The Controversial Foods Debate
Published: April 2009
By Peter Jon Lindberg
Epicures across the country are flouting the P.C. police—and sometimes the law—by embracing controversial pleasures, from foie gras to absinthe to raw-milk cheese. Gastronomic standard-bearers, or amoral gluttons?The debate is served.
It felt like an extremely weird Masonic ceremony," the guest recalls. "We all wore black cloths over our heads. This is partly to capture the aroma of the dish as it wafts up into the hood. But the original reason was so that God wouldn’t see you devouring this helpless little bird."
The ortolan, a rare, sparrow-size songbird, is one of the world’s most celebrated delicacies. Among French gourmands, eating ortolan is a centuries-old rite of passage; its subtle flavor is said to embody "the soul of France." Tradition calls for the captured bird to be fattened on a diet of figs and oats before being drowned alive in Armagnac. It is then roasted and consumed whole in a single, delirious mouthful. Since the 1970’s, however, the ortolan has been highly endangered; in France, hunting the bird is punishable by a $10,000 fine. Allegedly, this did not stop a dying François Mitterrand, in 1996, from eating ortolan for his last meal—thereby burnishing his legend as either a fearless gourmand or a cynical, heartless bird murderer.
If you chose "bird murderer," you might want to stop reading now. Last year, a chef in New York hosted a top-secret dinner party for 20 of America’s most famous chefs and served ortolan as the main event. Food writer Jonathan Reynolds was among the guests.
"It was a game dinner—woodcock and the like—but we were all there for the ortolan. They’d been smuggled over from France in empty coffee cans," Reynolds says. The ancient ortolan ritual was followed to the letter, down to those mysterious black shrouds. "The bird arrives in a cocotte, and you put the entire thing in your mouth and chew— bones and organs and all," Reynolds continues. "And it’s absolutely delicious—a sweet, subtle, evanescent flavor. The room goes silent for ten minutes, except for these gentle crunching sounds. You try to keep it in your mouth as long as possible, and then suddenly it’s gone, and you think, Oh, I want much more of that. But, of course, you can’t have it."
The fact that the chef was able to obtain a couple of dozen extremely rare and protected songbirds from France and smuggle them past U.S. Customs in coffee cans is perhaps less remarkable than his ease in finding two dozen intrepid souls willing—no, ecstatically clamoring—to dine on them. "It was one of the great moments of my life," Reynolds says. "It certainly didn’t feel wrong."
The allure of the forbidden is age-old, of course, but it has intensified of late—partly out of necessity. In an era marked by fear, loathing, and countless taboos, how is one to eat with a clear conscience?At every link in the food chain, a dizzying number of things are being declared "wrong" by somebody.
In April 2006, Chicago’s city council voted, 49 to 1, to outlaw the sale of foie gras; New Jersey (home of D’Artagnan, a leading foie gras distributor) is considering a statewide ban. And by 2012, the production and sale of foie gras will be illegal throughout California.
In March 2005, in a "proactive" move—i.e., there’d been no reports of anyone getting sick—Los Angeles County health officials abruptly clamped down on the sale of wild mushrooms. Apparently, they were surprised to learn that the mushrooms were actually wild and that foragers were mostly unpoliced. Stricter controls are being devised as we speak.
Last June, Whole Foods stopped selling live lobsters at its stores across America, citing concern for the lobsters’ "health and well-being" as they journey through the supply chain to supermarket tanks. The company is searching for new distribution methods that guarantee lobsters "quality of life" and is also reviewing the living conditions of mussels and oysters.
Sigh. What’s a Sancerre-sipping, goose-and-crustacean–torturing gastronome to do?It’s hard enough not being allowed to get Brie de Meaux from France, or mouthwatering jamon ibérico from Spain, or luscious mangosteens from Thailand. Now there’s even a UN-mandated trade freeze on wild beluga caviar.
And it isn’t just about fancy foods. Do you know how hard it is to find a proper, rare-cooked hamburger in this country?(Many local health codes require ground beef to be cooked to above 160 degrees.) Ever count how many towns across America still prohibit the sale of beer?And did you know that in 28 states, a farmer can be fined for selling his neighbors fresh, unpasteurized milk?
