On a cold, rainy afternoon last fall, Brandon Chonko showed me how to herd a gaggle of geese.
The lesson came at the end of a long day spent building a new fence on the western side of his thirty-acre enterprise, Grassroots Farms, two hundred miles southeast of Atlanta. I had tried to help, but Chonko is used to doing all of the work himself. So, while he wrenched tight the wires and steadied the posts in the tall grass, I stood around, useless, and my attention wandered to a flock of white in the distance.
"I think the geese are in the road, Brandon," I said.
"Got dang geese," he said, standing up from a crouch and tossing down his tools into the high weeds.
From the western pasture, which sits on a modest rise, we could see the rest of Chonko's farm. A row of hoop houses made from cattle panel and tarp divides the two main pastures. On this side, laying ducks and chickens pecked around a cockeyed coop that looked to be made of old pallet wood. On the eastern side, sheep grazed on a long flat pasture among more flocks of ducks and chickens. Off to the north, hogs wallowed in the mud. Chonko looked toward his single-wide trailer, which sits outside his fence along a road that runs the southern length of the property. The geese were in the front yard.
Walking over toward the single-wide, he retraced the steps that had led to their escape. The gaggle of geese had wandered out of an open gate (my fault) and gravitated to a clump of pear trees along the road. At the sight of Chonko, the geese lifted their enormous orange beaks toward the sky, letting out the sound of drunk trumpet players in a jazz ensemble. I later learned that geese make this sound whenever anyone comes near — they seem to be suspicious of people, perhaps justifiably so. When the commotion was over, they returned to their feast of fallen, overripe pears.
Their appetites obviously pleased him. As farm animals typically are, these geese were unwittingly part of a plan.
"Dang geese have been pulling shit like this for months," Chonko said.
Not long after this gaggle had arrived at the farm, they started pecking holes into the sacks of feed meant for Chonko's ducks. He moved the feed bags out of their reach, so the gaggle turned their attention to his chicken brooders — the warm hoop houses where baby chicks are raised — and discovered holes just large enough to slide in their long necks to reach the feed. Apparently, these geese had no qualms about stealing food from babies.
As he listed off his geese troubles, Chonko did his best to sound annoyed, but their appetites obviously pleased him. As farm animals typically are, these geese were unwittingly part of a plan. Chonko intended to slaughter them in December for the most valuable and controversial product a poultry farmer can produce: foie gras. Considering the enormous amount of feed required to produce that engorged fatty liver, their unstoppable appetites were, if anything, a good sign.
Of course, foie gras wasn't going to happen if a truck ran the geese over in the road. Chonko walked around behind the flock, positioning the geese between himself and the open gate, and stood with his arms spread out like wings. The geese began to nervously trumpet and waddle away from him, veering near the farm's gate. Chonko flapped his left arm and the geese waddled to the right. He flapped his right arm and the flock swerved left. He steered the geese just like this, a flap of the hand here, a flap of the hand there, until they made their way back to a grove of trees well inside the main gate.
I stood back, watching this unreal scene: a flock of white geese being led from behind by a human man, the strangest bird of them all. Chonko doesn't look like your standard picture-book farmer. He usually wears a short beard, a long ponytail, sunglasses, baggy clothes, and Crocs sandals with socks. With his clothes damp from the day's rain, he looked more like someone who had just spent the weekend at Bonnaroo than the owner of one of the South's most respected pastured poultry farms. Maybe it's the way he looks, or maybe it's the way he has with birds, but his friends like to call him Chicken Jesus.
In June of 2014, Chonko brought twenty Emden goslings — the breed almost exclusively used for meat in the United States — to his farm to raise for foie gras. It was a pointedly small flock, just large enough for Chonko to find out if he was capable of the act that makes foie gras both controversial and possible: gavage.
Gavage, otherwise known as force-feeding or cramming or gorging, is the process by which foie gras is generally made. It calls for a farmer to literally funnel large quantities of corn down the neck of a goose or duck, thus engorging the reserves of fat in the bird's liver to a massive degree, resulting in an organ five or six times its natural size. That's a foie gras (literally a "fat liver") and it is entirely possible that no food has inspired more controversy, more enmity, more collective handwringing than this enlarged organ. Gavage has been banned (and occasionally unbanned) in more than a dozen countries throughout the world. Chefs have been threatened with death for serving foie gras. In the United States, only a handful of farms are willing to produce it, which seems kind of understandable: to so many people, the product is synonymous with torture. Why would any farmer want to get involved in all that?
