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Plant-based Foie Gras

By David Moe, Food Processing Consultant – Foie gras did not secure a place on the 2020 Chefs Predict What’s Hot in Culinary list. It did not even secure a place on the what’s not hot part of the list. When I walk in the mornings, I think of many things ranging from absolutely nothing to something like foie gras. Usually I forget about what I thought about by the time I get home, but foie gras lingered on. Most people likely never think much about foie gras, let alone have tried it, and that includes me. So, let’s do some thinking about foie gras.

By David Moe, Food Processing Consultant

Foie gras did not secure a place on the 2020 Chefs Predict What’s Hot in Culinary list. It did not even secure a place on the what’s not hot part of the list. When I walk in the mornings, I think of many things ranging from absolutely nothing to something like foie gras. Usually I forget about what I thought about by the time I get home, but foie gras lingered on. Most people likely never think much about foie gras, let alone have tried it, and that includes me. So, let’s do some thinking about foie gras.

This is not a bait and switch where I get your attention with the words “plant-based” and then forget about that part. Let’s first think about foie gras and then move on to plant-based foie gras if I can come up with some reasons for such a product.

Foie gras is pronounced “fwah-grah,” so if you ever try to order it, pronounce it correctly or you may end up with something like Brie on a bed of lemon grass. That sounds good, compared to a fatty liver from a goose or duck.

What do you do with foie gras? The first thing would be to find some, and second eat it and admit “it’s not bad” or check it off your bucket list and move on. The third option is to find some, back away and forget you ever got close to trying it. I follow Epicurious, a digital food resource, quite often and seek out interesting foods to try, but I can’t ever recall actively searching for foie gras. If an opportunity arrives, it may be worth the price to learn what it feels like to be an actual gourmand.

Real foie gras may be considered a delicacy or luxury food, but so are nacho fries. Therefore, foie gras is not likely on the radar of most food eaters, whereas nacho fries are more likely to be on one’s list of edible delicacies. There is a fancy side and dark side for both products to keep mind. My action would be to never get closer than a 10-foot long goose neck to nacho fries.

Foie gras translated from French is fat liver and often is thought to have originated in France, as it has the status of being a French delicacy. Foie gras originated in Egypt about 2500 BC before becoming known as a French delicacy.

The Egyptians hunted and domesticated geese and observed that geese developed enlarged fatty livers after binge eating in preparation for migration. The process of producing fatty liver can be considered a natural process for waterfowl. The process became less natural after forced feeding was introduced to facilitate and control liver growth. The French call the forced feeding process “gavage.” History might have turned out differently if gavage had been called enhanced feeding rather than forced feeding. The Egyptians placed fatty livers at the top of their food pyramid and the goose flesh lower. Gavage became integral part of the process to produce enlarged fatty livers and not a requirement to produce edible goose flesh or pillow stuffing.

The Egyptians fed geese a diet of figs, sesame, vegetables and maize. The Romans had a taste for goose liver fattened with figs. Fattening geese and ducks had a dual purpose: the delicacy of livers and production of fat for preserving foods (confit). The meat could be stored for an extended time if packed in fat.

The process of gavage was adapted by the Greeks and Roman as the process spread through the Mediterranean region. The Jewish population adapted the tradition of goose fattening after they began to migrate toward Europe. Goose fattening provided a food source including cooking fat that was compatible with Judaic dietary law.

Louis XIV, the sun king, had a liking for fine food and foie gras began to trickle down to the French chefs and middle class. In 2006, France declared foie gras as part of its protected cultural and gastronomic heritage. Foie gras is considered a true delicacy in France and some other countries.

Foie gras was introduced to the U.S. in the late 19th century, where it has not lived happily ever after. The process for producing foie gras has been controversial for many people and groups who believe the process is inhumane to the animals and thus wrong for eaters to appreciate. One side has a passion against animal abuse, while the eating side has a passion for foie gras.

The controversy is not directed at foie gras, itself, but at the process for producing it. Gavage increases liver size about 10-fold beyond normal liver weight. Some claim it can result in various forms of liver disease. The abnormal fatty liver may be abnormal compared to a non-gavage liver, but it is likely normal for a foie gras liver.

