November 21, 2018

Duck liver and the sixth taste

First, there were four basic tastes — sweet, salty, bitter and sour. Then we learned of a fifth, umami, whose elusive savory-ness underlies everything from Parmesan to well-aged beef to soy sauce.

But what fascinates me these days is an even more elusive taste, a sixth sense. Call it moral.

The “moral taste” is actually a phrase New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik coined in his book “The Table Comes First: Family, France and the Meaning of Food.” Think of an Orthodox Jew relishing a piece of brisket not just because it tastes salty and umami, but because he knows it is also glatt kosher. A locavore foodie enjoys the sweetness of a plum even more because she knows it came from a family farm down the street. Moral tastes can, and do, change across cultures and time, but they are as intrinsic to flavor as are salty or sour.

That realization, that food has a moral flavor, has bubbled up from the fringes of the food world to the tables of the finest restaurants to corporate boardrooms and capitol rotundas. Immoral food has become as distasteful as food that is too salty or too sweet. It sticks in our craw.

Take foie gras. The fattened liver of a goose or duck is, of course, very umami, with a touch of saltiness. But because it is produced through force-feeding a fowl by placing a tube down its gullet, an international movement has successfully fought for the abolition of foie gras in numerous countries, and in this state. As of July 1, Californians will no longer be able to produce or sell foie gras.

Most chefs love “fwah,” as they call it. And even if they don’t serve it, they resent being told by non-chefs what they can and can’t serve, and they don’t appreciate being seen as morally deficient for putting foie on their menus. They worry that if the food Taliban start with a foie ban, where will they end? A veal fatwa? A blood sausage herem?

These were some of the concerns I heard recently at a private, after-hours dinner at Mezze restaurant on La Cienega, hosted by Mezze’s chef and manager (and co-owners) Micah Wexler and Mike Kassar. Local chefs and food purveyors sat together at a long table. At the center sat Gary Wexler, the nonprofit marketing guru, who is also Micah’s dad. Between plates of Mezze’s Middle Eastern-inflected food, Gary led a discussion on the moral responsibilities of chefs. It was like a seder — minus the boring parts and with much better food.

Talk quickly focused on the foie ban, with the chefs saying how ludicrous it is that of all the huge issues in the food world — from the crashing of fish stocks to the obesity epidemic — this is what legislators focus on. Several chefs made the argument that foie is a natural phenomenon of birds gluttonously storing up fat reserves for a long migration — the ducks like to be engorged. The problem, Micah said, is chefs are so damn busy, they don’t have time to educate the public, leaving fear-mongers and agenda-drivers in charge.

Midway through the meal, I realized that the tall, rangy, gray-haired guy sitting across from me was not just any guy sitting across from me, but Bill Niman. Niman is a food god. He’s a former hippie who translated his love of land and animals into the $65 million, pasture-raised beef company called Niman Ranch. When corporate overseers pushed him aside, Niman retreated to his Marin coastal ranch to raise goats and heritage turkeys for meat, which he sells under the BN Ranch label. 

He is soft-spoken, and — it turns out — Jewish, and, like most people I admire, completely at home in the world of moral ambiguity. Don’t kid yourself, he said; animals do feel pain.

“My goats have friends,” he told me. “They form bonds.”

I told Niman that while I occasionally eat meat, I can’t imagine killing a goat. The two little goats I own have everything Niman described: friends, personality, a love of life. How, I asked, does he wrap his head around goat meat?

“I give them a great life,” he said, “and one bad day.”

I sensed Niman wasn’t as gung ho about fighting the foie ban as the younger chefs at the table. One thing about the moral taste is that it evolves, in society and the individual. But while we may simply lose our taste for sweets, we have to choose what moral flavors to consume or abandon.

The moral taste requires we not be passive, gullet-stuffed swallowers of food. The moral taste requires we wrestle with what we eat. The moral taste asks that you make up your own mind about foie gras, but chew it over first.

Micah and Mike want to make dinner discussions like the one they hosted become regular. No one is closer to the reality of their business than chefs; in a world with six tastes, their menus are moral documents.

Perhaps not so coincidentally, one of the better expressions of the link between what we eat and who we are can be found in the Israeli Supreme Court 2003 decision banning the production and sale of foie gras in Israel.

In calling for a ban on force-feeding, Justice Eliezer Rivlin wrote: “As to myself, I have no doubt in my heart that wild creatures as well as pets have emotions. They are endorsed with soul that experiences the emotions of joy and sorrow, happiness and grief, love and fear. Some of them nurture special feelings toward their friend-enemy: man.

“Not everyone thinks so, but no one denies that even these creatures feel the pain caused to them by physical harm or by violent intrusion into their innards. The justifiers might say that human welfare should fly upwards, even at the cost of trouble to the birds. But this has a price — and the price is diminishing human dignity.”

Follow Rob Eshman on Twitter @Foodaism