Chonko is relatively new to farming — he started Grassroots Farms in 2010, after losing his construction business to the recession — but he approached the challenge with a homesteader's enthusiastic independence, building his operation out of scrap wood and sweat. Five years later, his farm brings to mind either the simplicity of pre-war agriculture or a folk-art installation, depending on what day you visit. However it appears, Chonko himself is simply focused on raising animals on pasture, mostly chickens and ducks but also sheep, turkeys, hogs, and quail, depending on the time of year. When a mutual friend told me that Chonko intended to raise some geese for foie gras, I was surprised. Compared to the quagmire of complicated ethics at conventional poultry farms, Grassroots Farms is basically a paradise. Why would he try his hand at the most ethically fraught farming imaginable?
"Here's the catch: If I start doing this thing and it's bad, like it seems like the geese are getting hurt or I'm not comfortable with it then, man — it's over."
"You have to look at it like a journey," he told me, when I called to ask. "It's like an adventure, man."
In the course of our conversation, I almost forgot we were talking about foie gras. Chonko made the experiment sound simple, even kind of fun. Yeah, he'd bought some geese for foie gras, but they were going to live a good life, grazing out on his pastures for six months while they grew and fattened. Then for last two weeks of their life, he'd build a pen — not too big and not too small — and feed them with a funnel a couple of times a day.
Like any well-plotted adventure, he entered it with some contingency plans. "Here's the catch," he told me of his strategy for the two weeks of gavage. "If I start doing this thing and it's bad, like it seems like the geese are getting hurt or I'm not comfortable with it then, man — it's over. I shut it down and I just have Christmas geese to sell. On the other hand, if I feel good about the process and it works, then I have Christmas geese and foie gras to sell."
I wondered aloud if he would really want a reporter around for this. I mentioned that I knew of a foie gras farm in Tennessee that basically avoided all possible attention or coverage, a farm whose very existence seemed closer to a rumor than a reality. (I tried to contact them for this story. Unsurprisingly, I got no response.) Chonko insisted that he wanted the opposite, that he welcomed outside eyes. He told me that he'd be inviting some of the chefs who buy from him to come see the gavage and maybe even help with the slaughter, and that he would be happy to have a reporter come to watch. To his mind, my presence would be like an audit, proof that there would be no reason for anyone to be unsure about the process.
His confidence in all of this seemed to be bolstered by a video he'd seen online, which he later showed to me. In it, a French woman enters a stone barn that seems ancient, much older than her. She sits on a wooden chair in a fenced-in pen of about two dozen ducks, who seem to know the drill. They waddle into a corner of the pen and she closes them in with a light wooden fence. Then, one by one, she takes each bird by the neck, slides the funnel in its beak and down its throat, and releases a load of corn. She rubs the duck on the neck gently while the corn goes down, removes the funnel, and then the bird waddles off. That's it. The whole process is over in seconds. I wondered if it could it really be that simple: she makes gavage look more like a momentary inconvenience than like torture.
Chonko and I had been talking about his foie gras plans for a good half hour when he interrupted me to say, "I mean, it's not like I've ever had the stuff."
"Wait," I said. "You've never tasted foie gras?"
"Naw, man," he said. "Have you? You know what the big deal is?"
It wasn't a rhetorical question. He was asking me, the reporter who was supposed to be interviewing him, to help him understand why foie gras mattered. I didn't know where to start.
Foie gras is often described as rich, and in that one word lie many words: a wealth of flavor, a luxuriance of texture, an abundance of fat. But foie gras is also the other kind of rich: it is money and power. It's the food of pharaohs and emperors and kings, served at feasts for the powerful, raised by peasants and slaves. The flavor is actually quite bitter, the sharp iron of offal hidden deep within robes of fat.
