So what does our Jewish background have to do with foie gras, the controversial culinary delicacy that has just been famously banned from sale and consumption in Chicago, and was outlawed in California last year? Production by its three U.S. producers is scheduled to be stopped altogether by 2012, and all production was barred in Israel late in 2005. So why will Israelis be likely to continue consuming the controversial delicacy in restaurants and cafés all over Israel?
First, let’s familiarize ourselves with the subject. American culinary professionals and aficionados are outraged at the domestic bans because, while very expensive, foie gras is one of the most succulent, delicious and surprisingly seductive offerings in the culinary compendium.
While its name means “fat liver” in French, it tastes more like the most sumptuous of butters, with a shimmering, melt-in-your-mouth texture that could never be assumed to be related to, say, liver and onions or even the smoothest duck or chicken liver paté. It has no taste of liver — in fact it tastes like nothing else and certainly not what could be considered a “strong” meat.
When my partner Mark and I first ate grilled Israeli “goose liver” at a wonderful restaurant near the Jerusalem central market this past December, we both put down our forks at the first bites, looked at each other, then closed our eyes to savor a food whose delights could barely allow the intrusion of any other senses. I’ve had foie gras many times but the combination of the smoke and the slight crust created by the grill made the Israeli preparation especially heavenly.
The forced overfeeding of farmed geese or ducks with a mash of grain or corn during a 15-day period just before they are to be killed stimulates a natural response in these birds. Migratory fowl regularly overfeed on the richest foods available and store excessive fat on their flesh and in their livers, providing “on-board” energy and nutrients for their extended flights.
The ancient Egyptians are recorded as the first people to discover and exploit this propensity in migrating birds, first finding the naturally swollen livers of the birds a royal delight, then force feeding palace-kept geese to purposely fatten their livers.
In a 4500-year-old bas relief found in the tomb of Mereruka, a high-level Egyptian royal official, slaves grasp the necks of geese and push pellets down their throats.
There are Greek and Spartan references to fattened geese in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, and the Roman epicurian Apicius describes the feeding of geese with dried figs to enlarge their livers during the height of the Roman period.
With the Roman occupation of Palestine, Jewish culture assimilated Roman ways and as wealthy Jews developed a taste for foie gras, the lower classes learned to supply it. Then, with the fall of the Roman Empire, fattened geese and their livers disappeared from the developing European culinary scene until the Middle Ages.
Here’s where the Jews’ historic relationship with foie gras gets interesting: one of the difficulties in following laws of kashrut after Rome expelled them from Israel was to find acceptable sources of cooking fat. Olive oil was left on the shores of the Mediterranean, and the familiar sesame oil stayed in Babylon. Beef fat and lard were not permitted, and having butter required being on the move with a cow, so Jews turned to the methods of fattening geese they had learned from the Romans around the first century CE.
Every bit of this “portable larder” was used — the fat carefully preserved, the skin crisped into “gribenese” and the wings and bones made into soup. The legs were slowly cooked and preserved in fat, the breasts roasted and the fattened livers — considered a delicacy but thought to be composed almost wholly of blood — were painstakingly grilled over open flame until all the blood was extracted, as was required by the laws of kashrut.
In medieval times, geese were often fattened twice a year, before Hanukkah and Passover, and the livers, regarded as a special health food, were cooked and given to the children who could most benefit from the extra nutrients and calories. As Jews settled in Southern and Eastern Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries, the noble class discovered that their shtetl-bound Jewish “neighbors” had a wonderful way with goose liver, and thus began the centuries-long Jewish practice of supplying the wealthy overlords and royals with foie gras for their tables.
The crushing oppression Jews found throughout their Eastern European shtetls in the late 19th and early 20th centuries also bound them to the fattened goose. In most areas, at various times, Jews were not allowed to own land or property, or to farm. In an ingenious symbiosis that involved the elders of the family, Jews used their expertise in fattening poultry (ducks, too) to help them scrape by.
In lieu of a farm, they could own a goose or two at a time, and the grandmothers could sit hour upon hour with whatever extra grain or bread that the family could supply, slowly massaging it down the goose’s throat. As the beloved bird got bigger, it embodied the family’s hope for food, fat and a little money when the fatted liver was sold to a rich noble.
Foie gras was re-introduced to Israel in 1948 by a Holocaust survivor, Moshe Friedman, an Ashkenazi Jew from the Hungarian town of Oradea. The third-generation goose farmer saw an opportunity to establish a “new” business in Israel, eventually growing his small farm into a mini-foie gras empire in the agricultural land north of Tel Aviv.
For decades, he only exported to France. Then, in 1970, an enterprising restaurateur from Hatikva put Moshe’s foie gras on his menu, but grilled in the Sephardi way. It was an instant hit and soon became the inspiration for much-more-fragrantly grilled skewered goose liver to appear on many more Israeli menus. Today it is the most common of delicacies on Israeli restaurant tables — but not without arousing controversy among kosher adherents and animal rights activists.
“Gavage,” as the practice of force-feeding poultry is known today, bears little resemblance to the motions of the nimble grandmother gently massaging grain down a goose’s gullet. Modern gavage usually involves raising ducklings or goslings on grain and then switching to grass for several months to toughen their esophagi. They are then force-fed softened grain or corn two or three times a day, for 15 to 20 days, through a tube inserted most of the way down the throat.
Some breeders use pressurized mechanisms to force feed, while others are more humane. Since the price of foie gras is very high, gavage has become big business and the impulse of growers to put profit over humanitarian practices is great. Many rabbis, writing about whether any animal raised or slaughtered in an inhumane manner may be deemed kosher, are adamant that it is not possible that foie gras could be considered kosher.
In a massive commentary on Jewish law written in the 11th century, Rashi particularly condemns the Jewish tradition of force feeding, declaring that the Jews will have to answer to God for the beasts’ suffering.
In our time, Rabbi David Rosen, former Chief Rabbi of Ireland and dean of the Pinchas Sapir Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem is just as clear:
“Cruel treatment of animals violates the Jewish mandate not to cause tsa’ar ba’alei hayim (the suffering of animals); therefore foie gras is clearly treif. Kashrut laws prohibit eating of unhealthy animals or animals with defects.”
Yet, in researching the sale of foie gras, one readily finds sources declaring that their products are kosher and name the governing bodies. Some rabbinic councils apparently believe they have found foie gras producers who raise healthy animals without harm.
Animal rights activists, on the other hand, are absolutely adamant that it is impossible to humanely raise ducks or geese for foie gras with modern equipment and in the observed habitats. Gruesome descriptions of the living conditions and mechanical treatment of the birds on some farms support the activists’ claims. Respected veterinarians and scientists carefully debate whether the birds feel anxiety or pain, if they fear their handlers, whether their lives are shortened by their treatment.
In Israel, though the government has decided that foie gras farms must be shut down, it’s doubtful that “goose liver” as it’s simply known on Israeli menus, will disappear from the café tables any time soon. The fattened fowl have returned to the Holy Land and Israelis are unlikely to give up the ancient, exotic flavor — even if they have to buy “kosher” foie gras from France.