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Foie Gras, the Vegetable

On Food Transgressions

PUBLISHED: May 1, 2015

During my junior semester abroad, I worked as a companion for Anne-Marie, a famously reclusive French poet who died a couple years ago. She had a rule I knew well, though she never explained its origin: She didn’t allow herself to drink. Not one drop. 

Except through me. 

She often hosted dinner parties, microcosms of the French intelligentsia—at least I imagined them that way, at twenty. We would always prepare the same dishes: lamb chops with rosemary, radishes with crème fraîche and herbs, and stinky Muenster cheese. After the salad and after the coffee came vodka. She’d watch her guests, poets and artists (they might as well have been angels to me), shoot back a glass or two. 

I wasn’t at the legal drinking age in America, but that didn’t stop her from filling my glass and practically tilting my head back and pouring it in, then watching my speech turn sloppier than my usual approximation of French. 

I couldn’t refuse. I was like her Seeing Eye dog, allowing her to experience a world she didn’t access directly. Every day, I would step out and she would stay put, and I would bring the world back with me to her apartment in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a near-suburb of Paris. Part of the world I could offer was the experience of what it felt like to be tipsy. Or at least what it looked and sounded like. 

She was an agoraphobe, afraid to leave home (though occasionally able to, as long as she clung to my side); not drinking was the least of her restrictions. But it was one I could lift, for those few moments, as she watched me down her strong, bracing spirits.

Anne, a French friend living in America, is a foie-gras-itarian. She doesn’t eat meat—except foie gras.

Common wisdom says foie gras is the most unethical of foods, the last thing a vegetarian would be expected to eat. The delicacy is produced through gavage: forcing food through tubes into the esophagus of ducks or geese, causing their livers to grow up to ten times their normal size. Anne explained her choice by saying, “Giving up foie gras would be like giving up my identity.”

Because sometimes food is more than food. To Anne, foie gras means Frenchness. It’s not just offered at fancy restaurants and stores. When I lived in Paris, I saw bus-shelter billboards for foie-gras-topped fast-food burgers, signs on takeout sushi windows promising foie gras in sushi rolls, and circulars stuffed in my mailbox for foie gras on pizza. Especially around the holidays, even downscale supermarkets clear out whole aisles to display the stuff. 

Our doctor in Paris told my sick son, right before Christmas, “Don’t have too much foie gras or champagne. But make sure you have some.” Then he added: “Can you believe foie gras is illegal in California? They’ll shoot you for eating it.” He mimed a gangster pulling the trigger. 

My brother coined a term for people like Anne: “livertarian.” My friend Tia said, “This sounds like a condition.”

I told Anne’s story to another friend, an American who is not vegetarian. “I love foie gras,” she said, “but don’t tell anyone. I’d be crucified.” I’m not sure if my friend’s transgression is breaking the food rules of her community or lying about it.

“It used to be veal you had to pretend you didn’t eat,” the closet foie-gras eater explained. “Now it’s snout-to-tail, eat it all. Or if you don’t, pretend you did.” Where she lives, people weigh bulk food at co-ops and haul groceries on bikes. If I told you the name of the town, she might have to enter a witness protection program.

I started hunting for more food transgressions. I went crowdsourcing for culinary anomalies, asking around.

Kevin, a former BBQ restaurant owner and BBQ eater, is now vegan, but he makes an exception to the diet that helped him lose a hundred pounds. He agrees to judge the annual Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival food competition in Des Moines, Iowa. He has attended seven bacon fests and judged three—the only vegetarian. The day after, he suffers a “food hangover” and has to make sure he is never more than a couple minutes away from a toilet. Every year the organizers ask, “Are you sure you want to judge again?” and he is.

The taste alone can’t justify the pain. Bacon is good, but is it that good? Maybe the festival grants him a holiday from his newly svelte persona, a chance to revisit the man who reveled in meat and was meaty himself. I wonder if, despite the gains in health and energy, he misses the hundred pounds he lost and likes to feel them again, just once a year, like a phantom limb.

