Culture

I Force-Fed a Duck, and I Liked It

One meat-loving writer's journey to the motherland of foie gras
Where to Buy Humane Foie Gras
Photo: Courtesy of Laura Ratliff

I can see the flaming pitchforks coming for me now. But look, I love animals. Nearly every day of my childhood was spent frolicking around a grassy field on a pony, and now, without fail, I happily wake up every morning whenever two fuzzy sets of paws tell me to.

I also eat meat—gladly, and with respect for the animals it comes from. And that includes foie gras. No one can argue that force-feeding a duck to enlarge its liver doesn't exactly seem ideal, but alas, the delicacy has been something I've consumed—with a niggling discomfort—for some time.

Foie gras, or "fat liver," has roots that go as far back as ancient Egypt, when Egyptians noticed that ducks and geese would gorge themselves on figs—often eating three times their body weight—before migration. Romans brought the practice, which by then included force-feeding, to southwest France. The region now hosts the country's only market dedicated solely to the delicacy, held every Monday in Samatan, about an hour west of Toulouse.

It's Ariane Daguin, though, who can be credited with putting foie gras on the plates of most Americans. Daguin is the founder of D'Artagnan Foods, a provider of high-quality meats and delicacies to restaurants and consumers, many of which are inspired by her upbringing in this rural pocket of southwest France.

My fascination with Daguin and foie gras is how I end up on a farm in Saint-Puy, France, sitting on an overturned water bucket with a white moulard duck squirming between my legs. Above me dangles a gavage, the traditional device used for force-feeding. It looks like a metal funnel with a long spout, and at the top, a motor spins to expedite the feeding process.

 

At the duck farm in St. De Puy.

A post shared by Laura O. Ratliff (@smithratliff) on

The farm's owner, Christine Labatut, guides me through the process.

Slowly, I insert the gavage into the duck's throat. It slides in with surprisingly little force. (The duck's trachea, Daguin explains, is elastic and lacks nerve endings. Think of it like your cuticles.) Once the gavage is inserted, Labatut dumps a small amount of soft, soaked corn into the funnel and flips the switch. The motor whirs, funneling the corn into the duck's crop, and then, as quickly as the process begins, it's over. The entire feeding lasts about five seconds and takes place two or three times daily for several weeks.

For the first three days of feeding, the process makes for nervous ducks and farmers, Daguin explains. "Man is a predator. The first three days, the ducks look at you like, 'I know you're going to kill me,'" she says. But then, something magical happens after that third day when the duck's natural biology kicks in, and the duck enters migration mode.

"Now, they think she's a friend and not a predator," Daguin says. "They think, 'Ah, that's it; I'm going to migrate soon. I need to force-feed!' And it gets much easier."

The gavage is gently removed, and the duck waddles back to its team, wings flapping. No one looks disturbed or tortured. And I, perhaps remarkably, feel at peace with my decision to continue spreading foie gras onto a warm baguette or cutting into a lobe, lightly seared and served with a cherry compote and a nip of Sauternes.

The politics of foie gras oscillate—California banned and unbanned it during the past decade—and arguments are consistently made from lecterns on both sides of the stage. Dan Barber even condones humanely produced foie. But who am I to say that one meat-related "sin" is worse than another? Why is eating a steak from a cow that's lived its life on a muddy feedlot in Nebraska better than a duck who was force-fed for 15 seconds daily, and then spent the rest of its time in a wide-open field eating bugs with its buds?

At a recent gathering with friends, I opened a jar of the foie gras from a duck that I butchered myself in France. One health-conscious meat-eating friend who was willing but cautious grabbed a slice of baguette and a knife, and swiped a schmear of taupe-covered liver onto her bread.

She took a bite and chewed. After a second, her eyes lit up, and she whispered thoughtfully, "Thank you, duck."

Laura is a New York City-based travel writer whose work has appeared in Bon Appétit, Condé Nast Traveler, Food52 and more. See what she's currently eating on Instagram.

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