Monday, November 5, 2007

one rare weekend, foie gras on the side

The Gunks

This weekend past, I took a drive up to the New York to hang out, dine out, think out loud and discuss a lot of really important things with Ruhlman-mentor Mike Pardus, Krishnendu Ray, and David Livert -a social psychologist who accompanied Mike on one of his storied trips to Vietnam. I had not met David before and was impressed by his calm demeanor, wry sense of humor and robust appetite for so many things of interest to humans. His ability to behave with the confidence of someone who has cleared the formal operations stage was more than reassuring to Mike and I who are when all is said, in writ and done, chefs. Kris was, as always, nonpareil.

We spent most of the weekend in and around the Town of New Paltz where Pardus lives in a house with central heating. I had not been to New Paltz since visiting my youngest brother while he was enrolled at SUNY New Paltz sometime during the Holocene Era (ca 30 years BP). To my surprise and delight, the scene on the streets of New Paltz has not changed much since my first visit there in the late 1960's.

Most of the people on the street look to be about 21 and on a mission to be down. There are lots of restaurants (yawn), book stores (yeah!) and at least one head shop -whose owners seem to think that placing skateboards and Xtreme! SPoRtZ themed T-Shirts in the window is going to magically distract attention from the interior display cases filled with crack-pipes, hookahs and other instruments of psychic and physical self abuse.

It is easy to forget how beautiful the Hudson River Valley is at this time of year. (A shameful admission for someone who lived there for the better part of three decades.) The shear cliffs of the Shawangunk Mountains to the west look inevitable as they soar above the valley of the Wallkill bristling with slamming trees all blown up with color. Referred to by locals and cognoscenti as the Gunks, the effect of their juxtaposition against the wooded valley walls lend new and ironic meaning to the name of the character in the eponymously named movie Forest Gunk. Okay, I'll stop BS-ing now


On Saturday morning Pardus and I broke camp early and drove up to Hudson Valley Farms. Since I began blogging about attempts by radicalized vegans and credulous politicians to ban foie gras, I have become friendly with HVF's operations manager Marcus Henley, who invited Mike and I for a tour. We spent about four hours walking around and I was surprised (and relieved) that I did not find anything that disturbed me.

I had not expected to see animals being visibly abused, but I thought I'd see something to justify all the bad press HVF has gotten thanks to PETA, The Humane Society of the United States and their subsidiaries. Our presence was not going to be a secret to the staff, and I was sure everyone would be on their best behavior. But I figured even if they worked OT they couldn't hide everything. I thought for sure that I was going to find something that gave me reason to believe the worst. But in the end, the worst thing that happened was that one of the barns smelled funky. I'd have preferred an aroma with more subtle notes of urea. But really it wasn't any worse than the aroma of a poorly ventilated locker room.

All the other barns were as clean as the cleanest barn I have ever seen. The pens of the ducks who were being hand fed (gavage) were also very clean. The ducks themselves looked a little ragged because as they become really fat it's harder for them to preen so their feathers loose a lot of their sheen. All of the animal facilities are regularly washed with viricide to prevent infection and the processing rooms were positively immaculate. Even the slaughtering room smelled good. I'm serious about this, it smelled like fresh duck fat.

I am mindful of the fact that some readers are going to look at the pictures below and think "Is he kidding? There are pictures of ducks being force fed, ducks being hung upside down, stunned and slaughtered and he says that the worst thing anywhere was the smell?"

There is not much I can say to this except that if you don't eat meat or have never consciously killed anything and eaten it, then it is unlikely that there will ever be a perfect way to raise and kill animals for food. So let's move on. But for those who eat meat, treasure it as a part of our cultural heritage and who may think of meat as an object of craft, the photos should not disturb you at all. Finally, if you know a little bit about how animals are treated in big factory poultry farms where the birds are de-beaked, jammed into cages and slaughtered by the tens of thousands, Hudson Valley Farms should look like a model of responsible and ethical animal husbandry.

In conclusion I have to say that the image of the foie gras farming that has been put out there by PETA, The Humane Society of the United States (and others) appears to have nothing to do with what I saw going on at Hudson Valley Farms. There may be other foie gras producers who jam steel tubes down the throats of ducks (the tubes at HVF are soft rubber) and force them to eat until they explode and blow their guts all over the room. But that does not seem to be the case here. And no, I don't think that the handlers waited for us to leave before they resumed their torture. Given that they get paid a bonus for every duck they bring alive to slaughter it'd be pretty stupid of them to do anything that might hurt a duck.

BTW, Tony Bourdain was at Hudson Valley Farm the previous week with a camera crew. I think Marcus told me that whatever it was he was shooting for is going to air in December.
Whatever it was he was shooting you can be sure it wasn't a PETA commercial.