Jenn invented “the pastry exception.” She is vegan, except when she is at a coffee shop and there are cookies or cake or—especially—brownies. She will eat them whether they’re made with oil or butter, soy milk or lard. She doesn’t ask. When her mother heard she’s not a purist, she stopped substituting nondairy margarine when Jenn came to visit. “It doesn’t work that way,” Jenn tried to explain. “I can’t break my own rule about when I’m allowed to break a rule.” Perhaps transgressions only morph into crimes when they’re premeditated. Before that, they’re “exceptions,” indiscretions, temporary insanity, or even serendipity. Labels matter. Premeditated murder, after all, warrants more jail time.

My college friend Rebecca was vegetarian when we lived in the dorms. Sometimes she’d wake up in the morning and recount her hamburger dreams. “Maybe I need more iron,” she said. Rebecca ran on the track team and was so physically active her menses ceased, so back then I assumed she was hungry for the blood her body withheld. She went to a doctor, who prescribed hormone pills to force her period to begin. But visions of Quarter Pounders still danced in her head.

She and I visited her parents’ house, a two-hour train ride away, on school breaks when I couldn’t afford to fly home. The taste of coarse sea salt and freshly ground pepper (which I’d never encountered before) permanently imprinted on my tongue.

Her mother cooked meat on those visits, but Rebecca didn’t eat any. Only after we’d left Long Island behind and returned to Broadway and 116th Street did she give in and order just one illicit burger. 

I swear I’d seen the vapors of her mother’s meat enter through her nose, though, and lodge into her brain. The part that controls dreams, perhaps. The same cerebral corner that caused her to grab the teddy bear from her bed and stuff it in her backpack before her mother ferried us to the train that would carry us back to our sometimes reluctant—and still tenuous—adulthood.

Killian is vegetarian, too, but sometimes she has to eat a burger or a steak. Only meat that shows its blood. “Once in a while I get a craving and start daydreaming,” she said in an e-mail. She sees herself eating cows and sheep, a nightmare that won’t go away until she gets her “little meat fix.” Not so different from Rebecca, I thought, though Killian is a bit more conscious. Then I read her message again and spotted the key word I’d missed: Her craving is for live cows and sheep. 

I can’t even imagine the logistics of such a maneuver. Might she drain their blood with her bite? Her hamburger, then, could be prophylactic, a vaccination against vampirization.

In Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, Maurie-Laure’s “thirst becomes so acute, she considers biting into her own arm to drink the liquid that courses there.” Hiding out from the Nazis makes her want to eat herself alive.

Some snakes won’t devour a rodent without a beating heart. I once pet-sat frogs who would only eat their crickets live. Even benign-looking owls swallow mice and rabbits without knocking them off. 

Perhaps Killian’s nightmare is simply the logical extreme of “fresh meat.”

Rick told me, “When my oldest stepdaughter was seven, she decided she was a vegetarian, but she made two exceptions: She had hot dogs with her biological father at baseball games, and she ate the bacon I cooked every Saturday.”

I’m struck by the symmetry. Hot dogs and bacon—two pink pork products. Stepfather and father—two different directions to be pulled. Cheating is an intimate act, a shared secret, a conspiracy. Making an exception with one father and not the other might have seemed like betrayal. 

In Benjamin Percy’s novel, The Wilding, a wife equates meat with manliness: “Tonight she grills steaks. She thinks her husband ought to do this—she thinks he ought to do a number of things, like lift weights and scream at football games and take a wrench to leaky faucets. These are, after all, things that men do.”

Meat reminds me of my father, too—the pheasant and rabbit and venison he killed before he died himself, when I was the same age as Rick’s newly vegetarian stepdaughter.

My grandmother grew up on a farm. A lamb was born, so small no one thought he would live, but she promised to bottle-feed him back to health and begged her father not to kill him. So he gave her the lamb and she kept it warm until it had enough wool to warm itself, and she picked it grass when it was weaned from milk. “Just like the song,” she said. Alma had a little lamb.

