THE EAT BEAT
By LEAH A. ZELDES
The foie gras feud made local headlines this week, when Chicago Tribune reporter Mark Caro apparently touched off a "let's you and him fight" tiff between veteran Chicago gourmet chefs Charlie Trotter and Rick Tramonto. Foie gras (pronounced fwaw-grah), which retails for some $80 pound, is the rich, buttery, delicately flavored liver of certain specially reared ducks (or, in Europe, geese). The heavenly stuff is typically served in small quantities, lightly seared or as a smooth, unctuous pate.
Trotter announced that he's given up serving the duck-liver delicacy at his eponymous Lincoln Park restaurant, because he's decided the brief period of force-feeding the animals are subjected to, a millennia-old practice, is repugnant. Caro then talked to Tramonto, chef/owner of Tru in Streeterville, who opined that if you eat animals anyway, it's somewhat hypocritical to get uptight about duck discomfort. Caro, apparently, then trotted back to Trotter and told him Tramonto had called him a hypocrite, provoking the uber-chef to an outpouring of abuse on Tramonto's liver.
Foie gras is an easy target, especially in America, where most of us grow up both ignorant and squeamish about the realities of meat production. Both the foie gras industry and market in this country are small -- and anyway, the latter, opponents imply, are all rich, fat gluttons bent on indulging themselves at the expense of poor little ducks. (Foie gras birds, by the way, mainly Muscovy and Moulard ducks, are not small and rank among the homeliest species in birdom.)
In February, Schaumburg State Sen. Kathleen Wojcik (R-28) introduced a bill (S.B. 413) that, following the lead of California, would ban production of foie gras in Illinois. Foie gras makes an especially easy shot for Wojcik -- it isn't grown in Illinois now, and if it were, it wouldn't have much economic impact on her northwest suburban district. You could probably count on two fingers the restaurants in that chain-food-laden area that even serve it. But the ban would put a bird-brained restriction on Illinois agriculture, which can use all the help it can get.
Besides, what's next on the food-boycott plate? Trotter may forgo foie gras, but he does serve beef, veal, milk and chicken, all foods that have come under fire from many of the same groups gunning for foie gras, who generally fall into the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals "Meat is murder" camp.
Beef is bad, we're told, because cattle are slaughtered in bloody ways. Like foie gras ducks, all beef cattle go through a fattening process in the weeks before they go to market, a period when they're confined and fed a diet meant to bulk them up. Kobe beef cattle (served at Trotter's restaurant) are confined in small pens their whole lives in land-starved Japan and hand-fed an inebriating diet of sake mash.
Veal calves live short, unfulfilled lives in small pens. Milk cows spend most of their time either pregnant or hooked up to machines. And nobody would wish the life most chickens lead on, well, a duck.
You oughtn't to eat fish, either, we hear, since so many species, from Chilean sea bass to swordfish to sturgeon, have been overfished to the point of endangerment, not to mention containing high levels of mercury and heavy metals. Farm-raised seafood, meanwhile, has been criticized by both animal-rights activists, who object to the creatures' confinement, and environmentalists, who claim that the farms create pollution. Farm Sanctuary, the animal-rights group behind the Web site http://nofoiegras.org, advocates vegetarianism. The site promotes "faux gras" made of mushrooms, nutritional yeast or tofu, rather than pates made from even the untampered-with livers of poultry or other animals.
Yet vegetarianism isn't the answer to a cruelty-free life, say fruitarians, who eat only fruits and seeds -- nothing that harms growing plants. Fungi and yeasts are living creatures, too. (Tofu is made of soybeans, so at least its promotion benefits Illinois agriculture.) Vegetables, a variety of studies with sensitive instruments have shown, feel pain. When cut, they scream.
Personally, I'm going down to the garden to eat worms.
BEYOND CRACKER JACK. "If 20 years ago, you'd told me I'd be cooking in a ballpark, I wouldn't have believed it," says Chef Stephen Leonard. "I trained in Europe." But for the past five years the Cordon Bleu chef has been in charge of the kitchens at Wrigley Field, including not only the season-ticket holders' exclusive Stadium Club, and the private suites, but the concessions where ordinary fans fuel up. This year's expansion and improvements of the park applied to the food, too, says Leonard, who works for Levy Restaurants, food contractor to Wrigley as well as U.S. Cellular Field. Baseball fans can look forward to brighter, better lit stands, with retro signs that hearken back to the park's history as Weeghman Park, and new and upgraded menu items including pepperoni calzone, pork-chop sandwiches and Italian beef and sausage. New specialty carts serve up offer grilled brats, polish, Italian sausage and hot dogs. Season-ticket holders who fork over $600 to join the Stadium Club can choose from daily changing gourmet menus. Prices have risen negligibly, according to Leonard.
BREW DO. Chicago's first Belgian Beer Celebration will feature more than 100 beers, Belgian specialty foods, displays seminars and beer paraphernalia. At 6:30 p.m. Friday, April 15, Kendall College faculty and students will prepare a Belgian beer dinner in consultation with Belgian food and beverage expert Herwig Van Hove, who'll be at the dinner to autograph his book, "Beer at the Dinner Table." Tickets for the dinner are $70, advance purchase only. From 12:30 to 5 p.m. Saturday, April 16, Belgian beer-cooking demonstrations feature, as well as seminars by brewery experts covering the beer styles and regions of Belgium, how certain beers age and develop, and Belgian food and beer pairings. Saturday tickets $30 in advance, $35 at the door. Events take place at Kendall College, 900 N. North Branch St. Register online at http://bbf.ef.be or send checks to Belgian Business Club of Chicago, 333 N. Michigan Ave. Suite 905, Chicago, IL 60601. For more information, see the Web site or call (773) 330-9886.
SAKE CELEBRATION. Sushisamba rio, 504 N. Wells St., hosts Sake Week Tuesday, April 12, through Saturday, April 16, showcasing the spring release of Japan's nama-zake sakes, chilled, young sakes, known in Japan as a harbinger of spring. During the week, the restaurant will offer discounts on nama-zakes and sakes, including $10 sake pairings with a $59 omasake tasting menu. The week culminates with a 2 p.m. Saturday, April 16, Sake and Sushi 101 class, $60, featuring Beverage Director Paul Tanguay and Sushi Chef Koji Kagawa, who'll teach the basics of sake and guide participants through sushi making. Call (312) 595-2300.
PORTUGUESE PLEASURES. Mas, 1670 W. Division St., hosts an evening devoted to Portugal, Thursday, April 14, with wine and a five-course dinner featuring large portions of seafood, as part of its monthly Latin Entertainment series. The event is $50. Call (773) 276-8700.