The life of a foie gras goose consists of about 12-week normal feeding, followed by about three weeks of gavage feeding prior to slaughter. Gavage or forced feeding consists of feeding a measured amount of feed several times daily through a special tube inserted in the esophagus. One side claims gavage to be inhumane and/or unethical and cruel. The pro side brings up unique characteristics of geese and ducks. For example, they don’t have gag reflex; they have an industrial strength esophagus able to swallow rocks and stones, and they do not have teeth; they swallow food whole and can store a large quantity of food in their elastic necks. Then, there is always the “what about X” argument or noting other larger-scale animal abuse concerns. I respect the concerns of both sides.

As a result of the perceived or actual animal abuse, production and sale has been banned in some countries and other locations around the world. Foie gras can be made into a polarizing issue. The unethical cruel side is hard to disagree with for a product that most people have never heard of or even eaten. The public can easily agree to “this is bad,” for a process/product with little or no impact on their daily lives. Gavage and feeding tubes sound unpleasant, just like I found eating liver as a child. My mother jammed it down my throat with her words, “It’s good for you.”

Chicago banned the sale of foie gras in 2006, and Hot Doug’s was the first restaurant fined ($250) for continuing to include foie gras on some hot dogs. When the Chicago ban was overturned in 2008, Mayor Daley called it the silliest law the city ever passed. In 2012, California banned foie sale. The ban was reversed in 2015 and reinstated in 2017. In 2019, New York City banned foie gras sales starting in 2022.

Ducks are now the primary source for foie gras livers. A special hybrid duck (the mulard) has been developed for foie gras. It is said to be easier to handle, yield a more consistent liver and has a tougher esophagus.

I have reviewed some marketing claims made by a foie gras vendor but will not repeat them for fear of being accused of listening or being guided by a “quack” (duck or goose or other). It is now time to move beyond foie gras and consider plant-based foie gras.

As noted earlier, I would eventually make a case for plant-based foie gras. I am surprised the 2019 Power of Meat survey did not include a mention of foie gras in their yes/no survey. Including a phrase, such as, “I am interested in plant-based waterfowl liver alternatives” would explore the future beyond “beyond.” They also missed the chance to find out if men or women have the most interest in plant-based faux foie gras.

If plant-based is good for a non-foie gras diet, it is reasonable to assume ethical concerns toward processing fatty duck livers will plummet if duck livers are replaced with plant-based products. I can imagine label claims that go beyond the typical gluten-free. For example, made with “humanely planted and plucked” ingredients without French tradition using 100% “no duck” or “ungoose” liver. If the activists promoting elimination of animal-based foie gras win, a product void will be created. A world without foie gras could eliminate an entire culture of foie gras gourmands. Thus, it is important to come up with a healthy replacement in line with today’s eat less duck liver consumers. Something old can become something new.

A plant-based foie gras may be easier to achieve since the introduction of bloc foie gras. Bloc is a smooth emulsified liver paste, cooked and either canned or in plastic casings. A large portion of foie gras is now in this form.

The late Chef Anthony Bourdain called foie gras, “one of the most delicious things on the planet, and one of the 10 most important flavors in gastronomy.” If true, webbed feet will not easily fit normal shoes.

But, wait a minute. If I think about foie gras further, there already are plant-based foie gras alternatives available. We won’t have to rely on the black market for foie gras or dining in “duckeasys” for the real thing. All that is needed is to shift our flavor target to one of the other 10 important flavors Bourdain mentions, whatever they are. Foie gras comes in multi textures now, so texture is less important. Flavor may not be important either, as hardly anybody knows what foie gras tastes like now.

For many years, there have been two plant-based products that fill expanding niches for less finicky gourmands. Both hummus and guacamole are logical replacements for foie gras. If texture is of concern, throw in mangos. I side with chickpeas, avocados and mangos and will cease thinking about foie gras.

“Take a dish with a funny name, add ducks, top it all off with celebrity chefs eating each other’s liver, and that’s entertainment,” said Mark Caro, author of The Foie Gras Wars.