“Did it follow you to school one day?” I asked. “Was its fleece as white as snow?”

Once Lambie became a sheep it was issued a one-way ticket to mutton stew. My practical, unflappable grandmother, who grew up during the Depression, betrayed no remorse to me about cooking her pet. But she never cooked lamb the whole time I knew her, either. We all atone in different ways.

“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” Fern asked, in the opening sentence of Charlotte’s Web. Her father was going out to the barn, to kill the runt of the litter, the yet-unnamed Wilbur. Fern saved the pig by promising her father she would nurse him.

Farm pigs can grow to more than a thousand pounds. Soon Fern’s father had to sell Wilbur to her uncle, and her uncle fattened him for slaughter. Her pet was saved by a spider who made Wilbur a celebrity by praising him in her web.

I want to pretend there was a magic spider in my grandmother’s barn. I want to invent a prohibition against eating something once you’ve given it a name. 

I don’t live on a farm during the Depression. I don’t live in a region ruled by famine or drought or war. I don’t have to ration food stamps to stretch them a whole month, either. I have the luxury to choose and debate my choice. I’m allowed to turn food into philosophy. 

Aruna was once fed dog by a friend who was from the eastern territories of India, where it’s a delicacy. She didn’t know what she was eating until it was too late. Some of her American companions were angry at their host. She was mostly shocked that she hadn’t registered the flavor as unfamiliar. Because it wasn’t. Maybe we all taste the same if we’re covered in hot gravy. She could barely feel her face afterward.

Alexandria was driving cross-country by herself. She got lost and wandered hours in the wrong direction. “I’m from Boston,” she explained. “Anywhere I go in the Northeast, I can find something to eat. But the Midwest is a food wasteland.” After driving a whole day on an empty stomach, semidelusional with hunger, she had to stop no matter what, even in the middle of a vast Nebraska prairie. Nothing but grass as far as she could see. She’d been vegetarian for twelve years and hadn’t cheated once. But the best the rest area could offer was a cheeseburger, so she ate it. As soon as it lodged in her stomach, something happened. She swore it emanated from her own body, not from somewhere distant in the dairy landscape. All she could hear was: Moo! Moo! Moo!

Tabitha has signed up for Weight Watchers more times than she wants to tell me. She attains her goal, then slips and gains back forty pounds, then joins again. Counting pretzels out of a bag; rejoicing in pickles, the practically calorie-free snack; eating fake bread (made of air? saw dust?); and weighing food with the precision some people reserve for bagging drugs—these habits have become a lifestyle more than a diet. 

But she cheats every week. “On Sundays I make an incredible meal all from scratch,” she told me, “with dessert. It’s the only day I don’t track.” The week she christened her new stove, she requested a two-pound beef tenderloin for two people. She bought special wine to deglaze the meat and babysat the thermometer for twenty minutes, until it hit precisely 122 degrees. She served the steak on heavy-cream whipped potatoes and parsnips, with a side of brussels sprouts roasted then pan-sautéed in her husband’s home-smoked bacon, tossed with rum-soaked dried cranberries and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. For dessert, she made a cast-iron fruit crisp, topped with cinnamon snickerdoodle ice cream. 

Maybe she’s tapping into a religious tradition, like reserving one day of the week and observing it as Sabbath. But she’s turning the ritual on its head. She’s saying, instead: Sunday is for sinning. 

My daughter has never swallowed a fast-food hamburger, and I take a perverse pride in writing that sentence. I’ll let those words whitewash, for now, all the sins I’ll tell you later. Of course I realize I’m setting her up for a supersize teenage rebellion. Would you like fries with that?

In Relish, a food memoir/comic book with recipes, Lucy Knisley illustrates herself as a child growing up with foodie parents, both chefs at fancy restaurants. Other children’s parents brought cupcakes to school for their birthdays; Lucy’s mother created crème brûlée and torched the tops while the children gasped with fright and delight. Uncle Pete owned a gourmet grocery in downtown Manhattan, where he taught her to shuck oysters. Lucy embraced her family’s high-brow standards, with one exception: When she got mad at her parents, she loved to buy McDonald’s hamburgers and gobble them up while they watched in horror.

