When it's prepared just right, a piece of foie gras has a buttery texture and a rich hazelnut flavor; it becomes sublime on a toasty piece of bread with a tart fruit puree and maybe a glass of sweet wine from Sauternes.
Bertrand Hug grew up eating foie gras in southwest France, where his grandmother made a living raising ducks."My grandmother would gloat over how good her foie gras (was)," said Hug, owner of Bertrand at Mister A's in San Diego. "It's part of my culture. It's part of my heritage, almost."
Foie gras (pronounced FWAH grah) is fatty liver, in this case the fatty liver of a duck or a goose. In ancient times, the Romans fattened up the ducks by feeding them figs. These days, it's a mixture of corn and grains.
But the one thing that hasn't changed in thousands of years is that the ducks must be forced to overeat so that their livers become enlarged and laden with fat. In what is typically a four-week process, the duck is intentionally overfed via a funnel so that its liver expands to 10 times its normal size.
Many chefs and foie gras lovers argue that the process that produces the delicacy, which sells for around $50 a pound, is no worse than what goes on in any farm that raises cows, pigs or lambs for meat.
"If you think like that, we should stop eating chicken or veal or pork because they are animals who didn't have a life, and they are packed in a little box and forced to eat somehow," said Philippe Verpiand, who serves a refined torchon of foie gras at Cavaillon in Santaluz.
But some animal-rights activists consider foie gras production to be particularly inhumane.
"By far, foie gras is the cruelest form of factory farming," said Kath Rogers, who runs the Animal Protection and Rescue League, based in San Diego, with her husband, Bryan Pease. "There's no way to do it without a lot of suffering."
Rogers, who is a vegetarian, and her husband also campaign against some other animal products, including eggs from caged hens and veal, on their Web site, www.aprl.org.
Arguing that foie gras runs afoul of anti-cruelty laws, activists are working to get it outlawed, one jurisdiction at a time.
Chicago chefs serving foie gras now face a $500 fine after the City Council voted to ban sale and production of the liver product. In California, a 2004 law signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will make selling or producing foie gras illegal starting in 2012. The bill, introduced by state Sen. John Burton, D-San Francisco, affects the state's one foie gras producer, Sonoma Foie Gras, as well as menus and chefs across the state.
Activists have campaigned to win over chefs and stop them from serving foie gras. Sometimes the activists send pictures of injured or dead ducks to chefs. At other times, the opponents stage demonstrations.
Rogers and the Animal Protection and Rights League Web site claim their protests have gotten every restaurant in town except for two, including Bertrand at Mister A's, to stop offering foie gras.
In fact, many high-end restaurants in San Diego County feature foie gras on their menus or keep it on hand for customers who request it.
Those include Jack's La Jolla, where chef Tony DiSalvo serves sauteed foie gras in an Asian preparation with fresh pickled plums and shiso. And at Blanca in nearby Solana Beach, chef Wade Hageman has created a variety of dishes using foie gras, including Tournedos Rossini, filet mignon topped with foie gras and black truffles.
"I serve it seared, in torchons, terrine, I use it in sauces and pasta fillings," Hageman said. "It's one of those ... Old World flavors and delicacies that people want."
Even some restaurants that had stopped serving foie gras in response to pressure from animal-rights activists are back at it for business reasons.
"If I had my way, foie gras would be illegal to serve today to make a level playing field," said Jeffrey Strauss, who temporarily removed foie gras from the menu at Pamplemouse Grille, his Solana Beach restaurant. "But I am in no situation financially that I can tell people who can get it next door that I can't make it for them."
After activists posed as diners and started passing pictures of distressed ducks around the Mister A's dining room, owner Hug pulled foie gras from the menu.
"I chickened out ... for six months," Hug said. "But then my chef said, (if) everybody else serves it and we don't, we look like idiots."
Chef Stephane Voitzwinkler's duo of sauteed foie gras with sweet corn and shallots and a foie gras terrine BLT are now on the menu at Mister A's.
Many restaurants have resorted to removing any mention of foie gras from their online menus or being vague with telephone callers who ask about the dish in order to shield themselves from visits by protesters.
One restaurant that has removed foie gras from the menu permanently in San Diego is Le Fontainebleau in the Westgate Hotel. The change came after protesters from the Animal Protection and Rescue League filed suit against the Westgate and its parent company, Sinclair Oil, over an incident that occurred during a Dec. 31, 2005, protest.