Funny to think that this is all, in a way, the goose's fault. Among birds, geese are uniquely capable of storing fat in their livers, a physiological quirk that allows them to take on the challenge of long-haul migratory flight. Were the geese not suited to such fat storage, the Egyptians would probably not have started force-feeding them sometime in the third millennium BCE. Were the results of that gavage not delicious, an important man named Ty, who was probably in charge of agricultural production for the Pharaohs sometime during the fifth Egyptian dynasty, would not have decorated his burial tomb with elaborate visual instructions for gavage.
While the Egyptian illustrations make no specific mention of the resulting fatty liver, the history of foie gras is generally agreed to begin there. The definitive literature, notably The Foie Gras Wars by Mark Caro, and Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat's elegant foie gras chapter in A History of Food, make specific emphasis of this grand history. We've been cramming geese for almost five thousand years now. It is a practice that has lasted as long as the pyramids at Giza, a story older than Abraham and Isaac.
We've been cramming geese for almost five thousand years now. It is a practice that has lasted as long as the pyramids at Giza, a story older than Abraham and Isaac.
The history of foie gras is rich, too. We know that fattened geese were presented to the King of Sparta as as gift from the Egyptians. Cato the Elder gives us the first written instructions for gavage in De Agri Cultura. Horace makes note of "the liver of a white goose fattened on rich figs" at an elaborate dinner party in his Satires. Pliny the Elder's Naturalis Historia praises the delicacy of fattened goose liver made larger still by a soak in honeyed milk. The teenage emperor Elagabalus, fond of wild parties and well-endowed prostitutes, is said to have fed the delicacy to his dogs.
This is not to say the history is without gaps. For much of the middle ages, these colorful anecdotes of decadent foie gras consumption fade away. Specific dates and facts are scarce, though the broad historical outline is generally agreed upon. Without the demands of Egyptian or Roman empires, the Jewish people who once labored as slaves for those pharaohs and emperors kept the practice of gavage alive as they moved throughout Europe. The practice of cooking with poultry fat, rather than unkosher animal fats like lard, may have encouraged the tradition.
It wasn't until the excesses of eighteenth century France that foie gras arrives as we recognize today: pâtés, terrines, Strasbourg goose. In 1788, Louis XVI famously exchanged an estate in Picardy for a single pâté de foie gras. Five years later, he was deposed and executed, but chef Jean-Piere Clause, the man who prepared that pâté, suffered a better fate. He settled in Strasbourg, opened a shop, and his famous dish became known the world over.
After almost five thousand years of gavage, the curious twist in the foie gras story happened only in the second half of twentieth century. As the methods of industry have been applied to agriculture and large-scale efficiency has become the brass ring, meat has become cheap, plentiful, and in its production, more cruel. The same thing may be said of foie gras. It was once a food only for emperors, but its decadence has lately been somewhat democratized. Slow-growing geese have been largely forsaken by farmers in favor of much faster-growing ducks, whose fattened livers are a comparable, cheaper-to-produce product. By 2011, the annual worldwide production of goose and duck foie gras reached 25,000 tons. The upshot is more access to foie gras, less of a precious halo around the product, and lower prices. If you want to pick up a foie gras milkshake in Atlanta today, it'll run you about eight bucks. If you want a foie gras donut in Brooklyn, your tab will be closer to eleven.
When I arrived to meet Chonko's gaggle of geese back in the fall, I found him spreading rye seed across a brown patch of soil where a few hundred ducks had been a week prior. His herd of sheep were grazing in a pasture of high grass and the chickens were pecking through a low patch where the sheep had previously grazed. This is the basic cycle for any farmer who raises animals on pasture. The big animals eat the tall grass, the small animals follow behind, and when the grass finally runs out, it's the farmer's turn to spread some seed to help the cycle begin again.
Every other Sunday, Chonko arrives at his farm around midnight and starts crating birds for slaughter. After a few hours, when his trailer is filled with a few hundred ducks and chickens, he starts the long drive to a slaughterhouse outside of Charleston, South Carolina. This work begins at midnight for two reasons: the birds are calmer and easier to crate at night, and the slaughterhouse opens at seven a.m. If he's first in line to unload his birds and everything else goes to schedule, Chonko can expect to be home around noon, twelve hours after he started.
That's just the start of the week. After that, he has the regular routines of feeding and watering, special deliveries to chefs who need extra attention, fixing whatever happens to break that day, picking up freshly hatched chicks, and on and on. Very little of his day, if any, involves just admiring those birds in the pasture.