We Americans have always wrapped a great deal of guilt and worry into what we eat. Perhaps this derives from an inherited Puritan worldview that condemns gluttony as sin; maybe it’s because we’re all so damn fat. Whatever the cause, our collective anxieties have led us to an increasingly defensive posture vis-à-vis food and drink. Every week, it seems, another menu item—from foie gras to Chilean sea bass, trans fats to organic spinach—is ostracized as unhealthy, environmentally destructive, morally shameful, or downright lethal. Some concerns are legitimate, some exaggerated, some just paranoiac hokum. So which to believe, and which to ignore?
Amid the confusion and contention, a small but determined underground has emerged. It’s hardly an organized movement—at least, not yet. But a growing number of dauntless food- lovers are ignoring the more draconian restrictions, defying U.S. Customs and the FDA, and seeking out a taste of the forbidden.
You might be one of them. Remember the Spanish chorizo you "forgot to declare"?The South African biltong jerky you smuggled home in your knapsack?It seemed so harmless and surprisingly easy: around the globe, there’s a whole cottage industry set up to help you breach American health codes. Buy a round of genuine raw-milk Camembert at the Paris cheese shop Alléosse and tell them you’re headed aux États-Unis; the fromager will triple–vacuum-seal it and send you off with a wink and a smile. Traditional, wormwood-based absinthe—the favorite drink of Paul Verlaine and Oscar Wilde—has been banned stateside since 1912, due to (widely refuted) reports that it causes convulsions. But log on to U.K.-based site eAbsinthe.com, peruse an array of gorgeous, green-glowing bottles, and within days you can have absinthe delivered, miraculously, to your door. The company will even refund your money if the bottle is intercepted.
Perhaps I associate with a dissolute crowd, but I know hardly anyone who hasn’t sneaked some culinary contraband across the border. A bartender friend returned from China with a Dopp kit full of Sichuan peppercorns, the spicy red berries that are an essential ingredient in Sichuan cuisine and, more relevant to his purposes, in dark-and-stormy cocktails. Because of infestation risks, they’re banned for import unless they’ve been heat-processed—but, of course, the untreated ones taste better.
Me, I smuggle home mangosteens. These cue ball–sized fruits, native to Southeast Asia, have a hard purple shell and a snowy-white, segmented interior—imagine a lychee crossed with a clementine. The taste is sweet, tart, and drop-dead delicious. But since the mangosteen is a potential fruit-fly carrier, it hangs tantalizingly out of reach for Americans: a true forbidden fruit. Would I crave it so intensely if it weren’t one?Probably, but the pining sure is part of it.
Thanfully, there are a handful of iconoclastic chefs, farmers, entrepreneurs and sybarites working to expose misguided food laws in America. They see our eating habits being increasingly dictated by craven fusspots, killjoys, and moral alarmists, and they’re determined to stop the madness. This isn’t just a contrarian impulse, a case of eating-to-be-bad. No. The lure of "forbidden foods" is not necessarily in opposition to health, purity, or rectitude. Indeed, with some foods, an illicit version can be healthier than the FDA-approved one.
Consider Spain’s legendary ibérico ham, long blocked for export to the United States (the USDA had no system in place for approving Spanish slaughterhouses). It was our loss: with its intense, nutty flavor, jamon ibérico is shockingly good. Roaming freely in the cork forests of southern Spain, Iberian pigs eat a natural diet of mushrooms, roots, and acorns that’s high in beneficial vegetable fat, which makes for a healthier animal—and, ironically, a much healthier product—than most ham sold stateside. But take heart: one Spanish company has finally won approval to produce ibérico for the U.S. market. The first shipments of lomo, salchichón, and chorizo, sold under the "Fermin USA" label, began showing up here last summer. (Whole legs of ibérico de bellota, the most coveted variety, are expected by summer 2008. The price per leg?$2,000.)
"We need to get back to some simplicity and common sense," Steven Jenkins, one of America’s leading cheese experts, insists. "Unfortunately, it’s 2006, everything’s regulated, everyone’s under scrutiny—it doesn’t bode well. All these bureaucrats are going to ruin all the food in favor of nobody ever getting sick."