It sounds like urban myth, too weird to be true, but so many people have told me they’ve heard this “livertarian”-type tale that I’ll repeat it here. Some Jews strictly follow kosher rules for 364 days of the year. No pork, no shellfish. Separate plates for meat and for dairy, with no meals that include them both. On Christmas, though, they bring out special bowls, used only on December 25. They scoop out dumplings from takeout containers and eat them with crispy eggrolls. 

Like Jenn’s pastry exception, this one only works if you don’t ask what’s inside. Like Kevin’s bacon fest, it’s a once-a-year event: anticipated, accommodated, then packed away.

At an annual Halloween bash in Brooklyn a few years ago, hosted by a friend I’ll call Mara, we ate guacamole and chips, wasabi peas, crackers and cheese—then washed it down with breast milk. At least some of us did. Halloween is for pretending to be a monster, so Mara dressed as a teenage thug from A Clockwork Orange. She offered samples of the breast milk she had pumped, and guests sipped from tiny cups, pretending they were customers at the Korova Milkbar, the watering hole from the book and movie. The nurturing liquid was unadulterated, unlike the breast milk served in A Clockwork Orange, which is laced with amphetamines. 

I was dressed in bat wings and a Little League jersey. Get it? “Bat boy,” I explained when people asked what my costume was supposed to mean. Perhaps if the guests had drunk more stimulating beverages, they might have figured out my pun.

A handful of British celebrities lounged at an outdoor table, while servers brought them a “garden” to eat. Baby greens, dirt, and creepy-crawlies. “Absolutely everything is edible,” claimed the waiter with the French accent.

They dug in. “The crickets actually have a lot of flavor,” they said to one another and to the camera. 

“I’m eating the earth,” an actor said. 

“I’ll eat the earth, too,” a singer chimed in.

Meanwhile, the camera shifted to Heston Blumenthal himself, watching his guests from his kitchen on a closed-circuit TV. “They’re eating it!” he said.

Blumenthal’s British foodie reality TV show is no longer on the air (I heard a rumor one of the celebrities got sick), but you can still watch two- or three-minute videos on his YouTube channel. You’ll find him serving testicles chopped up and molded into fruit. Mice and rats, bull sperm, and even worse.

Why are these videos so riveting? They’re part magic show, part truth or dare without the truth. Jenn turned me on to them. She listed four must-sees then said, “Good luck not watching more of these for hours (especially when the famous people eat the stuff he makes.)”

Maybe I wanted to be prompted to ask myself what I won’t eat. Brains and eyes and feet? Baby food? Squirrel? Pigeon? Dog? Bulls’ balls, filled with liquid, like water balloons? 

Maybe I watched for the shock. 

In The Devil’s Larder by Jim Crace, a fictional remote restaurant serves Curry No. 3. “There might be lizard in the pot or some unlisted insect, in no book. We are prepared for monkey, rat, or dog. Offal is a possibility, a rare and testing part we’ve never had before, some esoteric organ stained yellow in the turmeric. Tree shark, perhaps. Iguana eggs. Bat meat. Placenta. Brain. We are bound to contemplate, as well, the child who went astray at the weekend, the old man who has disappeared and is not missed, or the tourist who never made it back to her hotel; the sacrificed, the stillborn, and the cadavers, the unaccounted for.”

The thrill of Curry No. 3 is the prohibition against asking what’s in it. No one will ever confirm that they’re serving anything more exotic than chicken. Guests are not even allowed to ask. It’s the not knowing that unleashes endless possibilities, one more outlandish than the next. 

Jenn didn’t want the barista to tell her what was in her brownie. I didn’t want my grandmother to tell me what happened to Lambie. Many children don’t want to know what kind of chicken turned into their dinosaur-shaped nuggets. Willful ignorance can be a transgression, too.