Fabrice Hardel, executive chef of Le Fontainebleau, said that when the restaurant stopped serving foie gras, "At first it was a shock a little bit, but then ... there are so many different things you can use."
A central issue in the debate is whether it hurts ducks to be force-fed through a funnel.
Burton's bill banning foie gras in California targeted the "speed-feeding" method in which grain is streamed through a pipe inserted down a duck's throat. Burton argued that a more humane method of producing the delicacy could be found.
"You don't need to be cramming food down Donald Duck's throat to have foie gras," he said in an interview at the time, calling the procedure "an inhumane way to be dealing with our fine feathered friends."
Burton noted that several countries have already banned the force-feeding practice, and the European Union is phasing it out.
However, defenders of foie gras production say that a duck has a flexible throat that can expand to allow it to swallow whole fish and other food in the wild. They also argue that if ducks were seriously harmed during the four-week feeding process, when they are fed up to 1 cup of grain three times a day, there would be no foie gras to harvest.
"I come here and do the best I can to take care of the animals every day," said Marcus Henley, operations manager for Hudson Valley Foie Gras in Ferndale, N.Y.
Henley said he wonders why so much attention is being paid to the nation's three small foie gras producers, who slaughter about 1,200 ducks a day, when millions of chickens are killed every day to feed the nation's 70-pound-per-capita annual chicken consumption.
The nation's tiny foie gras industry and its supporters are pushing back with information campaigns, such as the one by the Artisan Farmer's Alliance, based in Washington state.
"This debate has been guided, unfortunately, not by science, but emotion and anecdote," said Michael Hacker, a lobbyist with the alliance. "This is being driven by anti-meat extremists."
Hudson Valley invites chefs and others concerned about how the ducks are treated to visit the farm and see for themselves. Visitors in the past year included a delegation from the American Veterinary Medical Association. Based on the findings of the delegation, the association voted in July not to condemn the practice of force-feeding to produce foie gras.
Holly Cheever, a farm-animal vet in upstate New York and animal rights activist who wants the association to condemn foie gras production, said the staged tours don't offer a realistic view of what happens to ducks on the farm. She said she has seen animals who have eaten so much that their organs exploded.
But Gale Golab, a vet who is the associate director of the association's Animal Welfare Division, said the organization doesn't have the scientific evidence in peer-reviewed journals to support Cheever's position, and until it does, it will remain neutral.
"As far as the association is concerned, the jury is still out," Golab said. "Ethically, we have people on both sides of the issue. You're looking at a fundamental difference in belief as to what uses of animal life are appropriate."
Antonio Friscia, chef at Stingaree in San Diego, said he's satisfied the ducks that produce foie gras haven't been mistreated, which is why he serves a Kobe burger topped with sauteed foie gras. "I'm definitely concerned about the way every animal that comes into Stingaree is treated," he said. "That's why I go to the best sources, the free-range farms, and I try to get hormone-free meat and the most naturally raised. But they still are raised as food."
Javier Plascencia, a chef who prepares foie gras for customers on both sides of the border at his Villa Saverios in Tijuana, Mexico, and Romesco in Bonita, Calif., said he believes people who love foie gras will find it even if it is banned here.
"We were thinking of the old days when you couldn't get alcohol in the U.S., and people went to Mexico to have fun and drink," Plascencia said. "Now people who love foie gras will go to Mexico to eat it."
July 2003: Anti-foie gras activists vandalize the home and car of San Francisco chef Laurent Manrique. A videotape of Manrique with his family is left outside his home.
September 2003: Protesters break into Sonoma Saveurs, a yet-to-be-opened cafe in Sonoma Valley, Calif., that plans to serve foie gras. They fill drains with concrete and flood the cafe, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage. Vandals also break into Sonoma Foie Gras, California's only foie gras producer, setting ducks loose and causing property damage.
Sept. 9, 2004: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signs a law that will prohibit foie gras production and sale in California beginning July 1, 2012.
July 2005: The American Veterinary Medical Association board of directors defeats a resolution opposing foie gras production.
August 2006: A ban on the sale of foie gras in Chicago restaurants goes into effect. Chefs found selling foie gras can be fined $500. The Illinois Restaurant Association files a challenge.
Sept. 12, 2006: Chicago Aldermen Bernard Stone and Burton Natarus, who initially supported the foie gras ban, announce legislation to repeal it. Mayor Richard Daley supports overturning the ban.