The Curious History of Foie Gras

foie gras vintage advertising

Foie gras – doesn’t that sound much nicer than “fatty liver?” But that’s exactly what this controversial French delicacy is: Fatty duck or goose liver. The controversy has to do with how the liver is fattened. The farmer puts a tube down the bird’s throat and force-feeds him, a technique known as gavage.

France produces about 80% of the world’s foie gras and the French gobble up most of that themselves. But they can’t take credit (or blame) for coming up with the idea of force-feeding animals to fatten their liver. People have been doing this for thousands of years. It goes back at least to the ancient Egyptians.

foie gras geese egyptian

Egyptians

The Egyptians noticed that before geese (and other waterfowl) flew off on their annual migration, they ate a lot more than normal and got a bit chubby. When someone decided to have a goose dinner before the birds all flew away, they found that the liver was full of extra fat and tasted yummy.

They figured if they could make a goose eat extra amounts at other times, they could have a tasty fat liver whenever they wanted. So the Egyptians started force-feeding geese on a large scale. And they didn’t stop there: They force-fed other animals such as cows and even hyenas.

Papyrus depicting geese feeding, reconstruction relief from private funerary mastaba of Ptahhotep

Greeks and Romans

The practice of forcefully fattening animals passed to the Greeks and then to the Romans. They added more animals to the gavage list: They overfed pigs, dormice, and even snails.

Then someone discovered that they could add extra flavor to the fatty liver by force-feeding the geese with dried figs instead of grain. The fig-stuffed goose would then be given a dose of honeyed wine just before he was killed. This infused the fat liver with a nice, figgy flavor. In fact, the latin word ficatum (which means “figgy”) became the word for liver and the French word foie is derived from that.

European Jews

When the Roman Empire came to an end, the foie gras tradition seems to have been carried on by European Jews. They used goose fat to cook their meat since butter and lard were forbidden under their dietary laws. Then around the 16th century, Renaissance chefs rediscovered the dainty dish and started buying their fatted goose livers from the Jews.

foie gras goose ad

French Kings

Later foie gras became associated with the kings of France. The term “foyes gras” began to be used during the reign of Louis XIV, and the next Louis (Louis XV) served it at royal banquets. But it was under Louis XVI that the it was proclaimed the “dish of kings.” In 1778 the governor of Alsace served a special foie gras recipe to Louis XVI. He loved it so much he gave the governor a parcel of land in Picardie to show his appreciation. He also gave twenty gold coins to the chef who had prepared it.

After the Revolution (when the last Louis lost his head) regular people could enjoy yummy, fat duck livers and they began to show up on restaurant menus. Today most French people eat foie gras at least a few times a year. It’s mainly served at Christmas and for special occasions.

Animal rights groups have protested the cruelty of gavage  for years and a few farmers are starting to use gentler methods. But, cruel or not, fatty duck and goose liver is definitely part of France’s culture. It was recognized as “part of the cultural and gastronomic heritage of France” in 2006 and is likely to be around for quite a while.

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History of Foie Gras

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8 thoughts on “The Curious History of Foie Gras

  1. Wonderful! Another piece of great research. I am amazed fois gras has such a long history. Not surprising, as it is so delicious. I am also happy to hear that they are developing less cruel methods for the necessary force feeding required to produce it. Mind you, I don’t think about that on the rare occasions I have been able to enjoy fois gras when I have been in France (in cans it is not quite so perfect).
    Best wishes
    Paula

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Paula. Even with the controversy, foie gras is still going strong (at least in France.) Like you, I don’t eat it very often, but when I do, I enjoy it.

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      • Dear Margo: Thanks! Well, i did find that Louis XIV especially enjoyed foie gras, his favorite food, as he could “gum” it down — he had lost all his teeth to tooth decay! And Louis XV would go on to faint from eating too much of it. No telling what would have happened to France had they tried your Governor of Alsace’s 1778 recipe! 🙂
        Bill (finally on Kindle)

        Liked by 1 person

        • That’s funny! How much foie gras do you have to eat to faint from it? 🙂 I guess the French have built up a tolerance to it, because it doesn’t seem to make anyone faint these days. Thanks for your comments.
          And good to know that your book is now on Kindle. I’ll be sure to order it as soon as I get settled in from my move: “George Washington’s Liberty Key: Mount Vernon’s Bastille Key – the Mystery and Magic of Its Body, Mind, and Soul”
          Best,
          Margo

          Liked by 1 person

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