THE EAT BEAT
By LEAH A. ZELDES
As a teenager, I had to read "The Jungle" by Upton Sinclair in school. (Now there's a novel unlikely to be chosen for "One Book One Chicago.") Its grisly accounts of conditions at Chicago's slaughterhouses and meat-packing plants so repulsed me that I became a vegetarian.
For a whole week.
Then my mother convinced me that conditions had changed since 1906, and anyway, kosher hot dogs were sure to be OK. (Hebrew National: "We answer to a higher power.")
Sinclair's muckraking novel led to this country's first pure food laws, much to its socialist author's chagrin. He'd intended to draw attention to the plight of the slaughterhouse workers. "I aimed at the public's heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach," Sinclair later said.
For workers, things might not have improved much since Sinclair's day, according to a January 2005 Human Rights Watch report. The 175-page report, "Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Workers' Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants," surveyed American meat processors and concluded that increasing production combined with poor training and insufficient safeguards have made meat and poultry work among America's most hazardous jobs. Workers are subject to repetitive- motion injuries and frequent lacerations and other trauma, but often receive no compensation when they're hurt because their employers try to keep them from filing claims, the report said. A January report from the United States Government Accountability Office also called meatpacking "one of the most dangerous industries in the United States."
The HRW report recommended government action to protect meat and poultry workers' health and safety and vigorous enforcement of existing labor law to bring it into compliance with international standards.However, local legislators seem to have ignored the report in order to concentrate on the health and safety of ducks.
Latest to pile on the duckwagon is Ald. Joe Moore (49th), who last week proposed an ordinance to ban the sale of foie gras in Chicago. Foie gras is a rich form of duck or goose liver. To produce it, the birds spend two weeks being fed through a feeding tube, an age-old process some consider cruel, but which others believe merely accelerates the gorging and fattening waterfowl naturally do before migrating.
Moore is not a vegetarian, he said and he has eaten and enjoyed foie gras in the past. "It was quite tasty. But that was before I found out what a horrible process this is."
The alderman's "Jungle," he said, was the recent press coverage of the toque tantrum in which Lincoln Park Chef Charlie Trotter, who has removed the duck-liver delicacy from his menus, suggested serving up Streeterville Chef Rick Tramonto's liver instead, after Tramonto ventured that Trotter's stand on the issue was a little hypocritical.
(Just to bring you up to date, last week the New York Post outed Trotter as having served foie gras at a March 6 benefit dinner. Trotter, we hear, didn't actually cook the foie gras himself; he allowed two guest chefs to prepare and serve it in his namesake restaurant during an event benefiting his namesake foundation.)
Moore has not visited a farm where ducks are raised for foie gras, he said. (There are only two producers in the United States.) He got his information on the treatment of the ducks, he said, from In Defense of Animals: "They have a Web site." IDA is an animal-rights group that advocates veganism, a lifestyle that uses no animal products whatever. Its Web site displays duck photos that appear to have been carefully chosen for their repellent qualities. Similar Web sites, such as http://www.all-creatures.org/anex/index.html will show you equally stomach-turning photos of pigs, chickens and cattle.
Asked if he had considered the practices involved in raising these animals for food, Moore said, "Quite frankly, I don't have any specific information about it.
"I love a good, juicy steak," he commented.
"We could find issues with anything," said Kevin Brown, president of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, whose restaurants include Tramonto's Tru. "You pick your spots."
The company leaves menu choices up to its individual chefs and partners; Brown thought three or four of the 40 or so Lettuce restaurants regularly served foie gras. "How many restaurants serve foie gras? How many people in the country eat it?" he asked. "Is this the best use of our concerns? There are so many things you could do for people."
Moore got defensive at a suggestion that the constituents of his Far North Side ward, where it's likely easier to find crack cocaine than foie gras, might prefer he address himself to more local matters. "That's a specious argument," he said. "That presumes I'm not doing anything else." There's no reason, he said, that he can't get involved in areas "outside the traditional purview of an alderman."
Ald. Burton Natarus, whose 42nd Ward likely contains the city's largest number of businesses selling foie gras, was on a whitewater-rafting vacation and could not be reached for comment.
Colleen McShane, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association, thinks the city should butt out. "This is clearly not a local issue," she said. The Restaurant Association, which estimates that less than 2 percent of Illinois restaurants serve foie gras, believes farming practices are a matter for the U.S.D.A., McShane said. "We believe this is not an issue for state government and certainly not for local government."
The Illinois legislature is considering not only an anti-foie gras bill, but one that would outlaw butchering horses for meat. It's illegal to sell horsemeat for human consumption in Illinois, but the state has one horse abattoir that markets its meat as dog food and for human and animal food overseas.
"Most animals are raised for slaughter," said Chef James Gottwald, who serves a signature Kobe beef burger topped with foie gras at Rockit Bar & Grill in River North. "Foie has been around since the time of the pharaohs, it has so much history in the culinary world.
