Coup de Foie Gras: A Night Out with Some Very Angry Animal Rights Activists in California

Last week the ban on foie gras was lifted in California. My fiancée and I wanted to be among the first to indulge in the return of a delicacy to L.A. so we made a reservation for this past Monday at one of our favorite local restaurants. The meal was excellent. The floor show, provided by some very angry animal rights activists, was almost as good.
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Last week the ban on foie gras was lifted in California. My fiancée and I wanted to be among the first to indulge in the return of a delicacy to L.A. so we made a reservation for this past Monday at one of our favorite local restaurants. The meal was excellent. The floor show, provided by some very angry animal rights activists, was almost as good.
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If you're over 50 and you're standing on a sidewalk with a picture of a dead goose in both hands, shouting down strangers who walk past you, you took a wrong turn somewhere in life. This is what I'm thinking as I stare directly into the eyes of the man not more than six feet away from me. He's tall, with hair the color of dirty dishwater, and he appears to be going through the convulsive throes of initial exposure to the rage virus from 28 Days Later. He looks like a deranged bizarro-world version of Anthony Bourdain. He's shouting something at me -- at me personally. I just kind of cock my head and give him a look that's affectedly quizzical, as if he were, ironically, an animal in a zoo. Then I slide my fork into the luxuriousness of the seared foie gras with chanterelles and Banyuls vinegar that graces the plate I'm sharing with my fiancée, put it to my mouth, close my eyes and heave an equally affected, almost post-coital sigh. I swallow -- open my eyes and let a satisfied smile slowly creep across my face, then wink. This seems to enrage him even further. He's now literally screaming. A woman jostling into position next to him is flipping me off. I just keep right on smiling. It's a good thing there's a window separating us.

It's Monday night and Taryn and I are having dinner at Terrine in Beverly Grove, a place that opened just a couple of months ago in a space that used to be occupied by one of my old haunts from back in the 90s, Pan e Veno. The new restaurant is the latest creation from Stephane Bombet, the restaurateur responsible for a couple of Los Angeles's more impressive eateries, including a place downtown called Faith & Flower that's a personal favorite. For Terrine, he teamed up with chef Kris Morningstar, who's not only one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet, he's also a master of rustic, unpretentious French cooking by way of California. The stuff he serves is hearty and straightforward with very little interest paid to silly trends or obnoxious fanfare and his price points are shockingly reasonable. Hit Terrine for brunch just once and you won't be able to imagine doing it anywhere else for the rest of your life. It's that good. But tonight T and I aren't here for the eggs in purgatory or the herb spaetzle with crème fraîche, pecorino and a farm yolk. We're here for the foie -- because foie is once again legal and available in California.

Last week I wrote a piece for the Banter making clear my feelings about foie gras and the consumption of it. More than a few readers noticed that it was unlikely to earn me many allies from the dark side of the world where all the vegans live, but they also figured out that I couldn't have cared less about this fact. Admittedly, the means by which foie is made doesn't at first blush sound like it's a good time for the ducks and geese from which it's derived. To create foie, you insert a tube known as a gavage down the bird's throat and force-feed it until its liver swells and that liver ultimately becomes what's put on your plate. There's no denying that, particularly when done without the bird's well-being in mind at all, it can be a painful process. Likewise, there's no denying that the end result of this process is like nothing on earth from an epicurean point of view. Foie gras is an unctuous, decadent dish and when prepared creatively -- as it is at Terrine -- it's one of those tastes that bas reliefs a sense memory onto the side of your brain immediately. It's a staple in French cooking and when it was banned two years ago after a push by animal rights activists, the culinary community in L.A. went into mourning.

That is until last week, when a judge overturned the ban and brought foie back to restaurants all across California. Needless to say, the decision is also bringing those same animal rights activists -- bruised but not bowed -- to those same restaurants, the ones that announced they would again begin serving foie. And since Terrine made a point of touting the addition of foie to its menu, beginning tonight -- with four separate courses based around the delicacy -- this was apparently the perfect place to fire the opening shot in their newly reignited war against food that makes them sad.

