When Izzy Yanay arrived in New York City in the late ’70s, he was stunned he couldn’t find any foie gras. After all, New York had stuffy French restaurants, if only a smattering of them. But they were apparently not stuffy enough to serve foie gras.
“Why won’t they eat it?” he recalls peppering everyone around him. “Benjamin Franklin was very familiar with French cuisine. Marquis de Lafayette came from France.”
The only reason he could think of was that it must be illegal in New York.
He discovered that it was not, and set about introducing New Yorkers over the following three decades to the French delicacy made by force-feeding ducks and, in some cases, geese.
Foie gras became a staple of haute cuisine in New York City and a status symbol for the glitterati, mainly due to Mr. Yanay’s efforts, who, along with his business partner, was the first to open a foie gras-producing duck farm in the nation. The farm he founded, called Hudson Valley Foie Gras, is one of two in Sullivan County, just north of the city, that have a monopoly on all the foie gras made in the United States.
That legacy is now under threat, after New York City voted in 2019 to ban the sale of foie gras, arguing that the way it is prepared, by force-feeding ducks to engorge their livers, amounts to torture and animal cruelty. The ban was expected to go into effect at the end of last year.
It has instead set off a monthslong legal battle. Foie gras farmers, with state officials and France supporting them, have fought the ban, saying it could put them out of business. This has set off a back-and-forth with frustrated animal rights activists and New York City government leaders, including the current and previous mayors.
The Rights of Animals
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- A Case for Equal Rights: In her latest book, the philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum argues for increased legal standing for animals. David Marchese asked her about it.
The two farms, Hudson Valley and La Belle, sued in May over the ban. In September, a New York State Supreme Court judge issued a preliminary injunction in the case. While it was pending, the New York State Department of Agriculture in December called the city’s law “unreasonably restrictive.”
Last week, the city filed a lawsuit against the Agriculture Department, saying that the agency had overreached and calling its judgment “arbitrary and capricious.” The city also argued that the farms produce products other than foie gras, and therefore would not suffer as great a financial loss as they claim. The city says its ban only targets the sale of foie gras in New York City — the farms can technically sell it anywhere else. After the state responds in that case, the court will set a schedule that could include hearings of oral arguments.
The French Consulate sent letters to the City Council after the ban passed asking for it to be rescinded, because it would affect the 1,300 restaurants in the city that serve foie gras. After California voted for a foie gras ban in 2004, the French government also intervened there, saying it would be “an assault on French tradition.” (The French consider foie gras to be part of their cultural heritage, although an increasing number of mayors across France have decided to pull the delicacy off their buffets at official functions.)
California ultimately put in place a ban in 2012 after an eight-year court battle.
Edita Birnkrant, executive director of NYCLASS, an animal rights group that contributed heavily to former Mayor Bill de Blasio’s election campaign and that pushed him to make animal welfare a top priority, said she was confident that foie gras would eventually be banned in New York City, too.
“I’m very hopeful that the ban will be upheld,” she said, noting that the 2017 Elephant Protection Act that banned the use of elephants and wild animals in circus acts in New York City took over a decade to pass. “It’s just something that I think we’re either going to be on the right or wrong side of history with this.”
The farmers have argued that the force-feeding technique that produces foie gras, called gavage, does not amount to animal cruelty, though they changed the methods they used in 2017 to make the process more humane, switching out the metal tubes they once placed inside duck’s throats with plastic ones. Sergio Saravia, the president of La Belle Farms, said his farm was open to inspection from all the City Council members who voted for the ban. But no one has responded to his invitation, he said.
“I’m happy that New York State took a stand to protect our interests,” he said. “We are open to everybody and everyone can look at the evidence. But New York City has already made its mind up.”
French restaurants are still in fashion in New York, but Andrew Coe, a food historian who co-wrote “Foie Gras: A Passion,” said foie gras had lost some of the cachet it had in the ’90s and the 2000s, as the city has embraced an explosion of cuisines from other nationalities. But he also said the food had a storied legacy in the city that reached back to a time even before Mr. Yanay’s efforts to introduce it to the restaurant industry.
Historical records show that Jewish immigrants kept geese in the basements of their tenements and that a cottage industry for force-fed goose liver burgeoned in the Lower East Side, Mr. Coe said. Even before that, in the 19th century, the New York elite ate imported foie gras served by French chefs in their private mansions along Fifth Avenue. “If you didn’t have a French chef to serve your daily meals and prepare dinner parties to impress all your friends, you were nothing,” Mr. Coe said. “It was absolutely crude to think of having any other kind than a French chef.”
Foie gras faded during Prohibition. Its re-entry into New York City happened by accident.
Mr. Yanay, now 70, had some experience handling goose liver in his home country of Israel, though he didn’t know the correct pronunciation of foie gras for about two decades. He set up Hudson Valley Foie Gras and through trial and error began producing a fine, nutty-flavored duck liver, but he couldn’t find any chefs interested in buying it in New York City.
“They said ‘No, no, no,’” he said. “I thought I had to go back to Israel and start sweeping streets or something.” He tried one last restaurant, Les Trois Petits Cochons. The staff said it was too expensive, but by chance, he recalled, a customer looked at it and exclaimed, “Foie gras!” It was the first time he had heard someone pronounce it correctly, Mr. Yanay said.
She happened to be Ariane Daguin, the daughter of the legendary French chef André Daguin, who placed Gascogne on the culinary map and brought the magret de canard, or grilled duck breast, to Western palates. Through her contacts, Mr. Yanay’s foie gras slowly found its way into the city’s restaurants.
He and other foie gras fans hope it will stay.
“It’s hard to kind of imagine New York City without foie in any capacity,” said Ron Paprocki, the executive chef at Gotham who once made a foie gras mousse tucked inside a baumkuchen, a type of German cake.
If there was anything that would keep foie gras alive, Mr. Coe said, it would be New Yorkers’ obsession with status.
“It’s rich and delicious, and rich food makes you feel rich,” he said. “New Yorkers are, of course, obsessed with status. When you order foie gras, you have a $30 extra charge on your appetizer, right? If you can just do that without blinking an eye, that shows that, you know, your status is better than the next person’s.”