"I obviously have no problem with using foie gras. Could it be a little more humane? Sure."
"People draw arbitrary lines every day," said Chef Dirk Flanigan of the brand-new Blue Water Grill in River North, a mainly seafood restaurant. Flanigan features an appetizer of seared foie gras over berry-studded bread pudding, as well as an entree of sea scallops in a savory foie gras sauce. "I don't think people should push this."
Meanwhile, I owe Trotter an apology. I wrote last week that he serves chicken in his restaurant, but he told the Chicago Tribune's John Kass that he doesn't serve chicken, just organic pheasant. I have a recipe for chicken skewers with Charlie Trotter's Spicy Roasted Peanut Sauce that was given to me at his restaurant, along with a taste of the dish, during a promotion for Trotter's sauces, but I suppose he could have given up chicken as well as foie gras since then.
Further, I've discovered that even kosher hot dogs aren't safe. Hebrew National's dogs are kosher, but not glatt kosher, a technical distinction that many Orthodox Jews care about. And one of the biggest kosher meat processors in the country has been under fire since People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, another animal-rights extremist group, produced "Holocaust on your Plate" videos of the killing floor.
HOT MEALS. The American Express Celebrity Chef Tour comes to Chicago's Metropolitan Club on the 66th floor of the Sears Tower, 233 S. Wacker Drive, at 7 p.m. Saturday, April 16. Chef Rob Boone of Atrio in Miami and club Chef Greg Carso prepare the dinner, along with Chef Henry Wenzel, who is Boone's father-in-law and the chef who opened the private business club 30 years ago. Along with a variety of Robert Mondavi wines, the menu includes a foie gras terrine with green apple gelee; ripe Picadou goat cheese with dried apricots and truffled buttermilk vinaigrette; warm sweetbreads on artichoke bottoms with Fleur de Sel and aged balsamic vinegar; Northern pike quenelles with saffron sauce and lobster salsa; lavender-cured and roasted squab breast with squab leg confit, boniato puree, wild ramps, hazelnuts and red wine essence; veal medallion and three-onion mousse with potato basket, pearled vegetables and Madeira reduction sauce and baked Alaska with Florida lychees and strawberries. The $150 dinner benefits the New York-based James Beard Foundation. Reserve at (312) 876-3200....
On Friday, April 22 Fernando and Carmen Gonzalez of Fernando's Tequila Bar and Restaurant, 3450 N. Lincoln Ave. celebrate their 40th year in the restaurant showcasing favorite recipes such as chicken Oaxaca, ceviche Ixtapa, shrimp Borracho and poblano stuffed chicken, plus signature margaritas. Mariachi Caporales, a nine-piece band, will entertain. Reserve at (773) 477-6930.
FOOD FEST. NeighborFood Fest, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday April 16, in Warren Park, 6601 N. Western Ave., celebrates organic and locally made food in Rogers Park. Local and regional specialty vendors will be on hand and area restaurants, including the Heartland Cafe, will offer organic specials. Call (773) 793-9143 or see http://www.illinoisstewardshipalliance.org.
TASTES OF SPAIN. Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba! 2024 N Halsted St., pours more than 30 Spanish wines, sherries and brandies at its Bodega Ba-Ba-Reeba! wine tasting, 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, April 19. A wine tasting booklet, tapas and paella are included in the $35 ticket, as well as tax and tip. Call (773) 935-5000....
Feast,1616 N. Damen Ave. pours out "The Reign of Spain ... from Rijoa to La Mancha," a Spanish wine tasting, from 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday, April 20. Wine and nibbles are $15. Call (773) 772-1000.
GREAT BALLS OF FIRE. Local firefighters will gear up to see which makes the greatest meatballs at 10:30 a.m. Thursday, April 21, at Maggiano's Little Italy, 516 N. Clark St. Reserve a spectator's spot at (312) 644-7700.
DISH OF THE WEEK. North Side barbecue lovers, rejoice! No longer do you have to schlep to the other side of town and eat in your car. Bar-B-Que Bob's has opened in Rogers Park. Owner Bob Dunlap moved his business from Merrillville, Ind., in November, and his ribs are the real thing -- smoky, chewy and well seasoned, with a zesty sauce that's neither too sweet nor too thick. A full slab of baby back ribs is $17, a half slab is $8.50. You can also get a half-slab dinner with fries, coleslaw and the requisite slice of squishy white bread for $9.50. Besides baby back and St. Louis ribs, the menu also offers rib tips, beef ribs, barbecued chicken and turkey, pulled pork and beef, hot links and a full complement of sides. A plain but pristine storefront at 2055 W. Howard St., Bob's provides three long tables with folding chairs for eating your 'cue inside. If you prefer eating in your car, there's free parking. Bar-B-Que Bob's is open from 11 a.m. daily, serving till 10 p.m. weekdays, 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 6 p.m. Sundays. Call (773) 761-1260.