CHICAGO – These are dangerous times for ducks and geese in Chicago.
With the city's ban on foie gras — a delicacy made of duck or goose liver — just days away from going into effect, upscale restaurants in the city are serving it up like never before. They have put together special menus with names like "Foie Gras, Farewell To Our Good Friend" featuring that friend in course after course — searing it, chilling it, throwing it into salads and turning it into sauce.
At the same time, foie gras enthusiasts are cooking up a lawsuit to keep it on the menu in the city or put it back after the ban goes into effect Aug. 22, holding fundraisers to finance their foie gras fight and asking diners to sign petitions in support of that fight.
And those diners? They are savoring it a lot more — or at least more often — than they would have had the City Council not voted in April to side with animal rights activists and ban it because of what the activists say is the inhumane way the geese and ducks are force-fed to make their livers bigger.
"There are other things I might have ordered but I thought I'm on the clock," said Ben Goldhirsh, who recently enjoyed the extensive "Foie Gras, Farewell To Our Good Friend" menu at MK, a trendy downtown restaurant.
But to the chefs who prepare the buttery indulgence and the customers who do the indulging, this is more than a last hurrah for foie gras. This is a chance not only to wrap their mouths around foie gras, but also to wrap foie gras in the flag.
"They're going too far when they're telling you what to eat, what not to eat," said Mario Lara, who was concerned enough about the issue to buy a table for four at a foie gras fundraiser at Cyrano's Bistrot & Wine Bar. "This is America."
And sounding more like politicians talking about the Middle East than a piece of meat that gets its size by sticking a tube down a bird's throat and force-feeding it, enthusiasts voice their concern that foie gras will not be the last tasty treat to make its way from menu to city ordinance.
Will veal be next? Lobster? And what about that fur coat in the closet?
"It's a slippery slope," Goldhirsh said.
Given animal rights activists' success getting foie gras banned in Chicago, Chef Didier Durand is confident they will take aim at other foods as well. "Pretty soon we're going to be eating grass," he said.
That helps explain why a group of distributors, producers, processors and others in the foie gras business have formed the North American Foie Gras Association and hired a lobbyist to make their case as other U.S. cities contemplate following Chicago's lead.
That effort includes not only examining legal and legislative options, but also getting the word out that despite what animal activists say, ducks and geese raised for their liver do not have it so bad, certainly not as bad as animal rights activists say they have it.
For one thing, unlike chickens who can spend their entire lives in small pens with several other chickens, never seeing the light of day, ducks and geese raised for foie gras spend their first 12 to 14 weeks walking around in open areas, said Bryan Scott, the group's lobbyist. It is not until the last two to four weeks of their lives that the birds are brought into individual cages and force fed through a pipe to turn a regular-sized liver into foie gras. And even that process, he said, is not painful.
"By everybody's account it is not," he said.
Well, maybe not everybody. One of Chicago's most famous chefs, Charlie Trotter, took foie gras off the menu at his restaurant after seeing how it is produced.