Sometimes I sample my dog’s kibble. It tastes like unsweetened cereal without milk. 

When I was a kid I ate dog biscuits. Not because the food stamps had run out that week. We weren’t starving or anything. I must have started on a dare, and then I chomped the biscuits again on my own, appreciating the crunch, maybe, but mostly reveling in the thrill of getting away with something. 

Why was I so excited? Why do we transgress? Maybe because humans aren’t wired to choose all or nothing. As omnivores, we crave variety. We’re not evolved for sexual exclusivity, either, our bodies telling us we should scatter our seed. I wonder if I had posted on Facebook, “Tell me about cheating on your spouse” (instead of on your diet), if my friends would have been so forthcoming.

Here’s a good food rule: Eat something, not nothing.

When I was in high school, I started skipping lunch. And I fasted on Sundays, sprawling out on my twin bed, reading Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Jews have Yom Kippur, Muslims have Ramadan, but I was brought up Methodist, so I had to make up my own atonement ritual. I was looking for a religion that would make me suffer, though I never would have admitted that at the time. I wanted to hurt and feel virtuous about my pain.

Then I joined the track team and passed out after my first sprint. (“Fainted” is the word people would have used generations ago.) My mother took me to the doctor, who said that, by fasting and not eating complete proteins, I’d given myself hypoglycemia—low blood sugar. His prescription? Hot dogs and candy bars. Every day thereafter, I ate a Milky Way in the locker room, and I never fell flat on my face again. 

I was living in Paris, where high-cocoa-content chocolate can be purchased for cheap at any local supermarket. So why did I find myself taking a twenty-minute train ride to buy an expensive bag of candy corn?

When I walked into the tiny American store in the Marais, brimming with shelves of homey, often-processed foods disguised as exotic specialty items, I practically wrapped my face in my scarf, in case someone walked by who might recognize me through the window. Marshmallow fluff and Stovetop stuffing wasn’t what I wanted the world to think of American cooking. I wanted them to see our locavore culture of picking food from our gardens and shopping at farmer’s markets. But here I was, buying the kind of trashy food I grew up with and thought I had outgrown.

Why? Because I had a homesick little girl who missed trick-or-treating. Because, despite my protestations to the contrary, I missed Halloween, too, and the ghost of the little girl I was, back when M&Ms and Reese’s cups really were, to me, a delicacy. 

That whole year in Paris, I tried to assimilate. I cooked several-course meals—salad at the end, bread on the table. I never ordered a coffee to go then drank it while I walked. Until one day I did. 

My friend Stephanie wrote me about the Boston Marathon bombing. “Perhaps you’re feeling melancholy and homesick,” she said, “hearing this news from so far away.” 

She was right. I remembered the Newtown, Connecticut, shooting, too, just a few months before. In the locker room at yoga class, several French women had said, “I’m sorry for you. For you Americans.” I inferred that my classmates tried to feel our grief, but they knew it was distinctly ours.

Why Starbucks? When I was in the hospital for a week, to stop premature labor, I was strapped to the bed with my feet in the air. A couple times a day, when I was allowed to use the bathroom, I could barely walk. My baby might be born too soon, and it seemed as if the worry itself, not my lack of movement, had atrophied my limbs.

Every day my husband brought me a drink from Starbucks. Foamy milk and espresso have become the taste of his telling me, “Everything is going to be okay.” And it was.

I used to trick-or-treat until I filled a whole pillowcase with candy. The first night my brother, sister, and I would fling our dime-store masks on the landing and sprawl on the living-room floor, spread our stash on the carpet, and trade Mary Janes for Twizzlers and Nerds for Kit Kats. I probably couldn’t have eaten faster if I’d had a metal feeding tube thrust down my esophagus. I was decades away from ever hearing the word “gavage.” I couldn’t have pronounced “foie gras” if my allowance depended on it. And yet, here I was, stuffing myself like a goose. I had to work quickly; surely my mother would stop me if she saw.