By Chonko's account, 2014 was the best year he's had as a farmer. His distributor, Inland Seafood, helped expand his reach to a circuit of restaurants in Atlanta, Charleston, Savannah, and even as far away as Nashville. Though he's growing a presence at farmers markets in Georgia, ninety percent of his birds are sold to restaurants owned by a laundry list of the South's best known chefs: Hugh Acheson, Sean Brock, Annie Quatrano, Ford Fry. He is, by most measures, a success.
Watching Chonko in the field, though, puts that work in perspective. Success for him means that he managed to move his wife and two sons out of that single-wide trailer on the farm and into a house in town before the arrival of their third child. His narrow profit margin is maintained by the fact that he is the farm's only full-time employee. He has largely avoided the debt cycle that ensnares so many small farms, but only because he farms on rented land.
Unlike conventional chicken houses, where a combination of engineered genetics and cramped conditions basically guarantees big birds, raising chickens on pasture means Chonko has less certainty about the final weight of his flocks before they go to slaughter. Add hatchery and slaughterhouse fees to the costs of feed, gas, and other overhead, and it isn't hard to see how a flock of small chickens can mean barely breaking even on two months of labor. "You do it wrong — and believe me, I have — you bleed money," he said.
The profit margin on foie gras could be a clear, fast path to eliminating his debt.
Keeping the margins up means getting ahead, and getting ahead for Chonko means always having a side project, a second work cycle outside of the regular business of chickens and ducks. That can mean raising Thanksgiving turkeys or spring lambs. Chonko is a dreamer, though, and he talks just as often about loftier ideas: converting the trailer on his property to an egg-candling station, raising the funds for a local slaughterhouse, opening a whole-hog barbecue pit that smokes only pigs from his farm.
Less than a year ago, Chonko took out a loan to buy a new property, thirty acres about an hour away from his current location. It was a first for him, going into debt to own land. The property hasn't been cleared for pasture yet, but when it's ready, it will double the size of his current operation. He told me he wants to plant fruit trees, probably Satsuma oranges. At some point, he's going to have to figure out a good way to pay back that loan, and as it happens, free-range geese are the perfect animals to keep a fruit grove clean, to eat the weeds and the fallen fruit. The profit margin on foie gras could be a clear, fast path to eliminating his debt.
The first time Chonko told me about his plan to raise geese for foie gras, I thought it sounded absurd. The more I watched him work, though, the more I realized that it was exactly the absurdity of the endeavor that made it appealing. Foie gras is just a liver, an organ that he normally sells alongside a slaughtered goose for almost nothing. Even with the added feed costs for gavage, by Chonko's estimate, the margin on foie gras would be astronomical, so high that it looked like pure profit.
You may have heard that there is an ongoing conversation in this country about the ethics of foie gras. This is not true. The subject inspires not conversation, but something that more closely resembles two deaf men yelling at one another through a brick wall. Even if they could hear one another, they're not even in the same room.
Take, for example, the "conversation" regarding Hudson Valley Foie Gras, the largest producer of foie gras in the United States. PETA and other animal-rights activists cite their own investigations at Hudson Valley's facilities, describing ducks with "foot infections, kidney necrosis, spleen damage, bruised and broken bills." They talk of ducks unable to carry the weight of their bloated, diseased bodies. They talk of abusive farm workers. They even describe ducks trying to cannibalize one another "out of stress."
Yet, Hudson Valley has opened their doors to reporters and cameras from the New York Times, the Village Voice, and others. The portraits relayed by these reporters do not suggest the same kind of despair that PETA claims to have found. "I saw no pain or panic … no quacking or frenzied flapping," Lawrence Downes wrote in the New York Times, with no descriptions of rampant disease or abuse. Of the videos produced by PETA, Sarah DiGregorio wrote in the Voice, "Those images are not representative of the reality at the nation's largest foie gras farm." Lest one think that abuses are being hidden, farm manager Marcus Henley even clarified to DiGregorio that "Anyone can come [to the farm] anytime, unannounced."
Reconciling the difference in fact perception between these two sides is essentially impossible. On the one hand are people insisting that a gavage farm is a chamber of horrors. On the other hand, seasoned reporters seeking to verify that characterization come back saying, "We looked for the horror. We couldn't find it."