Tags said...

New Paltz? That's where the Hudson Valley Ribfest

is held. Linda, Jerry & Chris Mullane go up there every year and have some great stories about it. They even have pictures on their website

BTW, Main Line Prime is now open

18 Greenfield Ave
Ardmore, PA 19003


Duroc pork, Kobe beef from Japan, prime beef, seafood, organic & free-range chickens.

The Foodist said...

I just recently fell in love with New Paltz. Been here off and on for 2 years and never got around to going till last weekend when the roommate and I went to Blockheads.

Great burritos, crappy service. But what can you expect from a place for college kids, run by college kids.

but your right about the view. Its one of the first things that grabbed me. Standing at the main intersection the street disapears from view as it winds and drops down and you get this awsome view of building tops with a backdrop of mountain.

I knew the farm was big, but jeezey-peezy does it look massive.
I really am going to have to get up there before I get out of this place.

Lizzie Vonhurst said...

Thank you, Bob, for your accurate depiction of Hudson Valley Foie Gras.

I have visited the farm as well and found it to be as you said. Perhaps I had an even better time, as I got to play with the ducklings too. I asked if I could bring one home to live in my bathtub... Apparently not a good idea.

Thank you for spreading the word about foie gras production. The animal rights organizations are so heavily funded (mostly by people who are confused about the difference between animal welfare and animal rights) that their misinformation campaigns are dangerous. Foie gras is taking so much heat because, with only three small farms in the U.S., it has become the easiest target.


Sean said...

Thanks for the photos and the perspective on what is perhaps the best, most humane foie gras operation in the United States. Your pictures underscored for me the reasons why I became vegan and continue to advocate that lifestyle. I can't get over the absurdity of raising and manipulating these animals solely to satiate our gustatory desires. Thousands of animals will be bred and raised in those hatching sheds, will be moved to other sheds, then finally kept in pens to be deliberately fattened beyond their natural capacity -- all for a great mouth feel? I still like the smell of bacon and am tempted by sizzle of beef but beyond my philosophical motivations, I'm viscerally repulsed and saddened by this state of affairs. I guess that when one gets beyond those philosophical discussions, that emotional response is what distinguishes vegans from the rest of the omnivorous community.

redman said...

love the pictures

miss the hudson valley

good to see that picture of you and pardus

if someone told me ten years ago I would be looking at pictures on a blog with former teachers wouldn't have believed it

Bob del Grosso said...

Sean you wrote
"I guess that when one gets beyond those philosophical discussions, that emotional response is what distinguishes vegans from the rest of the omnivorous community."

I think you have hit upon something profound here. When I went into the slaughter room I was only slightly jarred by what I saw. The angst lasted less than a second, after that the scene just became interesting.

My guess is that you would have had a very different reaction.

Scotty said...


I have been mulling this over since you posted. It took until this morning to post at m own place, and 'til now to post at yours. Bottom line: we are dealing with two visceral responses to two different issues in the foie gras debate.

The first is the issue of slaughtering animals for food. I have never done it for anything higher in the food chain than lobster, and I am not sure I could. I have good friends who raised pigs and hunted for food, but I am not sure I could be there for the act of killing. But, I was happy to be there later to break down and cook the product.

(As a weird side note, I also dated their daughter for a couple of years, especially when she was at New Paltz. Synchronicity. Her sister constantly reminds me that I am lucky that I didn't ask her to marry me)

For me, I kick the kids out when I split a lobster, but I have no problem taking them into the cooler of a very nice local custom butcher to look at beef carcasses hanging, so they can see where their meat comes from.

No, the problem is that people don't get the other visceral image: gavage. I saw nothing in our pictures that showed suffering from the practice, but people don't see that. They see a tube put down their own throat and look at it like waterboarding. I've had a tube down my nose to feed me - it saved my life. But, somebody independent has to explain that ducks/geese ain't people, and that they aren't (or are) suffering.

Good job, Bob!

Scotty said...

PS My "y" key is sticking again on my laptop. Daughters, no food around the laptop! ;-)

The Foodist said...

by the by, in response to the tagline on one of your photos;

Does Pardus EVER look impressed?! haha everytime I see him its that exact expression.

His daughter was actually in Caterina yesterday helping us pick herbs and peel potatoes as he ate dinner/chatted, cute kid..wonder if she'll end up like her dad.

veron said...

One thing was not able to do when I was at the Hudson Valley was to visit the foie gras farm. I din't see any miserable ducks in your slide show. That is a very humane way to treat a giver of such heavenly foie!