At least this brand of protest is, I suppose, better than threatening the lives of chefs who dare to serve foie. It's not a good idea to even try to process the irony of that.

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A short time ago I left our table, exited through Terrine's expansive and gorgeously lit back patio and came around to the front of the restaurant so I could take some pictures and just enjoy the vibe the PETA folk were creating. As with most angry protests, credit needs to be given to the creativity on display when it comes to some of the placards being wielded like weapons by the faithful. True, most are nothing more than black-and-white images of geese deep throating tubes, but one woman who looks like Fred Armisen in drag came up with the clever phrase "FOIE GROSS," scrawled partially in red ink made to look like blood. Another woman is carrying a sign that screams, "TORTURED FOR YOUR INDULGENCE." Still a third, who ironically bears a striking resemblance to celebrity chef Richard Blais, has been trying to get past the off-duty LAPD cop stoically planted at the restaurant's locked front door. Even after I go back inside and take my place back at the table, a complimentary glass of red having been poured at some point in my absence, I can still see her through the window, screaming away at tonight's security detail. At least I managed to get a couple of pictures while I was out there. And God knows the shit-eating grin on my face the entire time likely made it obvious to them that, in their eyes, one of the bourgeois had descended from the palace for the sheer entertainment of mocking the impotent plebes.

"What's it look like out there?" Taryn asks as I unfold my napkin onto my lap.

"Like the crowd at an Ani DiFranco show just found out the concession stand ran out of fair-trade coffee."

Our conversation catches the attention of the table next to us. A gregarious kid with long hair who appears to be wearing the black "Mountain Three Wolf Moon" t-shirt famously available at Amazon.com introduces himself as Luke and we join in solidarity for a moment with our fellow enablers of animal torture. He laughs off the outside chaos, pointing out that not only are the protesters misguided about the lives of foie geese compared to other animals farmed for human consumption but that Terrine almost certainly buys its foie from the highest-profile, most humane producers anyway (as Kris Morningstar does with everything he prepares). Taryn doesn't need the reminder. As a semi-professional chef -- she runs the appetizer station part-time at a popular French bistro in Hollywood called Papilles -- she's well aware of the dubiousness of saying that the process of making foie is truly sadistic in nature and that a couple of poorly managed farms should represent the entire industry. She calls up an article on her phone from the website Serious Eats. It's titled "The Physiology of Foie: Why Foie Gras is Not Unethical" and it explains in great detail how ethical farmers can glean foie from geese and ducks with the least possible suffering and that the potential for any suffering at all is always a vital consideration.

She reaches her arm behind her and slams the face of her phone against the window. "When you go home tonight, read this," she says to the rage zombies on the other side. "At least know what the fuck you're talking about."

As she pushes a sheer white curtain aside to get her phone to the window, I see a woman outside with a 35mm camera, the lens pointed directly at me. Given a direct line-of-sight, she's now snapping away. I get the feeling I've just gone on some PETA enemies list. I give her a big stupid grin and raise my glass in a toast to her, then turn to my new friend at the next table and tell him a true story about PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk. He nods in acknowledgment.

Our next course arrives. It's filet mignon topped with a slice of foie and garnished with Perigord black truffles. It's like butter atop butter. It is fugue-inducingly delicious. It is just perfect. The crowd has now thinned out front which can mean one of two things: either the local news cameras have moved on to something else or the protesters have simply realized that the best way to confront Terrine's reservation roster of animal murderers is to assemble out back by the valet. Taryn and I finish dinner, making a note to hit Yelp and Facebook later to counteract any negative reviews this place might get from people who've never actually eaten here but who figure the wanton massacre of ducks and geese is going on right inside its doors -- a card left by the management on each table lets diners know that this might be a PETA strategy -- and hit the bar area for a final glass of wine. We talk to another chef acquaintance, Jason Fullilove, current executive over at the awesome Malibu Pier Restaurant & Bar, who's here for the same reason we are. Again, more shrugging-off of the lunacy outside.

