among the animal welfare and rights groups in the U.S that have consistently resisted the production and sale of foie gras are the Humane Society of the United States and PETA, Vegetarians International Voice for Animals (Viva) who have termed the show to constitute cruel and inhumane treatment of the birds (Mariana & Donald, P. 67). 

Conclusion

Foie gras (fattened duck/goose live) is one of the culturally essential foods for the communities that consume it. The cultural importance of foie gras is evident even in ancient times where geese and ducks were fattened for the delicacy. The force-feeding practice in foie production and preparation is perhaps the main reason animal rights and protection activists have resisted foie gras, leading to some countries banning its production. Nonetheless, foie gras continues to be revered in the communities that consume it. The delicacy continues to be a favorite despite the political controversies given it also has economic and cultural importance. 

Works Cited,
  • Anderson, M. Rights-Based Food Systems and the Goals of Food Systems Reform. Agriculture and Human Values, 2008. (25)4, 608.
  •  Baur, G. Farm Sanctuary: Changing Hearts and Minds about Animals and Food, Reprint Edition. Touchstone, 2008.
  • Fox, N. Chicago Overturns Foie Gras Ban. Retrieved on November 24, 2011 from http://dinersjournal.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/05/14/chicago-overturns-foie-gras-ban/. 
  • Katherine, A. Caviar, Truffles, and Foie Gras, Chronicle Books, 2001.
  • Marcus, E. Meat Market: Animals, Ethics, and Money. Brio Press, 2005.
  • Mariana, C., and Donald, R. A Rights-Based Approach to Food Insecurity in the United States. American Journal of Public Health, 2009. 1211.
  • Milligan, T. Beyond Animal Rights: Food, Pets and Ethics (Think Now). Continuum, 2010.
  • Pollan, M. In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, First Edition. Penguin (Non-Classics), 2009a.
  • Pollan, M. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. Penguin, 2007b.
  • Serviere, J, B., Guy, G. Is Nociception a Sensory Component Associated To Force-Feeding? Neuro-Physiological Approach in the Mule Duck. Second World Waterfowl Conference. Alexandria, Egypt, 2003.
  • Thorpe, N.  Hungary Foie Gras Farms under Threat. Retrieved on November 24, 2011 from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/3346185.stm. 

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