Foie gras and the politics of privilege

January 13, 2011

By Kyle

There is some culinary controversy leading up to this year’s Winterlude. Celebrity chef Martin Picard was set to cook for the Taste of Winterlude event on February 4.  Picard is well known for his use of foie gras, an ingredient produced by force feeding a duck or goose. Due to the exceptional level of cruelty involved in the production of foie gras, the selection of Martin Picard as chef has been controversial.

After a number of people raised concerns, the National Capital Commision (NCC) asked Picard to take foie gras off the menu. Instead of preparing a meal sans foie gras, Picard decided to back out of the event entirely. Apparently, Mr. Picard is unable to prepare a meal without using his favourite ingredient.  The NCC announced that another celebrity chef, Michael Smith, has taken on the tremendously challenging task of creating a meal that doesn’t contain the fattened liver of a force fed bird.

On the heels of this decision, there have been complaints about self righteous “animal rights nuts” who are unfairly pushing their choices and opinions on everyone else. It is a common tactic to portray vegans and others concerned about animal rights as strident, unreasonable, and downright oppressive. I find it fascinating how the most privileged and powerful have an uncanny ability to paint themselves as a persecuted minority.

The myth of the confrontational vegan is not only overblown, it turns reality on its head. I’ve eaten meat in front of vegans and I’ve declined to eat meat in front of omnivores.  Vegans have sometimes given me flak for eating meat, but it’s nothing compared to the harassment I’ve received while choosing vegan options in front of omnivores.

When I turn down meat, I am often bombarded with questions. Usually these questions have a hostile tone and are asked by people who aren’t really interested in the answer. There are also the fun rants about how eating meat is natural, how it’s healthier, how humans are on top of some mythical food chain etc. These are all presented, unsolicited, as if they were clever and novel arguments. If I refuse meat in certain crowds, my masculinity is challenged. But easily my favourite tactic is when someone, who wouldn’t otherwise have done so, orders copious amounts of meat because they think they are making some sort of point.

In that fine tradition, Steve Mitton of the Murray Street Bistro has decided to put foie gras on the restaurant’s menu as a protest. Foie gras is not usually served at the restaurant, but in a breathtakingly obnoxious move, he has gone out of his way to add it. This is a good example of the way privileged people often react when they are asked to make the tiniest concession.

I think there are two reasons for these excessively negative reactions. One reason is that omnivores make up the vast majority of the population and as such are accustomed to being catered to and getting things their way. This is undeniably a privilege. When privileged people are asked to accommodate others, something they aren’t used to doing, they often view it as a deep injustice.

The other factor at play, I believe, is that deep down many people know that using animal products is problematic. When they are confronted with this reality, they often get defensive as a way to cope with the cognitive dissonance.

Clearly, not every omnivore behaves this way. Most are perfectly pleasant people. However, it is long past time we do away with the myth that those who are concerned with animal rights are the ones who push their views on everybody else. More often than not it’s the other way around. We live in an omnivore’s world and nobody is being oppressed when people are asked to make a small concession and refrain from eating foie gras at a large public event.

The author, Kyle, is neither a vegan nor a vegetarian.

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4 thoughts on “Foie gras and the politics of privilege”

  1. Viv says:

    Kyle, I enjoyed reading your opinion about Foie Gras. I think the chef at Murray Street Bistro is offering vegan choices, as I heard him being interviewed on the radio. You should sent your story into the Citizen, thanks.

  2. Julia says:

    Nicely written. Serving foie gras as some kind of protest I just find embarrasing for Steve Mitton and the other two chefs who are doing such. With all the actual GOOD they could do, this is what they decide is a ‘fight’ worth fighting?

  3. Darryl says:

    Great article. I agree you should send this to the Citizen. The chefs who say they are serving foie gras in protest are just cashing in on the publicity, their menus which were set months ago for Taste of Winterlude had already included foie gras, it’s funny that Steve Mitton’s is one of the only events not yet sold out, sounds like he is getting desperate to sell some tickets.

  4. H says:

    I agree with the previous comments: 1) excellent article, 2) you should send it to the paper!

    I think your comment about cognitive dissonance is a very good one. I find it incredibly strange to hear “force”-feeding being argued by foie gras proponents as an activity that ducks “love” and “look forward to”…it might have even been funny, if it weren’t so tragic.

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