The winter holidays can be kind to restaurant owners. Company's in town, the cook of the house has already thrown at least one big feast and people are ready to eat out. Couples dress up and make a date to dine by candlelight. They splurge and order a cocktail, appetizers and dessert. Even the boss is in a generous mood, booking a side room in a trendy downtown restaurant for the company party. Diners are daring; they slip off their diets and order something exotic.
But this winter, they'll have a hard time finding the popular French delicacy foie gras.
Until recently, foie gras seemed the latest darling of some San Diego restaurants, joining the company of other European-influenced appetizers. Foie gras (pronounced "fwah grah") is sometimes served on a bed of greens, topped with chutney or compote. People describe its taste as buttery; others describe a velvet texture-a "melts in your mouth" experience, one local chef said. Foie gras is often presented as pate, a paste that can be spread on bread or crackers.
But before the diner ever sees it, foie gras comes to the chef in its raw form. In French, foie gras means fatty liver. It's the product of an enlarged liver of a duck or a goose.
"The duck's liver is the size of your hand when you make a fist," said Bertrand Hug, owner of Bertrand at Mister A's in Bankers Hill, as he described how ducks are force-fed twice a day during the last weeks of their lives.
"The liver grows," he said. "They get an overextended liver-a kind of disease. It can be as big as three pounds. It grows lighter in color."
Hug and other restaurant owners get their supply from Hudson Valley Foie Gras in New York and Sonoma Foie Gras, located near Stockton, Calif.
"I can only talk about Hudson Valley," Hug said. "They are very good. They sent me a brochure. They're absolutely doing it in a very humane way."
San Diego activist Bryan Pease doesn't see it that way. "Michael Ginor and Izzy Yanay, the owners of Hudson Valley Foie Gras, are very good salesmen," Pease said, adding that one chef told him Hudson Bay Foie Gras had offered to "fly him out... to give him a tour and convince him to start selling [the delicacy] again."
Pease says a video camera is his most powerful weapon in exposing the cruelty of factory farming. He and other activists began investigating foie gras in 2002. Today, he and his wife Kath Rogers run the nonprofit Animal Protection and Rescue League out of an office in Hillcrest. There, Pease and Rogers keep a photo library of ducks languishing with bowed heads in cramped cages. Some ducks' feathers appear stringy and blood-tinged. Others have plucked areas with sores.
At 27, lean and angular, Pease still has the hurdler's build he earned while in college. His presence is commanding and intense. During an interview with CityBeat, he focused on one of the photos.
"The pipe is just being pulled out of the duck's mouth," he described. Yellow cornmeal was caked around the open-hanging beak and down the breast of the bird. The duck's eyes seemed unfocused and glazed.
"I remember being on those farms," Rogers said. "Even if they're not always in these cages, they physically cannot move once they've been force fed for so long because they're so obese."
Pease discounted one of the popular myths used to defend the force-feeding process. "One of them is that migratory species of ducks will tend to gorge themselves before migrating," he said, as Rogers pulled out a pamphlet about foie gras myths and facts from stacks of literature lined up on metal shelves along the office wall.
"They'll say that they are just taking advantage of this natural process," Pease said, "but the foie gras producers are mechanically force feeding them so much that their livers are expanding to 10 times their normal size, where the ducks can't walk, let alone fly or migrate." These ducks don't migrate, anyway, Pease said. "They're an artificial hybrid between a Peking and a Muscovite. It doesn't even exist in nature; it's specifically bred for farm production."
Hudson Valley Foie Gras' operations manager, Marcus Henley, thinks animal-rights groups are misrepresenting what goes on when it comes to handling the birds. "If I show you a picture of a duck with a tube in its esophagus, it looks bad. Like it would hurt." He adds, "But ducks and geese are different physiologically than humans.
"We have over 100,000 animals on this farm," he said. "I can go to any farm across this country our size or greater and pick out conditions, animals very ill." He added, "Pictures don't always tell the whole story, anymore than a hospital or intensive-care unit doesn't represent the community. It's dishonest."
Henley noted that Hudson Valley Foie Gras is only a few miles down the road from the Culinary Institute of America. "Chefs of today visited here as students," he said, adding, "Our clients, restaurant owners and journalists are invited to tour the farm."
In his essay "An Animal's Place," Michael Pollan sits alone in a restaurant, fork poised over a rib-eye steak, reading his way through many of the classic writings that have influenced present-day animal-welfare advocates, vegetarians and vegans. He concentrates on English critic John Berger's essay, "Why Look at Animals?"