Jenkins is a champion of traditional farmstead cheeses—"serious cheeses, made by people rather than machines," and, just as important, made from unpasteurized milk. This poses a problem. Since 1950, the FDA has required all raw-milk cheeses, imported and domestic, to be aged at least 60 days, by which point the lifespan of all pathogens will have theoretically run its course. Otherwise (in the case of younger cheeses, like Camembert or Epoisses), the milk must be pasteurized.
To Jenkins, this is anathema to good cheese making. "Pasteurization kills most of the flavor molecules," he says. "Besides, many health incidents blamed on raw-milk cheeses were subsequently found to be the fault of pasteurized cheese from a factory."
It was through Jenkins that I learned of a dairy farmer who’s cleverly showing up the law: Mary Falk, owner of Love Tree Farm in Grantsburg, Wisconsin. Falk is crafting a soft, chalky specimen from the raw milk of a Jersey cow and aging it for just six weeks, 18 days fewer than the legal requirement. Ergo, this cheese—about which Jenkins raves, "I’ve never tasted anything so good in my whole life"—is illegal to sell for human consumption. Which is why Falk sells it under the label Fishbait.
As long as customers are warned that this beautiful wheel of creamy goodness is for catching trout, not eating (nudge-nudge, wink-wink), Fishbait is legal. But is it safe?Consider that the FDA allows store-bought milk to have a maximum bacteria "plate count" of 20,000. Love Tree Farm’s milk averages fewer than 5,000—and it retains all its natural vitamin content. Yet raw milk is illegal in almost half of the country.
As always, loopholes exist. There’s now a growing trend toward "cow-share" collectives, set up by dairy farms, that, in exchange for a modest buy-in, provide members with raw milk and yogurt. Like Fishbait cheese, this is quasi-legal: most state laws prohibit only the sale of unpasteurized milk. But the cow’s owners—in this case, all 417 of them—are perfectly entitled to consume it.
Certain restrictions are essential, obviously. One can’t argue with the UN’s caviar-trade embargo: Caspian and Black Sea sturgeon are being drastically overfished, and the survival of the species is at stake (though there is some irony in keeping the beluga alive so we can kill it later without remorse).
The wave of pending legislation against trans fats (hydrogenated fats that elevate bad cholesterol) is equally well-intended—and, for lawmakers, surprisingly audacious, considering the average voter’s affection for doughnuts. Last September, New York became the first city in the nation to set forth a virtual ban: soon every restaurant item will be held to no more than a half-gram of trans fat per serving.
This could only be a good thing, right?"Banning trans fats isn’t an inherently bad idea," Jenkins says. "But once you open that window, you open too many others—and if they take that away, next they’re gonna come for our ice cream and potato chips." The problem with legislating eating habits isn’t just that the rules are often arbitrary. It’s that there’s no obvious place to stop. Food is intrinsically dangerous—for God’s sake, you put it in your mouth. This is the risk one assumes with the blessing and burden of having an appetite. It’s why we have warning labels on shrink-wrapped sirloin, oyster menus, and Caesar salads. And unless you’re a sprout-munching vegan, eating is cruel by definition. Let’s be honest here: we’re killing things to consume them, and anyone who’s visited a farm—even a sweet, happy little farm—can confirm that it’s often not pretty.
So where’s the sensible end point?I won’t defend foie gras by denying its production is unsavory; I suppose it is. But for every lavaged goose whose photo appears on an anti–foie gras Web site, another 10,000 faceless battery chickens and factory cows are raised in similarly unsettling conditions. Who’s picketing all the supermarkets and restaurants that are enabling that?(This forces questions of tolerance: if foie gras is inhumane, what do we say about halal and kosher butchery, which some believe are unacceptably cruel?) And while it’s all well and good to consider the lobster, it seems duplicitous to talk about its happiness en route from ocean to market, when the ultimate intention is for it to be taken home and boiled to death.
There’s no question we could use a little more temperance in this country. But does it have to be imposed from above?The fact is, if we outlawed every food that’s potentially lethal (spinach, pufferfish, rhubarb), or whose origins somebody somewhere might find disturbing, we’d have nothing left on the table—at least nothing worth eating.;
If loving foie gras is wrong, Peter Jon Lindberg doesn’t want to be right.