When Howard Josephs, an upstate New York duck farmer, asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1983 for approval to sell fresh foie gras, puzzled USDA officials could find no guidelines. “They asked me what the difference was between my foie gras and duck liver,” Josephs recalls. “I said, ‘About $30 a pound [at wholesale prices].’ ” As befits a dish that ranks up there with caviar, truffles and champagne for shameless luxury, foie gras is very pricey indeed. A pinkish beige serving at a top New York restaurant goes for $24. That’s for two ounces. Cold. On a bed of lettuce.
Foie gras is the fattened liver of a duck or goose and, at 1 1/3 pounds, is six times larger than the liver of ordinary fowl. It is prized for its smooth, buttery texture, delicate flavor (some claim to detect a hint of pistachio) and distinctive fragrance. Foie gras (pronounced fwah grah) is expensive because it is rare. Only 5,000 tons are produced worldwide each year.
Until Josephs, 30, and his four partners sank $2.5 million into the Catskills operation, the U.S. did not figure in foie gras production. All the USDA had on its books were rulings for imports (mainly from France, Hungary and Israel), dictating that foie gras must be cooked before it is shipped. “Nobody else is making it in this country,” says Josephs, “and we are working with the USDA to set the standards.”
To get the oversize livers, Izzy Yanay, 36, Josephs’ partner, breeds a Pekin duck—which, unlike other ducks, lays eggs throughout the year—with a hardy Muscovy. The resulting crossbreed is called a moulard. The bird, which is heavier than its parents and not susceptible to disease, is fed a rich mixture of corn, vitamins and minerals. “It’s like giving sugar to a baby,” says Yanay. At six weeks the uncomplaining crossbreeds are confined to separate cages set under fluorescent lights in a loft until they reach the desired weight of 14 to 16 pounds. They are slaughtered at 14 weeks.
In France, during the Middle Ages, foie gras (literally, “fat liver”) was produced by a remarkably cruel kind of force-feeding. The goose had its feet nailed to the barn floor, whereupon it was blindfolded, crammed with a mash of corn forced through a funnel jammed into its throat, and choked with a collar to keep the food down. The modern method is more effective without being barbaric. “Our job is to maintain the duck in the most comfortable state we can,” says Yanay, “so that it keeps on eating.”
With third partner Joseph Nishri, 35, in charge of the slaughterhouse, the farm produces more than 2,000 livers a week, or some 50 tons of foie gras annually. “Foie gras is a great item to sell,” claims Randy Klarman, a Manhattan food purveyor. “Before, the French chefs in New York weren’t able to get the right product. Now even American chefs are using it.” Indeed, foie gras is popping up baked in the traditional terrines(from which it is sliced and served cool), steamed in wonton, sautéed in its own fat, roasted with port or cognac or sprinkled on tortillas and pizzas.
Yanay first broached the notion of a foie gras farm to Howard Josephs’ father, Rubin, a New York real estate developer. A breeding expert and field manager for Israel’s largest liver producer, Yanay moved to the U.S. in 1982. Now, with a total of 60,000 liver-yielding ducks and 55 employees, Commonwealth Enterprises, as the farm is called, is just about breaking even. But with a growing nationwide clientele, Howard finds he needs to know when his customers expect delivery. “Give me the date,” he tells them, “and I’ll put your egg in the hatchery for you.”