Berger stunned modern readers by claiming that people have lost their connection to animals, particularly eye contact with them. Through eye contact, whether it might have been with a farm animal or even domestic pet, people seemed to recognize in those animal eyes some kinship-even the possibility of an animal's expression of fear, pain or tenderness.
"People built a relationship in which they felt they could both honor and eat animals without looking away," Pollan reflected. "But that accommodation has pretty much broken down; nowadays it seems, we either look away or become vegetarians."
Foie gras exists because it's produced on factory farms, which are "confined animal facilities that apply industrial production methods to the raising of animals for human consumption," according to the opening of the report "Confined Animal Facilities in California," issued by state Senate Office of Research (SOR) in November 2004.
Upon the report's release, SOR held a news conference to alert the public to several health threats and animal abuses associated with factory farming. Among the animal-cruelty issues in the report were: chicken, duck and turkey beak tips removed by hot blade or electric spark trimmers to prevent animals in too-close quarters from pecking each other to death, and dairy cows' tails cut off for hygiene.
"Most people haven't heard of these issues yet," Pease noted. "As soon as we can bring a glimmer of information to them about what's going on, they're sympathetic."
He added, "My philosophy about animal rights is simply that when extreme institutional suffering is going on, people need to be made aware of it and work to stop it.
"We wanted to focus first on the issue of factory farming because of the huge numbers of animals that are killed and undergo hormone treatment," Pease said. "Foie gras, because it's on the extreme end of factory farming-they're jamming pipes down these ducks' throats. That was a logical place to start as far as getting rid of that practice."
While the treatment of ducks and geese during the production of foie gras is extreme, animal-rights activists argue that chickens and turkeys, bred for the ever-increasing consumer demand for an alternative to red meat, also suffer cruelty. According to an October 2005 Purdue Agricultural Economics Report by Carlos Mayen and Kevin McNamara, "Presently, turkey production in the U.S. stands at 264 million birds (7.3 billion pounds) while broiler production at 8.7 billion (45.8 billion pounds)." The authors describe how in less than 100 years "the poultry meat industry, once a barnyard enterprise with chicken meat only a by-product of egg production, has evolved to a specialized, capital intensive, well-coordinated industry."
Animal-rights organizations, such as Delaware Action for Animals, Gentle Thanksgiving Organization and People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), describe on many of their websites how ducks, turkeys and chickens are treated by the poultry industry. Raised in cages, chickens have less than half a square foot of space per bird, they claim, while turkeys, often kept in crowded, indoor pens, have less than three square feet. Many break limbs from rapid weight gain and suffer lameness and heart attacks. All suffer the same ugly fate: throats slit, their bodies are hung on a conveyer belt and then dumped into boiling water to strip their feathers, sometimes while the birds are still fully conscious.
It's rather unpleasant stuff, and Pease and Rogers spent last year working alongside other activists, celebrities and legislators to stop it.
"We filed a lawsuit against Sonoma Foie Gras in California because until Proposition 64 passed last year, any individual or organization could sue a company that was breaking a law," Pease said. "In this case, we were alleging that they were violating the animal-cruelty law. So we sued them under the unfair-business-practices statute."
Pease slipped into an exaggerated politician's voice as he described the state Legislature's response: ""We'll immunize Sonoma Foie Gras from this lawsuit, violating the animal-cruelty law.' Now this is really weird-who's ever heard of the Legislature passing a law to handle a lawsuit?"
Despite its flaws, the activists supported a bill by then-Senate President Pro Tem John Burton aimed at banning the force-feeding of ducks and geese in California and the sale of foie gras statewide when made from force-fed ducks. But not right away-the bill included a seven-year phase-out period, during which the producers can't be prosecuted. Starting in 2012, foie gras can't be made unless producers come up with a humane way to do it.
The Legislature passed Burton's bill, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed it into law in September 2004. Activists say it's historic legislation because rarely has the state banned factory-farming processes considered cruel. Since its passage, similar bills have been introduced in Oregon, Massachusetts, Illinois and New York.
But Pease and Rogers haven't stood still. "We don't want to wait until 2012 for this law to go into effect, when, meantime, there's how many millions of ducks that are going to be basically tortured to death for [foie gras] and when we can get restaurants to pull it off sooner," Pease said. "Also, that will make it less likely that possible efforts to repeal the law will be effective if all of these restaurants are pulling it off their menu."