What can you really do at this point? We chose our side of the line in this fight and there will never be common ground regardless.

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A short time later: "You ready for this?" I ask my fiancée.

We're standing just inside the restaurant's patio at the rear entrance and we can hear the shouting just beyond the blacked-out gate. Stephane shoots us a smile that acknowledges the uncomfortable situation, takes our valet ticket, runs it outside and a couple of minutes later sticks his head in and gives us a signal. Time to go. I wish I could say that I'm pissed to be facing down a gauntlet of screaming animal rights protestors, but the truth is I'm not. I'm not at all. I'm looking forward to it. I'm loving every single fucking minute of this. The gate swings wide and out we step into the madness. The first thing I'm confronted with is a large photo of a dying goose, jammed into my face. "This is what you're eating!" the faceless person behind the placard screams. We can approach this several ways, so first Taryn reaches for reason.

"You should be picketing Foster Farms," she says over the din. "They really do torture their poultry."

Me, I just surrender to the stupidity. "Please! My girlfriend wants to get an abortion!" I cry. "Why won't you people just leave us alone!"

My lack of willingness to take any of this seriously seems to anger them all the more. The woman behind the goose placard lowers it, revealing herself. "You can't be okay with this! It's torture!" she shouts, maybe two feet from my face.

Just for the hell of it, I retell the story that I told to my fellow diner inside. "Hey, did you know that Ingrid Newkirk once wrote to Yassir Arafat to demand that he stop using donkeys in suicide bombings?" I say. "If you think that's okay -- that the lives of animals matter more than the lives of innocent people -- then you have no moral authority here. Now go home." I give her a smirk.

Again, the fury is ratcheted up -- you can see the boiling point being reached behind her eyes. But expanding on the humans-vs.-animals argument, as I move toward my open car door I take a look around at the crowd. Not a black face present. The Black Brunch from a couple of weeks back, when people of color interrupted the brunch crowds at high-profile restaurants in New York City and Oakland, may have been a questionable means of collecting allies, but at least the deaths of actual people were being protested. My guess? African-Americans in the United States don't have the luxury of concerning themselves with how geese are treated -- that's strictly a problem for white first-worlders who have to go looking for things to concern themselves with.

I try one more time as I move into the space between my door and the car. "You're being disingenuous anyway," I say to bizarro-Anthony Bourdain, who at some point apparently abandoned his post out front. "The truth is you don't care whether geese are mistreated before they're eaten because you don't want them eaten at all." I wave offhandedly. "All of this is for show and you know it."

"You're an asshole, you know that?" The goose placard woman now shouts, over the top of my car from the other side. Taryn has already wisely gotten in and shut her door. At this point I just give up. "I take offense to that," I say, turning toward her and leaning over the roof. "I'm the world's biggest asshole -- and it's the suffering that makes foie gras taste so good." You can probably see my smile from space.

I get in my car, the LAPD signaling me that I need to get going since I might be starting a riot. But before I pull away a British protester approaches my window and starts shouting at me. I just grin and roll my window up in her face, then drive away.

You know, if you're 45-years-old and you still enjoy antagonizing willfully uncompromising activist hippies, you probably took a wrong turn somewhere in life. I recognize this and yet I don't care.

A few minutes later Taryn and I are parked on a quiet residential street behind the Roger Room on La Cienega, outside of the car and talking about what just happened. It's then that we hear muffled whining. It's coming from the car parked in front of us. Two small dogs are inside. While it's not the least bit warm out, the windows are rolled up completely and something about this seems horribly wrong. They're still there when we leave the Roger Room about a half-hour later. Taryn dials 311 and then 911 -- tells them about the situation. The dispatcher says it's simply not an emergency. I'm well aware of the irony that I'm concerned what might happen to these two dogs. And yet, again, I don't care.