Still, the campaign against foie gras in the United States has been — by the standards of food and animal-right activism — remarkably successful. In 2004, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed S.B. 1520, a bill that would ban both gavage in the state, and the sale of foie gras from any source, both starting in 2012. In the intervening years, a similar ban in Chicago was passed (during which time infuriated chefs creatively got around the restriction on selling the delicacy by delivering foie gras to diners as a gift), but it was repealed after barely two years.
California's ban lasted a little longer than Chicago's, from 2012 until January 7 of this year, when a lawsuit brought by a group of restaurants and foie gras producers (including Hudson Valley Foie Gras) resulted in Judge Stephen Wilson invalidating the ban, ruling that it unconstitutionally opposed federal poultry regulations. The new ruling allows for foie gras to be imported to and sold in the state, though gavage in California remains illegal.
"To hear a bunch of rich people and rich chefs crying that they can't eat an expensive delicacy doesn't really grab me."
On the heels of the law being overturned, I called John Burton, the former California congressman and state senator who introduced S.B. 1520 back in 2004. Burton is a firebrand Democrat, known for his quick temper and his lack of interest in compromise. When he got on the phone, he didn't seem to be in a good mood. His answers were curt.
"You start with the concept that force-feeding is not a nice thing to do. And then you write legislation designed to stop that," he said when I asked what inspired him to introduce the bill. When I asked if he thought the ruling had popular support, he said, "To hear a bunch of rich people and rich chefs crying that they can't eat an expensive delicacy doesn't really grab me."
To Burton, gavage is torture, plain and simple, exactly the kind of thing that government is here to police. He hopes the state will appeal the ruling. "It was a poor decision," he told me. "I wouldn't be surprised if the ninth court reverses it, but if it doesn't, then all these fancy people can go about eating fancy food brought to them by the suffering of ducks and geese."
The fancy people and their fancy food — that sets foie gras apart from other objects of culinary ethical inquiry. The thing that most vilifies foie gras, especially to opponents like Burton, is its decadent uselessness. An argument against foie gras is often as much an argument against the white tablecloth under the plate and the Sauternes it's paired with; it is an argument about the upper limits of human self-indulgence paired with a perceived utter indifference to suffering. It is much harder to argue against the populist benefit of cheap meat, the chicken in every pot, despite the fact that it might be a source of far greater animal suffering.
"And besides," Burton told me, "You don't have to force-feed geese to get fat livers. You've probably read about that farm in Spain?"
If you've heard anything about the idea of humane foie gras, you've probably heard about that farm in Spain.
In 2006, a Spanish foie gras farmer named Eduardo Sousa became the subject of controversy in France. Unlike most foie gras controversies, the area of concern was that Sousa was not force-feeding his geese, and yet he was nevertheless producing and selling foie gras. He claimed that he simply encouraged geese to gorge themselves by providing them with desirable food and the geese, in turn, produced beautifully fatty livers. At the annual Salon International de l'Alimentation conference in Paris, a prestigious culinary trade show, his product had been awarded the Coup de Coeur, an extraordinary honor. France's foie gras producers were aghast. What is foie gras without gavage? Was this farmer suggesting that the most integral and controversial part of their industry was unnecessary? The industry was in a minor uproar.
It might have been just that — a little controversy among food industry and culinary types in France — if a chef named Dan Barber, who runs Blue Hill in New York City and its sister restaurant on a working farm about an hour north, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, hadn't visited Sousa shortly thereafter. Later that year, Barber talked about what he saw at Sousa's farm at the Taste3 conference in Napa, California — and went on to deliver variations of the talk at a number of conferences and events, including a segment on This American Life.
Barber's storytelling is masterful. He balances his nerdy enthusiasm with perfectly-timed, self-deprecating jokes, and really gets us to like him. What's most compelling, though, isn't Barber's character; rather, it's the vision he paints of Sousa's farm. He tells of geese grazing through verdant orchards, gorging themselves on fallen olives and figs, self-seasoning their own livers by eating variously salty and peppery plants. He calls Sousa the "goose whisperer," a man who takes cell phone pictures of his geese like they were his children, who lives by the mantra, "My life's work is to give the geese what they want." The attention was a boon to Sousa's farm, which expanded from producing in very small numbers to raising a thousand geese a year.