"If I had my way, the consumption and production of foie gras would have been made illegal now. For many reasons. Not just for the sake of the ducks, but for people, too," said Jeffrey Strauss, owner and chef of Solana Beach's Pamplemousse Grille, which, ironically, uses a goose as its design icon. "I've had some conversations with other chefs in San Diego. We all feel about the same way-we wish it was illegal. Level the playing field."
Strauss said restaurant owners are unfairly caught between the pending ban on foie gras and the reality that they and their chefs need to please their customers to turn a profit. He said that while some restaurants have taken the dish off the menu, others are still serving it.
"First thing, we took it off the menu," said Strauss, whose restaurant was rated the best restaurant in San Diego by the Zagat Survey in 2004.
"Let's say that I cater rack of lamb for 200 people," he said. "Fifty lambs gave their lives for me. There's been nights when I wake up and think about when I die, I don't want there to be a judgment."
Strauss remembered his first contact from Pease and APRL: "They sent me a letter in February. Bryan called back. I expected him to be combative and argumentative. He sat there and listened, not one-minded. Didn't threaten. Just invited me to look further into it."
Strauss, 43, has been cooking since he was 16 and opened the Pamplemousse Grille nine years ago. His grandfather, a German immigrant, ran a cattle ranch in New Jersey, and his father was a livestock wholesaler in the Bronx. "Hundreds of whole goats would go out of there in a week. I remember seeing them in the lockers."
Strauss said his first experience with animals was on his grandfather's cattle farm. "I loved walking around that pasture-I'd see a calf and think, That's the cutest thing in the world," he said, adding that on the farm you could "count on one hand the number of vegetarians."
One afternoon a few months ago, APRL outreach workers Chris Cavalcanti and Dana Robinson stood at Fifth and University avenues in Hllcrest, handing out literature for APRL. "Before I joined APRL and decided to work with Bryan and Kath, I checked online," Robinson said. "They're completely genuine. Their office is great. You can tell that they don't spend a cent of the organization's money on it. They want every cent to go back into the nonprofit, not like other nonprofits where you see these offices with all of this great furniture."
Robinson recalled doing outreach for APRL at Trader Joe's when a woman recognized her co-canvasser, Cavalcanti. "The woman said, "You're the one who made me go vegan.'"
"It makes it worthwhile," Cavalcanti said. "But some yell at you. One guy screamed at me about not needing to protect the seals at the beach. Most of the people are positive though."
Cavalcanti opened a binder filled with APRL literature. "They look at the brochure pictures and say, "Wow, this is terrible,'" Cavalcanti said. "It's really easy to go to the supermarket and pick up your food all neatly wrapped in cellophane, and not see that it is an animal.
"Bryan and Kath have dedicated their lives," Cavalcanti added. "I realized that just being vegetarian wasn't enough. We have to work together."
Pease and Rogers met, Pease said, "when we were arrested for scaring crows away from hunters in New York during a crow-killing contest.... Participants kill as many animals as they can in a weekend and bring them back to a bar to be weighed and counted.
"New York," he said, "has a law against scaring animals away from hunters."
Pease will tell you it's only a coincidence that he followed his father's path into a law career. Pease was born in Syracuse, N.Y., in 1978. His dad, an assistant U.S. attorney, read to him often and encouraged him to learn. His mom had been a schoolteacher and social worker before starting a family.
While Pease was at Liverpool High School, he had a defining moment in biology class. "I've always liked animals," he said, "and when I first went vegetarian was when we started to do dissection in high-school biology class. I was against that. It caused me to evaluate why I was eating animals. So I went vegetarian."
Pease remembered what might have been his "first hands-on experience with the law." He said, "When I was 17, I was falsely arrested at a fur protest, doing nothing more than holding a sign on a public sidewalk." He said he was charged with unlawful assembly, but "everyone had an absolute right to peacefully demonstrate in a public place under the First Amendment, of course, so I was acquitted."
Pease researched the legal issues surrounding his case in his father's office. "I put together an argument on appeal that the judge's order to "stay away' was unconstitutionally vague," he explained. Pease presented the oral argument himself and won. "What has stuck with me from that experience, and many other activist experiences to follow," he said, "is that even if you are completely innocent of a charge and the facts are not even in dispute, the criminal-justice system can derail your life for a long time if you get entangled in it, and the police are given an incredible amount of discretion in that area."
