They came in the dead of night, ready for war, in a rented minivan. They wore rubber gloves, hats, surgical masks and special-issue combat Birkenstocks, forsaking their customary Phish concert T-shirts and Guatemalan peasant dresses for basic black -- the formalwear of today's fashionable domestic terrorist. They marched in grim silence across muddy fields, bravely braving the myriad hazards of a night mission deep in the depths of Sonoma County, California. They all knew the risks. They realized that one wrong turn could lead them straight into the middle of a wine tasting or a midnight antique fair, but these were dedicated, motivated, highly trained individuals doing what they did best. They were the duck liberators, and they had a job to do.
Eventually they reached their target: the Sonoma Foie Gras complex. From inside the perimeter of the not-very-high chain-link fence that encircled the compound, they could hear the anguished cries of thousands upon thousands of their web-footed friends, unjustly incarcerated for the crime of being delicious.
The duck liberators had been planning this mission for months. They'd been on such operations before, transporting freed captives along what they called an "underground railroad for ducks." But tonight was different. Tonight they were walking right into the enemy camp. They'd explored every option, planned for every contingency, reviewed in excruciating detail every possible complication -- but no one could have anticipated the fiendish defense that one Guillermo Gonzalez, owner of Sonoma Foie Gras, had employed to stop them: He'd locked the door leading into his duck shed.
With this, the plan was in a shambles, the mission teetering on the brink of failure. All that work, the hours spent plotting and scheming over wheat-grass shakes and tofu burgers, the money spent on the rental van -- wasted. Even the pair of bolt-cutters that one conspirator had thought to bring along were useless. The team was about to give up, ready to abort its mission and fall back to the 24-hour Denny's out by the highway, when one member spotted a jury-rigged air-conditioning duct running into the building. This was their chance. The four freedom fighters went in commando-style, video cameras rolling, and documented what they claimed to be the criminal abuse of those noble animals being fattened up for the slaughter.
And when their heroic work was done, what did they leave with? Four Peking-Muscovy ducks rescued from certain doom at the hands of the evil animal oppressors.
Never mind that Sonoma Foie Gras keeps thousands of ducks on the premises, or that Gonzalez didn't even notice these four were missing until the duck liberators released a statement (and videotapes) to the press. Never mind the fact that these knuckleheaded dimwits broke about a half-dozen laws while they were out playing vegan Rambo on a school night. Or that they were really just garden-variety burglars (and not terribly talented ones, at that) on par with some Petaluma crackhead taking a tire iron to the plate glass of his neighborhood Gas-n-Sip and "liberating" himself some smokes and lottery tickets. Or that their militant activism has gotten them and similar animal-rights organizations branded as domestic terrorists by the feds.
And never mind that one of the four ducks died in their care.
No, what really matters is that they liberated four ducks. (Okay, three ducks.) Way to stick it to The Man. I mean, why bother trying to make a reasoned political statement that could spark some forthright debate around the dinner table when you can go traipsing around like low-rent thugs in your greasepaint and Gap cammies instead?
In spectacularly misguided fashion, this group was trying to make a point about the cruelty inherent in the production of foie gras, which is made from the engorged, fatty liver of ducks and geese. The process involves the controlled force-feeding of cornmeal mush to the critters by pneumatic feeding tubes two or three times a day. That means cramming a tube down a duck's throat and administering eight to twelve ounces of feed in about four seconds, and yeah, that sounds like a pretty shitty thing to do to an animal, but at the end, you know what you get? You get foie gras -- and foie gras is yummy. Foie gras is the pinnacle of culinary indulgence, the alpha and omega of epicurean sensuality, a dish that's been around in one form or another for hundreds of years and, when handled properly, is still one of the greatest delicacies mankind has ever known.
And the only way to get foie gras is to do bad things to ducks and geese.
But certain peculiarities in the physiology of ducks and geese make me think that God put the critters on the planet specifically to act as little foie gras factories. First, they have no gag reflex, so they don't choke on the feeding tube. Second, their necks are all esophagus and used as storage organs during digestion. Third, because they're migratory animals, their bodies are built for storing excess calories as fat in their livers, and since fat in the liver is what makes foie gras so tasty, that means they're just asking for it.
