Ducking the Foie Gras Ban

The Chicago hot dog -- all beef, mustard, no ketchup (ever), bright-green relish, onions, tomatoes, pickle and celery salt -- is famous across America.

And Doug Sohn makes thousands of them at his neighborhood sausage stand, or as he likes to call it, his house of "encased meats."

Over the years, Doug's restaurant, Hot Doug's, has gone beyond the original working man's hot dog. His shrine to sausage has become famous for the gourmet side of the menu -- a menu that until this year contained the now-infamous foie gras hot dog.

Foie gras, French for "fat liver," is a delicacy made from duck or goose liver. The Chicago City Council last year banned the high-end culinary treat on the grounds of animal cruelty, making it illegal to sell at restaurants within the Windy City's limits.

But Sohn kept selling his foie gras hot dog, flagrantly listing the outlawed treat on his menu board alongside cartoon pictures of a duck. Sohn kept on selling until he became the target of Chicago's first foie gras bust. This week he was in court to pay a $250 fine for his action.

Sohn wasn't the only one to disobey the law. He was just the only one to get caught. Just after the ban was introduced in August, a group of Chicago restaurateurs joined forces in an act of civil and delicious disobedience, staging a foie gras feast on a grand scale.

Critics of the law think it's silly, a waste of authorities' time and a case of the government encroaching on personal liberty. Some wonder whether the foie gras bust of Hot Doug's signals a rise of the politically correct food police.

Animal rights activists and supporters of the foie gras ban say the food's production process is cruel and inhumane. The 25 million ducks and geese raised each year for this purpose are made ready by being overfed in the weeks before slaughter so that their livers become huge, tender and buttery. 

That process was enough to turn Chef Charlie Trotter off foie gras for good. Trotter, one of the most famous cooks in America, stopped selling it in his restaurants about 10 years ago.

"The real definition is force fed and if one were to witness the [production] process it's not very appealing, to put it mildly," Trotter told ABC News.

Still, Trotter puts his personal beliefs aside and actually opposes the Chicago ban. He says chefs should be able to serve what they wish and consumers should vote with their patronage -- not be told what to order or serve by government. 

"I'm nervous because in another 15 or 20 years we really won't have to do anything," Trotter said. "We'll be told where to go, how to go, what to think regarding all aspects of our lives."

If Americans vote with their dollars, they turn out in droves for their right to eat foie gras. Nationwide Americans consume 936,000 pounds of foie gras each year.

While the government may be telling Americans what to eat, celebrities are also having their say. Actress Mary Tyler Moore is on a campaign to save lobsters from boiling water. Model Pamela Anderson is the face, voice and body behind PETA's campaign against mass-produced chicken. Heather Mills recently broke into a pig farm with a handful of vegetarian activists, all to protest and expose what they call "cruel conditions" for those animals.

Big restaurant chains are taking the hint, revamping their menus with cruelty-free food items. McDonald's and Burger King have announced the use of free-range chickens for their sandwiches and salads.

Wolfgang Puck, a former foie gras proponent, has sworn off the food at his national chain of restaurants.

In Chicago, banning foie gras has been a divisive issue in a working class city known for its meat-eating ways and its past as hog butcher to the world. Even Chicago politicians are split on the new law. Mayor Richard Daley called the ban "silly" and said it had made his town "the laughingstock of the nation."

But Chicago Alderman Joe Moore, who was behind the ban, thinks it is seriously important.

"The fact of the matter is there is no other meat production where the animal is tortured for two to four weeks before they are killed," he told ABC News.

Some of Hot Doug's Chicago customers wonder whether political correctness, even in this meat-and-potatoes city, has gone too far. Others in Chicago simply subvert the law. Chef Michael Tsonton at Chicago's Copperblue restaurant makes sure his customers still get their foie gras -- even if it's called something else, with a wink and a nudge. A town that thrived during Prohibition, now drinks openly, but has to sneak its pate.

"I don't serve foie gras. I serve a duck liver terrene. It's not foie gras anymore," Tsonton told ABC News. "This is a town of bootleggers. You can get anything in Chicago."

Other chefs find it more palatable -- literally and figuratively -- to serve "faux gras," a vegetarian or cruelty-free alternative to the original. Meanwhile, at least one foie gras farm in Spain has come up with a method for producing the delicacy without force-feeding birds. The farm, Pateria de Sousa, reportedly slaughters geese at a time when they have naturally eaten more to store up fuel for seasonal migration.

Hot Doug's Sohn paid his fine, but still says there are more important things for the government to worry about than his menu. For now he's ruled out the duck liver and gone back to selling the basic hot dogs And of course, no one wants to see how that sausage is made.

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