At Cornell University, Pease majored in human development with an emphasis on nutrition. He persuaded the student government to unanimously pass two resolutions, one recommending dissection alternatives in biology classes and the other mandating full vegan options in the dining halls.
Pease credited early activism for teaching him about the law, and he went to a law school with a solid public-interest background. "I made the Buffalo [N.Y.] Public Interest Law Program remove fur items from their fundraiser auction," he recalled.
Pease is concerned about recent laws that appear aimed at cracking down on animal-rights activists. He noted that California recently passed a law upping the penalties for trespassing on farmland to as much as $250 for a second offense.
"It used to be an infraction," Pease said. "You'd get a small fine, say $10." He said the change was a response to APRL's investigation of Sonoma Foie Gras. "Actually," he added, "all over the country there have been attempts to implement legislation specifically targeting animal-rights activists. It's being billed as the new domestic terrorism threat-animal-rights activists. It's such a red herring, it's ridiculous."
Not all restaurant owners in San Diego are willing to pull foie gras from their menus, and not all are happy with Pease and APRL. "They sent me literature, including the pictures. It was ridiculous," said Mister A's Bertrand Hug. "They came over and met with me. I told them where I was coming from, that foie gras has been around for 1,000 years in Europe. It's a part of my culture. It is no worse than finishing off a pig."
Raised in southwest France, Hug recalls seeing ducks and geese on farms. "My grandmother raised 40 or 50 at a time," he said. "They force-fed geese with a funnel twice a day in the winter."
Pease and Rogers traveled to France during their investigation and met with French activists. "It's the hardest logical fallacy to combat when somebody says it's culture, and it needs to be defended because it's culture," Rogers said.
Referring to Mister A's, Pease said that "because we had sent them a letter and hadn't heard back, we went back there and said, "Hey, we're going to start protesting, and just wanted to check if you'd remove foie gras,' and the manager agreed to a meeting."
In May, APRL protested at Top of the Cove in La Jolla. Rogers said APRL had sent "the usual letter and brochures" to owner Ron Zappardino, who "started yelling over the phone, "You're threatening me; you sent me a threatening letter.'
"It was a very mild letter," she said, "talking about the animal cruelty, and then in the last paragraph we said that we had been educating some customers by going out with signs, so it was very, very mild."
Zappardino remembered receiving APRL's correspondence, which he said "was a threatening letter.... I talked to the young lady. She was unpleasant." About APRL pressuring him to stop serving foie gras, he said, "It's unreasonable. Owners have to decide for themselves."
"Twenty years ago nobody knew about foie gras in the United States until Hudson Valley Foie Gras started pedaling it," Pease said. "And Izzy Yanay, one of the owners, has been quoted saying that it's his dream to see foie gras in the supermarkets or on pizza.
"That's what we're up against," Pease added, "the increasing popularity of it." He said every high-end restaurant serves foie gras unless they've taken an ethical position on it. "That's why we need to approach them and get them to take an ethical stance."
Pease and Rogers can list their successes: George's at the Cove, Tapenade and Nine-Ten have all yanked foie gras from their menus.
APRL waited for more than a month after their May protest at Top of the Cove to check back to see if the restaurant would stop serving foie gras. In July, APRL returned to stage another protest.
"Top of the Cove took foie gras off their menu and even displayed their newly printed menus with no foie gras for us," Rogers said. She and Pease have asked APRL members to send thank-you postcards to Chef Timothy Ralphs.
Zappardino said it's true that foie gras came off the menu at that time, but, he added, "I only have it certain times of the year. My chef changes the menu quarterly. We'll serve it if our customers ask for it."
For Pease and Rogers, change happens with persistence and patience. Whether APRL gets a promise of no foie gras on the daily menu for a few months or a full commitment to not serve it, they remain optimistic and grateful for any "victory."
Meanwhile, Pease and APRL are working on several downtown and Coronado restaurants. Also, the group has submitted a proposal for an urban sanctuary for farm animals-for people to visit and see that farm animals have distinct personalities like dogs and cats.
Pease said "the proposal in Chicago to ban the sale of foie gras is headed for a full vote probably next month. At the Health Committee hearing in October, we got the committee to pass the resolution unanimously," he said, "after showing our video on a big screen." He added, "We've been doing lots of vegan outreach and just had a very successful "turkey-free Thanksgiving' event where we raised some funds to air more of our "go vegan' commercials."
Persistence and patience. When asked what keeps her going, Rogers recalled Margaret Mead's words, "Never doubt that a small group of people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."