Going to take a minute to go on a semi-political rant here:
I got a rare opportunity to pay a visit to Sonoma-Artisan Foie Gras’ farm in the aptly named community of Farmington, just southeast of Stockton. Owners Guillermo and Junny Gonzales, along with their lovely daughters Maria and Elena hosted a group of about 40 Bay Area Chefs and restaurateurs for a tour of the farm and a lunch afterwards.
Guillermo and Junny have been producing what is arguably the best foie gras anywhere in the world. Indeed, the Gonzales come around to their accounts every year with their and their competitors’ product for a blind taste. They wouldn’t even think of doing this if their product had any chance of even a second place finish; it always wins. Now they are potentially being forced from the State that has been their home since the early 80’s by the impending ban on sales and production of Foie Gras in California that goes into effect in 2012.
Guillermo and Junny are originally from El Salvador. Back in the late 70’s it was thought that Foie Gras production would be a natural industry for El Salvador. It’s abundance of feed corn and cheap labor could be funneled (pun intended) into making El Salvador a player in a market that had really only one producing country with which to compete: France. But revolutions and political strife made their home country too unstable to justify any significant financial investment, so they made their way to California.
On a trip to South Dakota, of all places, Guillermo saw an ad in a travel journal promoting a farming vacation to Perigord, the French home of truffles and Foie Gras. Guillermo spent a couple of weeks on a family-owned farm. He returned home and packed up the wife and kids and sailed off for an 8-month internship. After his return to California, he set up shop in Sonoma County. They were amongst the vanguard of artisan food producers like Laura Chenel and her eponymous cheeses, and Bala Kironde who jump-started the Free Range poultry movement with his distributorship of Rockies, poussin, and quail at Stockton Poultry. The Bay Area food culture/California Cuisine movement was exploding and Chefs like Alice Waters, Jerimiah Tower, Albert Tjordman and Masa Kobayashi were eager to procure and use locally farmed and produced foods.
All was well with their world until just a few years ago, when they opened Sonoma Saveur as a small bistro/charcuterie shop on the Square in Sonoma. A couple of days before opening their shop, and the home of their partner Laurent Manrique, then the Chef-Owner of Aqua in San Francisco, were vandalized. Windows shattered, interior spray-painted, refrigeration sabotaged. Laurent’s home was similarly attacked and both partners and their families received threats on their lives. Al this from the marvelous Animal Rights people, who apparently have no ethics themselves, but want animals treated ethically. It’s a “do as we say, not do as we do” philosophy with them, I suppose. (By the way, I am a huge fan of PETA, but the acronym of the group I support means “PEOPLE FOR THE EATING OF TASTY ANIMALS.”)
So they have survived the vandalism and the general rising costs of doing business in California. Much of Guillermo’s story is documented in the book The Foie Gras Wars. It talks about the current issues and has a bit about the history of foie gras in the culinary world (5000 year-old heiroglyphics tell us the practice of gavage was employed by the ancient Egyptians. Man, they invented beer AND foie gras? I love those people!!).
The latest threat to their livelihood is SB1520, which will make illegal in California the production and sale of Foie Gras. Certain provisions in the bill, which was passeed by the Legislature in September of 2004 but doesn’t go into effect until July of 2012, give Guillermo time to prove his methods are humane. The true threat of the bill, as it now reads, is the dangerous precedent it sets in allowing our government to legislate our personal choices of what we eat, based on the opinions and opposition of a very vocal, well-funded minority. Namely, Animal Rights groups.
In attendance last Monday, amongst others were Mr. Offal himself, Chris Cosentino of Incanto, Elizabeth Faulkner of Orson and Citizen Cake in SF, and the above mentioned Bala Kironde who now owns and operates Preferred Meats in Oakland. We all listened to Guillermo’s story and toured his farm. What we saw were ducks that really only experience one bad day. They have all kinds of room to wander about in their well-lit and ventilated barns, but because they are social animals that group together for warmth and safety, they do tend to clump. Animal Rights groups are fond of taking pictures of the ducks packed into a corner, looking terrified. Well, they are terrified because a human who they do not recognize has herded them into a corner and taken a flash picture. It is a learned behavior for ducks to recognize and remember their handlers. Guillermo and his workers could walk amongst them and barely cause a ripple in the flock; I got in the pen and it was like the rush for the door at the Who concert in Cincinnati back in the 80’s.
They spend 6 weeks in the barns, 6 more outside in paddocks under a walnut grove protected from predators, then another two in the feeding barn. Three brothers who have worked for the Gonzales for over twenty years perform the twice-a-day feedings of blanched feed corn with an amazing gentleness. Ducks have no real throat. They have a tube in their necks that has the texture and rigidity of a fingernail that deposits food into their gizzards. It is wide and flexible enough to allow them to swallow whole fish and permits them to feed their young when they put their heads inside it to eat. It is this natural feature of their biology that is the real “feed tube.” Their necks are filled with the corn via a stainless steel tube from a machine that portions the feed automatically. They are allowed to digest it at their own natural pace. It is not rammed into them with funnels and plungers. Their genetic ability to store fat for their long migratory flights is what allows their body fat, under their skin and in their livers, to increase.
Sure the animals are being used; but the Gonzales make use of the entire animal after slaughter, producing rilletes, pates, confit legs, and smoked breasts at their Stockton packing house. They are no more “used” than chickens, pigs, cows, and lambs, and Artisan Foie Gras’ operation is much more humane and sanitary than any feed lot or henhouse I have seen. And make no mistake: if this ban is enacted, all those production facilities will be in next in the activists’ sights.
We as consumers can fight the ban, and some of the Chefs attending Monday’s tour have already begun their own protests via the Internet and through word of mouth at their restaurants. Chris Cosentino has commissioned Hangar One Distillers to produce a Foie Gras-infused vodka which is called FU-2012 (I don’t think I need to explain the name, do I?) ; and he has had his website (www.offalgood.com) attacked and crashed by the activists because of his vocal opposition. At the lunch after our tour, we all agreed to do what we can to bring some true, non-sensationalized, public awareness to the issue.
The real crime is the campaign of dis-information being spread by the activists and their celebrity spokes-people like Alicia Silverstone and Mary Tyler Moore (who, incidentally, looks like she could use a little “force feeding” herself), and our state government’s intrusion into our personal dining and shopping preferences by legislating our cholesterol intake.
I would urge everyone who loves Foie and Freedom of Choice to write to their state representatives and support the repeal of SB1520 before its enactment in 2012. Noreen Evans, Assemblywoman for the 7th District, which includes Napa and Sonoma counties, is making a run for the State Senate. At a dinner last week with some high-powered supporters, the first course was, you guessed it, seared Foie Gras. I doubt that it would have been allowed anywhere near her table if she weren’t a supporter.