Foie gras and Illegal Immigrants
Wolf Richter www.testosteronepit.com
The other day, we were doing one more time what on Sunday will become illegal in California: eating foie gras in a restaurant. Pan seared foie gras “traditionally raised in Sonoma, California,” served with poached local apricots. I’d go to jail for this anytime. We were sitting at the edge of San Francisco, looking at the Bay and the Bay Bridge draped across it, and we were talking—when we weren’t preoccupied by the divine, unctuous foie gras—about sweet corn and illegal immigrants.
Foie gras is a dish the Greeks already enjoyed, and I don’t mean the austerity Greeks under Prime Minister Giorgios Papandreou, but the Greeks that fought off the Persians. And it’s one of the many paradoxes in California—a state that has absolutely everything except a decent government and a balanced budget. Lobbied by well-meaning people, I suppose, Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his infinite wisdom, signed a law in 2004 that made the sale and production of products derived from force-fed birds illegal. But he gave us some time to adjust to this harsh new life: the law wouldn’t take effect until July 1, 2012. OK, it’s banned in other countries too—Italy, the UK, and Germany for example—and Chicago experimented with a ban for a couple of years.
Force-feeding hapless geese and ducks—gavage as it’s called—is certainly gruesome, but so is just about anything else that has to do with meat. Ever watch an orca hunt and eat a sea lion? It’s brutal out there, and the food chain knows no mercy and has no human sentiments. We use drones to bomb people in distant countries, but when it comes to the sensuous pleasure of two slices of foie gras, we get squeamish.
A lugubrious moment: eating the final but to-die-for products of a mini-industry that had been exterminated by the government; and California still has double-digit unemployment. There were a number of us. The guy across from me was in charge of the wine. He knew his way around Bay Area vintners, was a farmer, and had a degree in economics.
He was talking about sweet-corn and the harvest that had started some time ago. If you’re a city guy like me, listening to a farmer over superb wine and foie gras is fascinating. Sweet corn, the result of careful crossbreeding, is very fragile, he said. Unlike other varieties of corn, it has to be harvested by hand because machines damage it. And it has a short shelf life. To extend the shelf life—the secret to doing business with big customers like Costco and Safeway—you have to harvest it at night. If you cool sweet corn from 72° to 34°, it lasts a lot longer than if you have to cool it from 107° to 34°.
One of the biggest challenges, he said, was lining up the farmworkers, 75 of them a day during harvest season. Subcontractors hired and took care of the workers, but every year it was getting more difficult. Most, if not all of them, were illegally in the country, he said. They worked from 7 PM till 3 AM under floodlights. It was piecework, averaging about $15 per hour. But with the crackdown on illegal immigrants, finding enough workers has become difficult, he said.
“Can’t you hire some people from Oakland or Stockton who’ve been out of a job for years?” someone asked.
“We tried, but man, no one wants to do this kind of work. It’s hard. After an hour, they give up ... if they even come out in the first place.”
“But 15 bucks an hour, that’s pretty good, compared to minimum wage.”
“They don’t have the skills, the stamina. You’ve got to be very productive to make this kind of money.”
Pink clouds drifted across the evening sky. A group of girls rollerbladed by. Life was good.
“And if the government ever gets rid of the illegals, or if they get scared and go back to Mexico on their own,” he said as he poured everyone some more wine, “we have to shut down our farm.”
And that’s where we all had conflicted thoughts. We loved sweet corn and couldn’t envision summer without it—and whatever we thought about illegal immigrants, we did want to have our sweet corn.
“Everyone who grows anything that has to be picked by hand,” he said, “has the same problem.”
It didn’t take long for the conversation to link this issue to the demise of the California foie gras industry, and which government would be willing to kill yet another and this time much bigger industry, and people wondered about our politicians who were now, more than ever, the best that money could buy. But it isn’t just a US phenomenon. It’s universal, as we can see in this hilarious video by my two favorite Australian comedians, Clarke & Dawe,.... “The Key to Good Governance.”
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