Thursday, June 18, 2009

Interview: Author Mark Caro reports from the Front Lines of the Foie Gras Wars

When hard boiled Chicago Tribune newspaperman Mark Caro reported that Charlie Trotter thought a rival chef's liver should be eaten because he was critical of Trotter's decision to stop serving Foie Gras a firestorm was set off that landed on the front pages of the great Chicago newspaper (and made national news to boot).

The story evolved into a book The Foie Gras Wars: How a 5,000 Year-Old Delicacy Inspired by the World's Fiercest Food Fight (Simon and Schuster) in which author Caro chronicles the history, lore, politics and players in this particular culinary controversy. Mr. Caro was nice enough to talk to Mark and Lynn about the book, the characters and why Ducks are a little different than other animals...

M & L: If Charlie Trotter had not made the infamous remark about eating Rick Tramonto's liver do you think you would have authored this book? And, do you think Charlie Trotter has ever regretted making that remark?

MC: "That's an interesting question. If Trotter hadn't made that comment, I still would've written an in-depth Tribune story on the subject, but it probably wouldn't have run on the front page, and there's a chance Chicago Ald. Joe Moore might not have read it and/or proposed the city's ban. Then again, Trotter's stance might have gotten national and local attention regardless, and the actual issues would have been the same, and that's what Moore said he was reacting to. At any rate, I had the idea for the book well before Chicago passed its ban; I'd been interested in doing something exploring our collective deniability regarding where our food comes from, and this seemed like an interesting--and simultaneously amusing and serious--way to get into that. Whether SImon & Schuster or anyone else would've bought the book if I didn't have the hook of Chicago's ban...I'lll never know."

"As for whether Chef Trotter ever regretted making that remark, he said afterward that he felt bad for expressing himself that way but added that one must "open a can of whup-ass" every once in a while. So that wasn't the most self-flagellating apology ever issued. I assume he was aware that he'd stir up some attention. I think he may regret having been associated with this controversy for quite so long as he has a lot more going on than his non-service of foie gras."

M & L: There are all kinds of rough/inhumane treatment of animals that are bred to end up as food-Is there something in particular that strikes a cord with people with this issue involving ducks?

MC "I think several factors contribute to people having an especially visceral reaction to foie gras production. For one, we like ducks and anthropomorphize them far more than, say, chickens; hence the existence of Daffy, Donald and the Aflac duck. We also encounter them more in nature; even in cities, we see them in ponds. So we have a problem hearing that these cute, funny little quackers are having metal tubes dropped down their throats. We imagine what it would feel like if we were the ducks--but we aren't ducks. Our throats are different (we don't swallow whole fish, for instance), our breathing is different (our air hole isn't under the center of our tongues, and we'd gag in a way that they don't), and we don't store fat in our livers and under our skin. Also, because people don't eat duck and especially foie gras so much, they're more willing to give it up for the sake of the animal. They haven't shown such an inclination to learn about how broiler chickens or layer hens are treated and to adjust their buying and eating habits accordingly."

M & L : Was there anything that struck you as odd in writing this book?

MC: "Aside from writing 300+ pages about people fighting over duck and goose livers? Where do I begin?"

M & L: I know it is a bit of an obvious question but has this book changed your eating habits?

MC: "It has, but in odd ways. I really was eating a lot of chicken and almost no red meat when I began my research--on the theory that eating mammals was somehow worse than eating birds--and I was surprised to learn from reading animal-rights guru Peter Singer ("Animal Liberation," "The Ethics of What We Eat") and talking to top PETA and Humane Society of the United States officials that they all consider cows to be better treated than the bulk of mass-produced food animals. I'm still not ordering Big Macs and Whoppers, but I'm no longer on principle saying no to beef, especially if I know it's from a smaller farm, and I do spend the extra money for the cage-free eggs and free-range chicken. So there you have it: Researching fat duck livers has made me a more diverse omnivore--though a more ethical one too, I hope."

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I (Mark) have written for The Christian Science Monitor, Clear Magazine, Picture Magazine, Film Score Monthly, Dan's Papers, Rue Morgue, In Flight USA and a lot more publications that I can't remember.... My wife Lynn was a model with the Ford Agency and her photography has been featured in most of the publications I have written for...


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