Okay, okay. They're not asking for it. But other than the part where you have to kill the duck or goose to get the liver out, foie gras farms (Sonoma in California, Hudson Valley Foie Gras in New York, and hundreds more across Europe and down into Israel) are not exactly the poultry concentration camps that militants make them out to be. For the first few months of their lives, the ducks at Sonoma live and exercise freely -- in barns, on the grounds and in orchards on the property. Only after fifteen weeks or so are they brought into the sheds for two weeks of fattening, during which they are force-fed, confined to pens and kept in the dark to keep them calm. The (pre-slaughter) mortality rate at Sonoma (and across the industry) is less than 2 percent -- which isn't bad when you consider that one of the liberators' four ducks died, giving them a 25 percent mortality rate, or that these animals suffer a 40 to 80 percent mortality rate in the wild.
While the adventures of the Duck Liberation Squad may have been little more than fodder for the press (see the Los Angeles Times article by Marcelo Rodriguez, from which I lifted a lot of the details, or "Foie Gras Fracas," by Patricia Leigh Brown of the New York Times) and a few cheap jokes, some of the stuff going on elsewhere isn't so funny. Radical animal-rights groups like the Animal Liberation Front, the Revolutionary Cells, the Animal Liberation Brigade and the Earth Liberation Front have vandalized, flooded and torched (or attempted to torch) restaurants and food-service operations in California, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Washington, Indiana, Spain, Italy, Mexico and the U.K. They've planted bombs in California (most recently, two at Chiron, a biotech firm in Emeryville, and one ten-pound ammonium-nitrate bomb studded with nails at the Shaklee Corporation offices in Pleasanton), attacked farms and harassed both companies and individuals. Chef Laurent Manrique of Sonoma Saveurs and San Francisco's Aqua, both of which have foie gras on the menu, had acid poured on his car and glue put in his locks. And then there was the anonymous delivery of a videotape shot through the window of Manrique's home, showing him playing in the living room with his two-year-old son. The message that arrived with that tape? Stop or we'll stop you.
Israel, the third-largest producer of foie gras in the world after France and Hungary, recently banned foie gras production. In New York, assemblyman Jack McEneny has introduced an amendment to the anti-cruelty laws that would effectively outlaw foie gras production by banning force-feeding in his home state (which happens to be the home state of Hudson Valley Foie Gras). And here in Denver, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals engineered a campaign that sent letters, faxes and e-mails to local chefs and restaurant owners, some politely asking that the restaurateurs remove foie gras from their menus, others hinting at darker things to come.
Kevin Taylor says he received "literally hundreds" of letters at his three restaurants, including one particularly choice one with a picture of a dead, decaying duck up top, and a list of other foie-serving joints around the country below, putting Taylor alongside such food-world big shots as Wolfgang Puck from Spago, Lydia Shire from the Locke-Ober in Boston, and Norman Van Aken. Very good company, all things considered.
Jeff Saudo got a few missives at Mel's Bar and Restaurant, though he says he's been targeted much more heavily by folks offended that veal is back on Mel's menu. Goose Sorenson and Brian Klinginsmith at Solera were on the PETA hit list for serving foie, as well as the threatened Patagonian toothfish (aka Chilean sea bass). So was Frank Bonanno, whose Mizuna sears off some of the best foie in the city. But PETA missed Sean Yontz, who does torchons of foie gras, foie gras and duck, and a fantastic foie-gras-and-sweetbreads combo at Vega that should doubly piss off his enemies.
Last week, Sean Kelly got me on the red phone at Bite Me HQ to ask if he was the only guy in town being watched by local activists. (He also hipped me to that New York Times article.) But the letters he'd received were a little different: The activists were thanking him for taking foie gras off his menu at Claire de Lune. Trouble is, the only reason the foie had disappeared was that Kelly doesn't think of duck liver as a summery dish, so he replaced it with something lighter until cooler weather returned.
Now that fall's here, Kelly was wondering if he should worry about putting the good stuff back into circulation. Short answer, Sean? Yes. I've been spitting and screeching about the prohibitionist attitudes in this country for some time now -- the sudden need people have to tell me and you and everyone else what we should and shouldn't be allowed to put in our bodies. Before long, we're going to be having this argument over tofu dogs and wheat-grass smoothies, because that's all we'll be allowed to eat.
Long answer? Go ahead and worry, but don't let that stop you. Time after time, industry and private enterprise have caved in to the scare tactics of these ultra-militant activist groups. They've found it simpler to make a deal, to cut and run, to give in to the demands of the few because the voice of the many wasn't being heard. Don't let that happen again. Serve what you want, cook what you want, let your customers eat what they want, and if they have any moral qualms about the production of foie gras, then their choice is simple: They don't have to order it.
