Foie gras is a delicacy on the finest of menus, baked in rock salt at Rover's, dressed up with apples, currants and candied ginger at Cafe Juanita, or sprinkled with truffle oil at Maximilien in the Market.
A month ago, when Union chef and co-owner Ethan Stowell was featured as a "rising star of American cuisine" at the prestigious Beard House in New York, the Seattle restaurateur made foie gras part of the $115-per-dinner affair.
But is this gourmet chef's staple (pronounced "fwah grah") also an atrocity?
Around the country, animal rights activists have been pressuring restaurants to stop serving foie gras -- and pushing lawmakers to ban it altogether -- saying it involves force-feeding ducks to make their livers swell painfully.
Activists and restaurateurs agree it is only a matter of time before the movement spreads to the Seattle area, where one protest group already has about 1,000 members on its mailing list.
"Foie gras means fatty liver. It's a diseased state," said Matt Rossell, Northwest coordinator of In Defense of Animals, whose members have demonstrated outside pricey Portland restaurants with gruesome photos of dead ducks. "I believe it's at the extreme end of cruelty."
Already, California activists have sent a video and brochures to Maximilien in the Market. "They were asking us to take it off the menu," Chef Wilfried Boutillier said. "We didn't, because people like it."
At the center of the furor is a Seattle native, Michael Ginor, who co-owns Hudson Valley Foie Gras in New York, one of the two leading U.S. producers of the duck delicacy. He says he and his family have received threatening anonymous letters, and that misinformation is driving his industry to its demise.
"I think it's just a matter of time before there is no foie gras available in the United States," said Ginor, son of a Boeing engineer, who was born in Seattle and spent his early childhood here.
Last week, Oregon legislators held a public hearing on a bill that would ban the force-feeding of birds and make it a misdemeanor crime to sell foie gras from force-fed ducks. Similar measures are pending in Illinois, New York and Massachusetts.
Last fall, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation that will ban the production of foie gras in that state in 2012 unless the methods are proved to be humane. More than a dozen countries already ban it.
Asked how his farm is affected, Ginor said the publicity generated by animal rights activists actually has made foie gras more popular. "Thousands of people who never heard of foie gras suddenly know what it is" and want to try it, he said.
But he also expects business to suffer as fear of negative attention spreads among restaurant owners.
The activists' attention is misplaced, he said, arguing that the pre-slaughter mortality rate in his industry is 3 percent to 4 percent, lower than in turkey or other poultry industries.
As for accounts of unnaturally fat ducks barely able to walk fleeing from those who force-feed them, Ginor said there is no evidence of pain in the foie gras process.
"If you've ever been to a slaughter room of any facility, it can look very bloody," he said. "There's a real disconnect between going to a steakhouse and really understanding where the beef came from."
The widening movement against foie gras began more than a year ago when Rossell and other activists took cameras inside Hudson Valley Foie Gras and its California counterpart, Sonoma Foie Gras, and began circulating footage of what they called inhumane conditions.
"We saw trash barrels full of dead ducks," said Bryan Pease with the Animal Protection and Rescue League in San Diego, who is being sued for trespassing at the California farm.
He said he observed ducks struggling to breathe and walk, and trying to avoid the feeders forcing them to get fat.
"There is no humane way to produce foie gras," Pease said. "By definition, the liver has to be at least five times its normal size."
The activists have used the footage and photos from the two farms to persuade restaurant owners and customers not to buy foie gras.
In Portland, where In Defense of Animals has its Northwest office, "we've had four restaurants actually take it off the menu," Rossell said.
One of the four, Hurley's in Northwest Portland, resumed serving foie gras as an off-menu item. Rossell said his group targeted the place for weeks, showing brochures to customers, but finally gave up after the owner talked of a restraining order.
So far, Seattle restaurateurs have not felt the kind of pressure applied in Portland. But they certainly have heard about it.
Tom Douglas, renowned chef and owner of Dahlia Lounge, Palace Kitchen and other Seattle restaurants, said the absence of foie gras from Dahlia's menu last week was "not a bit" related to the controversy.
"It's like anything at Dahlia. Things come and they go," he said. "I'm not going to stop serving it if I want to."
Douglas said he's "all for it" if foie gras can be produced more humanely, adding that he doesn't serve the delicacy enough to have researched the matter.
ut he also said those who object to foie gras, or any other meat, should simply not eat it.
"Somebody once told me that unless I removed rabbit from the menu, he would stop donating to food banks. I don't know what to do with these people," Douglas said.
Boutillier, at Maximilien, said, "For a French restaurant, it would be kind of sad not to have it." He said the Pike Place Market restaurant shares the activists' concern for animals, but barring convincing proof of cruelty, "it's just one point of view against the other."
Holly Smith, chef and owner of Cafe Juanita in Kirkland, said foie gras is one of the most popular items on her menu.
Years ago, she said, she toured the Sonoma Foie Gras farm and "saw that these were a very voracious breed of duck, and that they were not force-feeding them."
Since then, she said, she has switched to a small New York foie gras producer called Labelle that she believes also avoids force-feeding.
"I certainly don't want to be hurting a duck," she said.
"They're just fat, hopefully fat and happy. Who's to say, though?"
WHAT IS FOIE GRAS?
Foie gras -- a French term meaning "fat liver" -- is the enlarged liver of a force-fed duck or goose. Foie gras is considered a great delicacy in French cuisine. It is often made into a pâté.
ON THE WEB
To read more about the foie gras debate, visit these Web sites:
Pro -- www.hudsonvalleyfoiegras.com or www.sonomafoiegras.com
Con -- www.stopforcefeeding.com or www.gourmetcruelty.com
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