Thursday, July 06, 2006

The Taste of Pain: Foie Gras

By now the story is so widely known that it hardly bears repeating, but the particulars I heard at lunch today from the man himself might shed some light on the general course of events.

For instance, everybody knows how Dr. Arkwright, having amassed a fortune as a chemist for the petroleum industry, retired while still in his forties; fewer people are aware that his well-known wife, Muriel, was not his first wife, or that an earlier marriage, childless by design, ended in divorce. Almost no one knows that his second marriage, too, very nearly ended in divorce, after just two years, when Muriel told Arkwright she'd rather be a single mother than a married woman without a child. She was a tenured professor at an excellent university, had resources of her own, and her reproductive window was slowly sliding shut--she didn't want to miss her chance, although she loved him a great deal.

By then, Arkwright (by dint of professional and personal interests, a seasoned global traveler) had become accustomed to a certain amount of movement during the long breaks in Muriel's academic calendar. He and Muriel both loved to cook, and they also loved exotic cuisine. He expected that a child would hamper his movement and require, when he and Muriel did travel, that arrangements be made for its care in every city they visited when they wanted an evening in a fine restaurant or a day of strenuous outdoor exploration.

But his divorce had been more painful to him than he'd let on to anyone; he'd never said a word to a soul about it, but he even wondered if it hadn't been the final stress that caused his terminally ill mother's passing.

Dr. Arkwright did not foresee the great love he would feel for his daughter, or the wonder she would inspire in him. She was named Hannah Louise, for his mother, and Muriel's, but Dr. Arkwright always called her Angel, Bunny Rabbit, Lamb, and they brought her with them everywhere, after all.

At four years old, Hannah Louise, in a New York City restaurant, overheard Dr. Arkwright order rabbit. In a whisper, she asked, "Bunny rabbit?" When he nodded, her father felt a deep sense of shame.

Shortly thereafter, Hannah Louise, his own bunny rabbit, became a vegetarian, and Dr. Arkwright began to change the way he thought about food. He and Muriel cooked together on the weekends, but Dr. Arkwright cooked dinners during the week when Muriel was working. At first, it was no trouble to prepare a separate meal for Hannah Louise; she was an agreeable child with a fairly daring palate, and she never refused to taste anything, as long as she was assured it wasn't meat. But after a few weeks, Dr. Arkwright began to be concerned about Hannah Louise's development; didn't a child need meat? And when he did a little research he became interested in ways to vary her diet and see to it her nutritional needs were met. He found himself unsatisfied with the vegetarian substitutes for certain ingredients and he tried to understand why they were not better.

The research itself appealed to him, and it was not too long after that when Dr. Arkwright found himself overseeing construction of a new outbuilding on their property, a laboratory. By Hannah Louise's fifth birthday it was finished, and Dr. Arkwright came out of retirement and started studying the chemistry of food flavor, texture and and the components of taste.

Over the next few years, as it is well-known, many of his discoveries made their way to the market under the label Arkwright Farms. The innovation which made his bacon substitute such a success was a rigid but airy soy-derived matrix: the honeycomb-shaped quaternary structure of the molecule is reproduced in the Arkwright Farms logo. The matrix absorbs and holds oil so well that it gives the non-hydrogenated fat the appearance and texture of solidity at high heat as well as room temperature. This discovery made possible a kind of marbling in meat substitutes superior to any seen yet, but it was also applied to certain baked goods which formerly required eggs.

In all, it was a triumph, and Dr. Arkwright was thrilled with his results. As a spokesman and advocate for his own products, he'd also moved toward an increasingly vegetarian diet, but there was one thing he missed. And so, some ten years after Hannah Louise had declared herself a vegetarian, Dr. Arkwright's labors produced something odd, something unexpected by all except those who knew him best. He achieved a method of synthesizing foie gras: oil and other extracts of avocado; rye protein and proprietary flavoring additives were combined, then secreted into an acid bath where (through a distillation reaction whose only byproduct was water) the mixture reacted by coalescing into a fragile but unmistakeably solid structure, as light as a mousse.

The flavor was, to Dr. Arkwright, indistinguishable from foie gras, but when he gave it to his foodie friends, they said it wasn't as good. He hired an independent testing agency to administer blind taste tests, telling subjects only that they would be given two different products and asked to say which they preferred. Subjects said they could not taste a difference between the two, and then picked one or the other at random.

Dr. Arkwright had the agency repeat the tests, identifying the foie gras and the substitute to the subjects, and this time the subjects universally preferred the foie gras.

Dr. Arkwright had the agency repeat the tests a third time, this time telling the subjects the substitute was the foie gras, and the foie gras was said to be the substitute, and this time the subjects universally preferred the misidentified substitute to its slandered authentic alternate.

Troubled, Dr. Arkwright asked Hannah Louise and several of her vegetarian friends to taste his faux gras. They liked it. He asked a friend who was the chef at a very good restaurant to offer it as a courtesy to some of his guests, at no charge; the feedback was exceedingly positive.

Muriel at the time was on sabbatical. She'd dispatched a book project faster than she expected when a publisher changed a deadline to take advantage of a conference, and she was at loose ends. Her essay, The Taste of Pain, began when she took up the work of documenting and examining what Dr. Arkwright had come to call the faux gras phenomenon: that it appears that a component of the pleasure of eating certain animal products is enhanced by the subject's awareness of the animal's suffering.

The essay got some notice in certain circles, and the animal rights people still quote it all the time, but it didn't reach a broad audience. Privately, a few years later, one of Hannah Louise's vegetarian friends admitted to Dr. Arkwright that after tasting the faux gras she had an intense desire to sample the real thing, which, she reasoned, must be even better.

"And did you?" asked Dr. Arkwright.
The young woman admitted that she and her parents were at a restaurant a few months later, and, although she was a lifelong vegetarian, she had experienced a thrill when the chef, to apologize for keeping them waiting for their reserved table, had sent out a complimentary plate of hors d'eouvres that included something her mother identified as foie gras.
Dr. Arkwright asked which restaurant, and was not surprised when she named the one where his friend was the chef. He asked her if she'd tried it.
The girl lowered her eyes and nodded.
"And was it better?" asked Dr. Arkwright.
Then the girl looked up at him and met his eyes.

"Yes," she said. "Much."



Blogger Richard P said...

I can't find this book at all. Where would I look for it?

July 21, 2006  
Blogger L M said...

Dr. Arkwright tells me it's out of print, but you should be able to get a used copy of it. It's under Muriel's professional name.

July 21, 2006  
Blogger Egvadz Floincz said...

Foie gras is delicious, but for my money, the best is "qi gras," which is made by force-feeding the life force of grain-bearing plants to geese, then harvesting their life force with a vacuum pump or similar device.

September 05, 2006  

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