Read all about it: With or without foie gras on the menu, Sean Kelly's Clair de Lune leaves out-of-town foodies absolutely weak in the knees.
Exhibit A: Eric Asimov's piece in the October 5 New York Times travel section, which read like a love letter to the diminutive, 25-seat Clair. Asimov, a Times food writer who occasionally does duty in the travel section, loved Kelly's style and Clair's unaffected decadence. "While Mr. Kelly's preparations are simple, his ingredients are superb and his execution is almost flawless," he wrote. (And given the generally ascetic local boosterism of the Times dining section, that reads like an unalloyed declaration of ardent passions.) "It's hard for me to imagine a smarter, more satisfying vegetarian dish than Mr. Kelly's ragout of chanterelles and summer vegetables, served with a green onion pudding as eggy as Yorkshire pudding, and crisp squash blossom beignets," Asimov said, but he also pointed out that the fried artichokes were "fabulous," swooned over an amuse of mussels and saffron aioli, and couldn't remember ever having a flourless chocolate cake as good as the one currently lurking at the end of Clair's dessert menu.
And that's high praise coming from a guy who 1) really knows his food and 2) could go and have flourless chocolate cake on the Times's tab pretty much anywhere he wanted.
Asimov also had some nice things to say about Goose and Brian at Solera. "Mr. Sorensen is skilled at composition, especially in his main courses, reaching around the globe to construct plates full of light accents and contrasting flavors, but without the hyper-creativity that so often weighs down such efforts," he wrote, marveling that such a comfortable, easygoing joint could be found among the "muffler shops and fast-food joints" dotting the landscape. Frankly, that kind of surprised me, too, my first time at Solera.
Along another muffler-shop and fast-food stretch, on Federal Boulevard, Asimov stopped by New Saigon, where he scored bo bop thau (rare beef marinated in lime juice, with mint and onions on sesame crackers), bo nuong la lot (kinda like a Vietnamese dolma, stuffed with beef) and some do-it-yourself summer rolls. All in all, he reported, it was better Vietnamese food than he can get in New York.
But Asimov's meals in Denver weren't all deserving of praise: He took a couple of slaps at LoDo national-media darling Adega, which he found dogged by inconsistencies.
Sean Kelly also got a bump with the publication of Best Food Writing 2003, which included my review of Clair de Lune ("Life on the Line," November 21, 2002) in a section titled "Someone's in the Kitchen." Yes, folks, it's my big book debut, and while compared to most of the 49 other contributors -- including former Westword Cafe critic John Kessler, who does a nice bit on the Zen of three-minute barbecue, and a fantastic piece by Adam Gopnik from the New Yorker on a modern-day Manhattan jeu de cuisine -- I come off sounding like some wheezy, half-bright punk trying to make nice at the grownups' table, I'm glad Kelly's getting some well-deserved recognition.
So go out to your local (independent) bookstore and buy a copy right now. Hell, buy two. There's a lot of really good stuff inside, and I'd hate for the two copies I bought and the one that Jeffrey Steingarten's mom picked up on the remaindered rack at the Baychester Avenue Barnes & Noble to be the only three copies sold.
Leftovers: Want to get a taste of the best Denver has to offer? Be at Panzano, 909 17th Street, on October 23 for its five-chef, five-course, five-wine, fifth-anniversary dinner. Courses will be ably handled by Jennifer Jasinski (of Panzano), Bryan Moscatello (Adega), Sean Yontz (Vega), Eric Roeder (Bistro Vendome), and Kathleen Kenny and Brad High, who'll be tag-teaming it from Gateaux Bakery. Tickets are $85 a head and benefit both Work Options for Women -- a welfare-to-work program that teaches low-income women the food-service trade -- and the Doug Fleischmann Fund, a scholarship program at Johnson & Wales University established in honor of the late co-owner of Mizuna and Luca d'Italia.
And finally, get your fill of food, fun and me in a Richard Nixon mask at Westword's Menu Affair, Thursday, October 16, at Invesco Field, featuring signature dishes from dozens of local restaurants and a Steel Chef challenge pitting reigning champ Frank Bonanno against John Calloway of the Hilltop Cafe in Golden. Tickets are $30 in advance, $40 at the door -- and worth it at twice the price.
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