Dogs have no “off” button, which is why their food needs to be rationed. Apparently I didn’t have one either.

I imagine my cockapoo, given unlimited access to treats one day, would behave as I did as a kid. My brother, however, was the prince of restraint. The candy corn lived in his bag so long it crystalized. His Easter basket sat on his dresser for months, the untouched giant chocolate bunny taunting me.

As an adult, my candy obsession waned, replaced perhaps by Willamette Valley pinot noir. But one Halloween a few years ago, I stuffed the leftovers in my underwear drawer, convincing myself I wouldn’t eat them. But I did. Every day. One piece. Then two. Three. The candy haunted me. Instead of Moo! it said Boo!

Maybe I became temporarily addicted to sugar. Maybe the rush reminded me of learning not to faint. Maybe something ailed me and I remembered my doctor prescribing sugar as medicine. 

Foie is liver, but it is a homonym for foi, the French word for faith. Foie gras sounds like fat faith. Force-fed faith. Faith stuffed to the gills. Faith fed so much it can’t walk and topples over. Faith in what? The belief that our food is ethical and good. That we are, too.

My son’s Parisian doctor would be happy to learn that eating foie gras is now legal in California. I’d like to eat up my fat faith and finally feel full. 

When we landed in Paris for our sabbatical year, the first person we met was our landlord, Steve. He’s a professor emeritus in the history department at Cornell and the world’s authority on the history of French bread. When I googled him, the first link that appeared was a clip from his appearance on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Steve was promoting his latest book, and he squeezed and pinched and caressed the crusts as the audience roared and tittered, as if they were watching him make love to a loaf of bread.

After meeting us at the apartment to give us our key, he led us to his favorite bakery in the city. He ripped a baguette and said, “See how it’s wildly inscribed,” proof that it is made in the traditional manner. He rubbed his fingers along the uneven ridges. 

“Never set foot in the bakery attached to Monoprix,” he said. “They buy their bread parbaked and just stick it in the oven.” 

That was our first rule. The most important one, he made it seem. We promised to obey. 

Steve would disagree with Anne: Bread, not foie gras, is the symbol of Frenchness. The familiar word for friend, copain, means someone with whom you share your bread.

When I first cheated on Steve’s rules, it was Monday, the day most bakeries are closed. Rain pelted down. I’d seen the Polish plumbers, the ones installing water meters in our apartment building, eating lunch every day at the Monoprix bakery next to our building. The plumbers were friendly to me, especially when I told them I was American. “I love American TV,” they said, in Polish-accented French. “The Sopranos is the best. You watch Breaking Bad?” Later they said, “I want to move to America.” And do what? I wondered. Join the mob? Start a meth lab? Did they think we all lived the way TV characters did in my country?

I liked these guys, who shouted “fuck” when they accidentally knocked a painting from the wall. They were unaware, I told myself, that they chose the smuttiest obscenity. They were just showing off their limited English, which they’d learned from TV. 

Their easy familiarity, their vulgarity (whether intended or not), their awkwardness and eagerness to please made me feel an instant kinship. I’m not Polish, but I come from a blue-collar background and my genes told me I should be eating what these guys, with their rolled-up sleeves and their greasy wrists, ate. It’s not just that I didn’t deserve the expensive, artisanal bread. Part of me thought I shouldn’t even want it.

When I told my daughter I’d bought bread from Monoprix, at first she said, “You’re joking.” Can we all pinpoint the moment when we became disillusioned with our parents? I’m sure she can. It was right then. 

My husband doesn’t know that I violated our first rule in France. But he will when he reads this.

I’ll say: It could have been worse. I could have served crickets for dinner. Or McDonald’s hamburgers, topped with breast-milk cheese. Curry No. 3. The blood bitten from my arm. Mice or testicles or roasted family pet. Sheep, still bleating. Cows that would keep mooing, even in our stomachs. 

I could have offered the humble pie of my childhood or a pillowcase full of candy kisses. I could have served up my shame. But instead, I bought the inferior bread and swallowed it all myself.


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