CHICAGO – In the city once known as the world's slaughterhouse, restaurants, politicians and animal rights activists are worked up over a goose liver delicacy.
A proposed ban on foie gras has divided Chicago's fine restaurants and stirred a two-pronged debate: whether it is humane to force-feed geese and ducks to plump up their livers, and whether politicians should be telling diners what they can and cannot eat.
"Our laws are reflection of our culture, and in our culture it's not acceptable to torture small animals," said Alderman Joseph Moore, whose proposed ordinance would affect.
Chicago was once "hog butcher for the world," as the poet Carl Sandburg so famously put it. The vast Union Stock Yards were the setting for Upton Sinclair's muckraking novel "The Jungle," about conditions in turn-of-the-century meatpacking plants.
While that era is long gone, Chicago is still very much a city of carnivores, with its steakhouses and its Chicago-style hot dogs with all the trimmings.
"I never thought this would happen in my lifetime. It feels so politically driven," said Rick Tramonto, the chef and owner of the four-star restaurant Tru. "We're the meatpacking part of the country. We're the Midwest. We're farming states. It's strange to me that this is happening."
A City Council committee approved the ordinance last month, and the full council could vote this month. But Mayor Richard M. Daley has made it clear he does not like the idea of banning certain foods, grumbling, "Pretty soon, you can't drink."
Rich and buttery, foie gras, pronounced fwah-GRAH and French for "fat liver," often is served sliced and pan-seared, frequently with fruit or atop greens or a cut of steak or veal.
To fatten the liver of waterfowl, a tube is inserted into their throats twice a day and partially cooked corn is pumped down the esophagus. Only three foie gras farms — two in New York and one in California — operate in the United States.
"Force-feeding birds to have livers up to 10 times their size is appalling and most citizens are shocked to learn this," said Gene Bauston, president of the animal rights group Farm Sanctuary, which is part of a worldwide movement against foie gras.
But Guillermo Gonzalez, who owns operates Sonoma Foie Gras, a foie gras producer about 80 miles east of San Francisco, contends the process is not abusive.
"The images using a tube to feed is duck is not pretty, but the fact of the matter is the anatomy of ducks and geese are perfectly adaptable," he said.
Several Chicago restaurateurs oppose the ban and say they do not want politicians meddling with a product steeped in tradition. However, Charlie Trotter, Chicago's most famous chef, has stopped serving foie gras at his namesake restaurant. And Bistro Campagne's chef and co-owner Michael Altenberg also dropped the delicacy, after a customer sent him a DVD produced by an animal-rights group.
"This is outright cruelty," Altenberg said. "It's cruelty just for gluttony."
In October, a restaurant that serves foie gras, Cyrano's Bistrot, was vandalized after its owner testified against the proposed ban. A window was smashed and a door was smeared with a blood-red liquid.
California is the only state to vote to ban the force-feeding of birds to produce the gourmet liver product, passing a measure that would end the practice by 2012. Israel, the world's fourth-largest producer of foie gras, also banned production of the delicacy on the grounds of cruelty.
France has stood firm. About 80 percent of the world's foie gras comes from France. French lawmakers last month unanimously passed an amendment pronouncing foie gras part of France's cultural heritage.