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From a delicacy, a delicate situation

The Baltimore Sun

The seared something balances atop a scallop, the quintessence of culinary refinement and elegant dining - and the cause of so much trouble.

It is foie gras, a velvet-textured delicacy loved by some gourmets. And it presents a provocation to certain animal rights activists. Only days ago, it brought a dozen yelling, sign-wielding protesters to the doorstep of Kali's Court, a Fells Point restaurant that features it on its menu.

The taste of foie gras - "fat liver" in French - isn't the problem. Nor is the fancy way it is prepared or even its exorbitant price tag, which at nearly $100 a pound is, to most, cause enough for outcry. The debate over foie gras begins and ends in the way it's produced - by force-feeding ducks or geese to expand their livers, a practice that animal rights activists call abusive.

With accusatory chants and grisly posters, protesters have set up shop - and provoked change - from California to Chicago to New York and Philadelphia. Now in Baltimore, they'll shame or annoy or threaten - anything, really - to force chefs to strike the recherche ingredient from their menus.

"For our purpose, it does not matter why they take it off, just as long as they stop serving it," says Aaron Ross, a 24-year-old contractor and co-founder of the Baltimore Animal Rights Coalition, the group behind the demonstrations staged this month outside some of the city's finest dining establishments. "I'm going to focus on foie gras until it's completely out of Baltimore."

When Ross gathered with about 10 protesters outside Kali's Court on a Saturday night, their screamed chants, amplified through a bullhorn, echoed off the cobblestones of Thames Street, stopping passers-by in their tracks and bringing shop owners to their windows.

"Foie gras is obscene, broken wings and force feeding," they yelled. And, "For the animals we will fight, drop foie gras and do what's right."

After just a few minutes of commotion, six police cars pulled up, lights flashing.

A conciliatory Ross dropped the bullhorn, but his party doubled up on the screaming, remaining outside for another hour or so. Kali's executives watched helplessly, shaking their heads.

General manager Kenneth D. Petty said he didn't know what effect - if any - the protest would have. "It's a lifestyle choice, and lifestyle choices shouldn't be pushed on others," he said.

The protesters weren't hearing that. They promised to return until Kali's sees it their way. Just like they've haunted Salt in Butchers Hill for months.

There the offending dish is a foie gras and Kobe beef slider - a little hamburger that, for $15, comes with truffle aioli and red onion marmalade.

Ross' group has gathered at the 45-seat restaurant weekend after weekend to protest the burger's topping. But Chef Jason Ambrose, who co-owns the chic restaurant with his mother, isn't budging.

He did, however, seek intervention from local and federal authorities after, he says, the activists super-glued the restaurant's locks, shot out glass with a pellet gun and phoned as many as 50 times an hour. Ross insists that his group had no part in any of that, but Ambrose doesn't believe it.

"We're two people who took a building people were selling drugs out of [and] spent a million dollars to turn it into something positive. They want to come out and make us seem like horrible people, and that's not true," Ambrose said.

"I love foie gras. It's one of my favorite ingredients. It's buttery and luscious and it's been served for thousands of years. ... . It's my right to serve whatever I want to serve that's a legal product."

Ross, a vegan like the core members of his group, turned against foie gras after reading material published by Farm Sanctuary, a national organization formed in 1986 to fight animal abuse.

"I read about how it's produced and thought it was horrific," he said. "It's pretty extreme level of cruelty."

He's talking about pictures of ducks collapsed in filthy cages, their beaks hanging open and stuffed with feed. Images of birds with twisted, broken necks, ostensibly because of tubes inserted down their throats.

Salt, like many restaurants, buys foie gras from Hudson Valley Foie Gras, a farm in New York's Catskill Mountains, the largest producer in North America. Farm Sanctuary has targeted it.

Marcus Henley is Hudson Valley's operations director and a member of the Artisan Farmer's Alliance, a nonprofit charged with countering the protests. Calling objections to his farm "completely unfounded," Henley repeatedly points out that anyone can visit the farm anytime to see scores of healthy, happy ducks.

"If you could come here, you can go in any building, you can watch every part of the operation," he says. "The people who come here walk away and say, 'Wow, that is not like anything depicted on the foie gras Web sites.'"

Protesters incorrectly imagine people in the birds' place and how torturous it must feel to be force fed, Henley says. The procedure simply doesn't hurt ducks, he contends.

The activists who've taken pictures of sick birds, he says, have documented the exception rather than the rule.

"You have funeral homes in your community, right? If I take a picture of a dead body and say that's life in your community, that's true, right? Those images are very carefully selected to represent the whole of a foie gras farm."

Ross said he plans to visit Hudson Valley soon. Maybe over spring break.

Meanwhile, Baltimore food enthusiasts are coming to Salt's defense. In fact, they'll celebrate foie gras there at a dinner on Thursday - four deluxe courses, starting with sugar cane skewered foie gras and closing with the famous (or infamous) beef slider with foie gras.

Lars Rusins, who founded Baltimore Foodies, said his group's dinner, which will cost about $100 a person, sold out in 48 hours. As it is, the party of 20 will take up about half the restaurant.

"I have no problem consuming the product - none at all," said Rusins, who calls foie gras "silky" and "fun on the taste buds."

Though Salt and Kali's Court are holding firm, Ross says he's shown a number of area restaurants the error of their ways. In the ranks of the converted he lists Timothy Dean Bistro, The Brass Elephant and Birches.

"The Brass Elephant is starting the new year right with a heaping helping of compassion," the Baltimore Animal Rights Coalition Web site declares. "Chef Andrew should be applauded for setting yet another example of incorporating compassion on the menu."

Chef Andrew Maggitti, however, says he agreed to stop serving foie gras only because he offered it as a New Year's Eve special in the first place - served with both a beet and apple salad and in a soup with a white truffle foam. He's not convinced of any cruelty.

"I'm not sure if it hurts the bird. I don't know," he said. "I don't know if they're gasping and crying. Just that we're in the restaurant business. We're in the business of making people happy. If there was a big enough protest outside my front door I might take it off the menu, just to not ruffle any feathers, no pun intended."

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

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