(Photograph) - Photograph by Owen Franken.
It was the ancient Egyptians who started it 5,000 years ago. Inscriptions on the tomb of Ty show slaves performing what looks like a bizarre ritual. In fact,they are force-feeding geese with dried figs. It could be that the pharaohs liked their roasting fowl good and fat.
Chances are they had already discovered the secret that the Romans would learn from the Greeks and renaissance Europe would learn from the Romans - namely, that birds crammed with the right stuff can develop abnormally large and fatty livers.
When Columbus brought maize from the Americas, corn pulp became a cheap alternative to figs. But the effect is identical. After a month on this diet - a diet lacking choline, an amino acid essential to normal liver function - the organ becomes diseased, swelling to around 10 times its usual size.
"Exquisite," gushes the gourmet. And because France has cornered the market in this undeniably tasty treat, diners the world over prefer to call this fatty liver by its French name,"foie gras".
A vet, on the other hand, would take one look at the pallid, bloated organ and exclaim: "Hepatic lipidosis!", before concluding that the sufferer had consumed not only a deficient diet but also a colossal one in the last weeks of its life.
And the vet would be correct. Geese and, more usually these days, ducks, are fed as much as 6lb (2.7kg) of food a day for a month to prepare their livers for the gourmet's palate. This feeding may be done with electric pumps or, in more traditional establishments, with funnels and metal tubes which channel the mash into the bird's crop. The latter method is lovingly referred to as "hand feeding" by some producers. By al accounts, the hand is gripped firmly around the bird's neck.
The newcomer to the subject quickly identifies three points of view. The first argues that foie gras production causes enormous suffering to the 20 million animals involved every year and should be universally banned (although force-feeding is illegal in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Norway, it continues in many European countries, is big business in Israel, and now has a foothold in the United States).
The second point of view - that of producers - maintains that the birds don't mind being crammed. The fact that ducks or geese approach their funnel-wielding feeders in a friendly manner is cited as evidence that they are not afraid, although this argument sounds like anthropomor- phism when you consider that, unlike humans, ducks cannot make a connection between over-eating and the pain of advanced hepatic lipidosis.
And the third point of view? It's summed up in the words of a New York Times food writer. Foie gras, she says, is "the ultimate guilty pleasure" - her guilt, one suspects, being the product of nothing more than over-indulgence.
It's offal, it's full of cholesterol and it involves unkindness to animals. How come Americans can't get enough foie gras? For an excellent exploration of this paradox, visit the New York University website at
Compassion in World Farming has produced a measured and informative report on foie gras production. Find it at
For the pure, unadulterated gourmet perspective on foie gras, read American food writer Maggie Shi at