Friday, December 12, 2008

Let my foie gras go

I've been out doing our Christmas shopping this week--nothing too grandiose; the good thing about going back to the States for Christmas is that I could give dish washing soap that was lavender scented and had a label written in French and it would look chic--and I have observed that, along with all the hanging Santas and lopsided light displays (which I love; they feel so much less like an attempt to open my wallet) this: there is an awful lot of foie gras for sale. Foie gras and champagne. And chocolates, big flat boxes of assortments, named after Parisian sites. The box someone gave us is a Champs-Elysées. I've also seen a Place Vendôme.

But that's a query for another day. Today is foie gras day here at La Bastiole, because this morning I heard a story about The Origins of Foie Gras.

Before I tell you the story I heard, think about where you think foie gras came from (and I mean that culturally, not in terms of Jemima Puddleduck and Lucy Goosey). Have you ever thought about it? I think that, if pressed, I would have devised some origin myth about the court of a French Renaissance king, somebody like François I, and it might have included a farmer who was ennobled after he served the king...etc. etc.

I would have been wrong. Here's the origin myth told me today as gospel truth by an actual française. It wasn't the French at all, and it was long before the Renaissance.

It was the Egyptians. 7000 years ago. They discovered that migratory birds tasted better when hunted just before their migrations, and that, en plus, their foie tasted really, really good then. Aha, thought Hamenophtet. This is because the birds have stuffed themselves to last the journey. And the reason the liver tastes really good then? Because it made the birds more aerodynamic if they ate lots of food that caused their livers to engorge, thus making the liver, at the center of their bodies, heavier, and their bodies more evenly weighted. (Foie gras: the result of millennia of evolution.) The Egyptians figured out that they could force-feed the migratory birds on figs to get pre-migration quality foie gras year round, corn not yet being available since, remember, it's 7000 years ago and no one's sailed across the Atlantic yet. (No one knows about the Atlantic yet, much less about maize, which is what the French use now.)

So the Egyptians went swanning along, force-feeding their geese and ducks, for a few centuries. And then one day there was a slave uprising and several unpleasant events, like a plague of locusts and frogs falling out of the sky--and then the slaves, they upped and left.

And do you know what those slaves took with them, according to my friend? (This is my favorite part.) Not just the matzah. Les juifs ont pris la recette du foie gras, she said. Tu sais, le foie gras, c'est casher. The Jews took with them the recipe for foie gras. You know, foie gras is kosher. Like that explains everything.

All those years Moses was growing up in the Pharaoh's palace? It wasn't just grapes and olives and roast pheasant. He was having a little foie gras as an apéro.

Moses trying to get the Israelites to leave the land of bondage: Really, come on, come with me into the desert, I know it's all going to work out, just trust me on this one. If we come with you, will you show us how to do that thing to our geese?

And when he came down from Mount Sinai, was it just with the tablets, or did he sweeten the deal a little? Maybe a little foie gras poêlé for everybody who agreed not to covet their neighbor's ox?

Okay, I'll stop now.

What I love about this origin myth--and who am I to call it a myth? maybe I'm just the last person to hear about it--is that the French never give any one else credit for anything. Democracy? French. Metric system? French. Religious tolerance? French. Internet? French. (Really.) Minority rights? French. Denim fabric? French. (It came from Nîmes. De Nîmes.) Photography? French. Anything innovative or interesting or important, you'll find, always, the French at the front of the line, saying, Us, oui, us, that came from us.

But foie gras, that cornerstone of French civilization, for that they do not take credit. (I guess that would be like saying that Jesus was actually born in Béziers, and that Bethelem is just a corruption of the original French word.) Foie gras is too important to have been stumbed upon by some chef outside Chambord 400 years ago. Its origins had to have a deeper explanation, a richer and more profound story. And how much more profound does it get than the flight from Egypt? It's interesting that my friend's story doesn't credit the Egyptians with disseminating foie gras. It credits the Jews, and links the spread of foie gras to what is arguably the moment when Judeo-Christian civilization was born: the moment when the Israelites stopped being a bunch of slaves from the next desert over and began to think of themselves as a people.

A people with a set of commandments and a really good recipe.

Of course, the French do claim credit for perfecting it.

No comments:

Post a Comment