When I was nine years old, my mom took me and my sister to Hungary, where she and my father grew up (we had been once before when I was three). Of course it was a long and expensive trip, not to mention much more complicated during the Cold War than it is today. That’s why I was very surprised to hear her say that the only reason she took us to Hungary was to eat libamáj.
This is a delicacy known to the world outside of Hungary by its French name, foie gras d’oie, literally “fatty liver of goose.” If you order foie gras in an American restaurant, or anywhere else for that matter, you’re likely to be served the still-good but far less delicate and exclusive foie gras de canard (duck), usually just called foie gras unless someone asks questions. I once had an argument on the Champs Elysées with an old friend when we sat down at a tourist-trap restaurant and were offered some as part of a prix-fixe menu and he insisted it was goose liver without the “d’oie” at the end. (It wasn’t).
Anyway, back to Hungary in 1978. Being a nine-year-old, I took my mom’s comment literally. Though Hungary is the world’s largest exporter of the stuff and our dollars, exchanged on the black market, made us feel like Rockefellers for the few weeks we were there, it was hard to find a restaurant that had any. Finally we did and the waiter promptly brought out this greyish, pinkish goop on a plate surrounded by congealed fat. I was stunned.
“You came to Hungary for THIS?!”
Now that I’m older and wiser, I’ve come to appreciate libamáj as a great delicacy. When I first moved to Hungary in 1993, money was tight but there was some sort of an EU ban on Hungarian poultry and consequently a libamáj glut. For the price of a Big Mac I gorged a couple of times a week on a gigantic slice that an American restaurant would charge you probably $40 for. Actually, strike that. They’d charge you that much for a piece a third as large. Later the price was a bit higher, but I was in charge of entertaining clients on a generous expense account and inevitably ordered my favorite meal, sometimes both as an appetizer and main course.
Nearly everything has a downside though. Foie gras has been attacked by animal rights activists due to the process of “gavage” or force-feeding that gives the delicious, fatty texture to the livers. The city of Chicago actually banned it, which led to protests by restaurateurs and the invention of “faux gras.” Several countries ban its production, but their gourmands gladly import it, mainly from number-one exporter Hungary. Of course these people happily eat veal and wear leather shoes, etc. Gavage was practiced at least as long ago as ancient Egypt and is now done more humanely. However a goose is fed though, it still gets cooked in the end. Animal husbandry ain’t pretty.
And then there are the health effects. A 200 gram serving has about 800 calories from fat and well over the daily allowance for cholesterol. With my waistline expanding while we lived in Hungary (it never stopped), my wife limited me to two goose livers a week. Since then I’ve eaten it very rarely – perhaps once every other year – which is why I had it five times in four days on my recent trip to Hungary.
My personal philospohy has always been that eating “healthy” food doesn’t make you live longer – it just makes your life seem longer.