When I called Barber to talk about Sousa, he insisted that his story isn't really about foie gras. To Barber, Sousa's story isn't a model but a parable, something to illustrate his rallying cry about looking to "Farmers that rely on nature for solutions, rather than imposing solutions on nature."
Barber thinks the conversation surrounding foie gras is fixated on the wrong ethical dilemma.
As Barber explained in his This American Life segment, he enlisted his livestock manager Craig Haney at the Stone Barns Center for Agriculture just north of New York City to try to reproduce Sousa's methods. After three years, they gave up. It didn't work, at least not how Barber had hoped it would. He attributes that failure to not taking his own advice, to foolishly trying to impose Sousa's solution onto a farm that wasn't right for it.
More than anything, though, Barber thinks the conversation surrounding foie gras is fixated on the wrong ethical dilemma.
"This idea that foie gras should be outlawed because of gavage — it's crazy," he said to me. "What we really should be talking about is how much corn it takes to feed a duck to get a liver that size. Is that the kind of conversion ratio the planet can afford? No."
He was on the edge of working himself up into a righteous fury about it, but then he paused. "Then again, I can contradict myself right there," he said. "If you were to eat foie gras in the way that it was meant to be eaten, which is mixed with other meat and fat and stored for the winter, consumed in very, very small portions over a long, long period of time, then I don't know that the corn is not worth it. That's why the culinary part of it is so important. Are we celebrating this thing, or are we serving it five nights a week?"
He added one more thing: "You know, it's not actually that delicious after a while."
Chonko didn't get in touch with me for a couple of weeks in late October, but I didn't think much of it. People get busy. He'd been expecting his third child to be born around then, and we had made plans earlier in the year to meet in early November so I could see about the geese's progress, and bring along a photographer to shoot some pictures of them before Chonko built the containment pen.
Then, at around six thirty of the morning that we had planned to meet, he sent me a text message suggesting that we reschedule my visit. I called him later in the day and we talked for a while. His usual playful tone was gone. His third child, Landry Grace, had been born, but his wife Nadia had experienced complications following the birth. There were emergency room trips, massive amounts of lost blood. Chonko spoke with a kind of seriousness that I hadn't heard in his voice before. He spoke of the very real fear of losing his wife.
On top of helping Nadia recover, he was gearing up for Thanksgiving, which meant extra work dealing with the turkeys. I told him to take his time, that we'd meet up again when the geese got closer to gavage.
When I finally made it out to see Chonko, it was early December, around the time he had originally planned to start the gavage process. There at the farm, though, he hadn't built a pen. I didn't see any feeding funnels lying around. He was busy moving things around on the pasture. The geese were off trumpeting in the distance.
When I first approached Chonko about writing this story, I'd tried to make a deal with him. I told him that he didn't need to stop working whenever I came around, that I could just follow him around or we could just talk whenever he was taking a break. I didn't want to be the annoying reporter getting in his way, another drag on his time. But here I was, impatient for the story I wanted to report, and not seeing any sign of it. So, I walked out into the field and stopped him and asked when he was going to start force-feeding his geese.
That's when I realized that Chonko was having a crisis of conscience right there in front me. He didn't want to do it anymore.
Instead, he told me the story about taking his wife to the hospital.
"Man, a couple of weeks ago, I was sitting there in the hospital, thinking my wife was going to die," he said. We were standing in the middle of the eastern pasture. The cold winds of winter had picked up and the yellow grasses were whipping around. He went on: "You've got a lot of time to think when you're sitting at the hospital, and you start thinking about all of these questions about your life. Like, 'What am I doing? Why am I doing what I'm doing? All of this time, all of this energy, for what?' And the big answer was, like, 'All for something for people to eat at restaurants I'll never go to.'"
I didn't know what to say. He kept talking.
"I guess I just started to wonder, would these geese be suffering just for that? You know that video I sent to you? They don't look like they're suffering, but that woman knows what she's doing. Would it be different with me, some guy who has no clue what he's doing?"
That's when I realized that Chonko was having a crisis of conscience right there in front me. He didn't want to do it anymore. There are many reasons, I suppose, that people have ethical dilemmas about the production of foie gras. Chonko seemed to be having his before the production even began.
