Every year we buy a food-related calendar for the kitchen. I’m not sure why – in this age of personal electronic devices, wall calendars are pretty much obsolete, and the selection becomes more and more sparse each year. But we have this one section of wall that needs something, and it’s kind of fun to mark the passing of the months by flipping the page and enjoying a new picture for 30 days.
This year, our kitchen calendar is a collection of vintage food ads. None of them are exceptionally remarkable, but they meet the criteria of being food-related and vaguely retro. Like most calendars, we don’t really look at the pictures as “art”; that is, we just enjoy the image and don’t really analyze it too much.
On new year’s day, we opened up the new calendar and flipped it open to January, where the ad is for a brand of foie gras; Edouard Artzner of Strasbourg, France, a company which has been around since 1803.
First off, it’s a bit risky including a foie gras ad in a food calendar – foie is the one food item that can start an argument faster than anything else I know – even some dedicated carnivores disapprove of foie. But the ad itself is a source of great amusement.
A portly man is seated at a table on which is placed a half-full glass of wine or sherry and a lidded pot of foie gras, the lid removed to show that some has been consumed. The man is red in the face and appears to be asleep, his hands folded over his belly in a display of comfort and sophonsification. On each of the man’s shoulders is a large white duck, their bills close together as if in conversation.
Here’s the disturbing bit – we can’t for the life of us figure out if the ducks are there to symbolize some sort of joy at the delicious repast, or if they’re plotting the fat man’s gruesome death as they peck his face off for eating their brother George.
It looks as if it’s supposed to be a pleasant image, but really, it could well be a scene of impending carnage.
It took me many years to learn to like foie gras. My first impression, based on a mousse, was that it was not unlike liver-flavoured shortening.
I was at a restaurant opening once where the chef piped a foie gras mousse into cone shapes and then dipped them in chocolate and served them on a stick, similar to the classic chocolate-dipped cone from an ice cream truck. Figuring the chocolate would overpower the foie, I happily took one, only to immediately realize it was disgusting to me, and spat it out into a napkin. As it was a cocktail-style event, I was left with a paper napkin full of nasty foie and no place to put it. I didn’t want to just leave it somewhere for someone else to come across and I couldn’t find a server who could discretely take it away.
So I did what every other woman would do in the same situation – I balled up the napkin and shoved it in my purse. I’m not a fan of those granny purses with the million compartments, but this purse had a little side pocket, designed to hold a cell phone. Thinking that I didn’t want to keep sticking my hand in ooky foie gras every time I went digging for a business card or my lipstick, I jammed the napkin in the pocket and zipped it shut.
Four days later when I pulled that bag out of the cabinet where I keep my purse collection, the stench was over-powering. Fortunately the bag was washable, because let me tell you, there really is no other way to get the smell of rotting foie gras out of fabric.
Despite these bad experiences, I eventually grew to enjoy, if not love, foie gras. The turning point was one year on my husband’s birthday. We were at beer bistro, a local restaurant that specializes in dishes prepared with beer, when the chef, who my husband knew, brought us a complimentary dish of foie gras cured in Belgian beer. I don’t know if it was the flavour of the beer that did it, or that it was prepared so simply allowing the foie to remain in a firmer, more natural condition, but to date, it remains my favourite foie gras experience.
It would be remiss to write about foie gras and not discuss the ethical issues surrounding the product. But honestly, I can claim no expertise. There are as many people who defend the practice and list off all the reasons why it’s sustainable and ethical as there are people who think its a cruel form of animal abuse. I’m not typically a fence-sitter, but I think both sides of the argument have merit. And as someone who thinks almost all industrial meat is cruel in various ways, to me it seems no different than how we treat other forms of poultry or pigs or cows.
Thankfully, between the number of people who don’t like it, think it to be morally wrong, or flat out can’t afford the stuff, foie gras doesn’t really run the risk of ever going mainstream, which means that if the force feeding required to create the fattened liver is cruel and painful to the birds, it’s some small consolation to know that the number is smaller than it could be if more people ate the stuff.
And who knows, maybe, someday, when we’re least expecting it, the ducks will have their revenge.