"So, I guess what you're saying is no foie gras?" I asked.
"Naw, man," he said. "I have a plan."
Chonko was, essentially, going to take a page from Sousa's playbook, and let the geese handle their overfeeding themselves. He would build a pen under the grove of trees out of sixteen-foot cattle panels. He'd fill a bin with as much feed as the geese could possibly eat, and pile it up even higher with the pears from his front yard. He'd seen the birds gorge themselves all year long on anything they could get their beaks on. If he gave them everything they wanted and more, he reasoned, shouldn't that make their livers fat?
So, that's what he did. Starting that day and for ten days after, the geese ate everything he piled into their bucket until he piled more. Then they ate that, too.
When I called to check on the progress, he seemed optimistic. "I don't see why it won't work," he said.
On the day of the slaughter, Chonko was late to the farm.
As he stepped out of his truck behind the single-wide, he seemed tense, maybe a little distracted. A pipe had frozen and burst at his rental house, and he needed to fix it. All of the chefs he'd invited had pled out, too busy with Christmas menus to spend a day down on the farm. There was a lot of work to get done, but he didn't seem to be in a hurry to get started. The geese — minus their livers — were expected by a couple of chefs in Atlanta the next day, and yet here they were, alive and trumpeting from their corral.
The lush qualities of a farm feel different on the day of slaughter. If you visit only on days when animals graze and peck and waddle their way through the pastures, it's easy think of it as a simple, good life. Maybe it is, but even the best things become a little less simple when they end.
"Sometimes the killing gets old," Chonko said, puffing on a cigarette. He'd taken up smoking again, something he'd quit before his wife had been hospitalized. "It gets fucking old. There's a quote, 'Everything rages against death, it goes against your grain, man or animal.' I don't know who said it. You like meat, and I like meat. You come to peace with it, but I don't get any pleasure from this."
He took another long drag from his cigarette and said, "All right, fuck it, lets go."
Chonko picked up a goose and tucked the body between his legs and the neck under his left arm. It almost looked like an embrace, until the knife in his right hand cut deep around the neck. The blood came out bright and thick against the white down. As the goose's last breath passed out, the sound gurgled with blood. He hung the bird by her feet from a fence, the last of the blood draining out onto the grass.
Eventually the time came to see what was hidden inside, the soul of the goose.
The process seemed to weigh on Chonko, but he didn't have time to sit around and think about it. He had hours of work ahead of him — after the slaughter there would be the scalding, the plucking, the trimming of legs and head. This is long, slow work. Goose down is much harder to pluck than chicken feathers. Chonko leaned over the body, his fingers grasping at every last little bit of white until the skin was bare and puckered, less of the thing we know as a bird and more of the thing we know as meat.
Eventually the time came to see what was hidden inside, the soul of the goose. Chonko cut a slit between the cleaned legs of the goose and reached in with his hand. Out came the heart, gallbladder, entrails, and, finally, the goose's liver. We leaned in and looked at the red, smooth lobes. There was no mistaking it. This was just a goose liver, not foie gras.
Chonko put the organ on the scale and watched it weigh in at 114 grams, larger than the average goose liver but still barely a quarter of what a goose foie gras should weigh. For a few moments, aside from the clicking of the photographer's shutter, there was silence.
Then Chonko got upbeat. He pointed at a little bit of pale yellow on the edge of the liver. It was nothing like the radiant corn-yellow of foie gras, but it did seem like a hint, almost the promise of fatty livers to come. And with that, the moment of somber defeat was over — Chonko started talking about trying again next year, about working harder, about doing more research, about tweaking the process. He could have sellable foie gras that he'd feel comfortable farming, he was sure of it.
"This is a nice little holiday bonus for me," Chonko said to no one, almost sounding like he believed it.
All told, the geese themselves turned out to be worth just enough to pay for the first crop of satsuma trees on Chonko's new property. One farm commodity breaking even for the next. Perhaps there is a promise in that, too: if everything goes to Chonko's plan, those trees will grow tall and thick with fruit, and below them will be a new gaggle of geese, another honking, flapping, hungry group of white birds ready to gorge themselves on the spoils of the farm.
Chonko still hasn't tasted foie gras. Maybe he will one day.