When H Street NE restaurants joined together for a foie gras festival a year ago, protestors donned bloody aprons and displayed "dead ducks" on silver platters. And when the annual celebration of fattened duck and goose liver kicked off again last night, protesters from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals returned to Boundary Road, the restaurant organizing the event, carrying more paper mâché dead duck props and signs reading "stop selling cruel foie gras."
But that hasn't deterred the festival's organizer and Boundary Road chef Luke Feltz. The week-long competition, in which restaurants each serve their own foie gras dish and the public can vote for a favorite, has upped the number of participants from nine to 14 this year. Feltz has also worked to expand the event to include restaurants in other parts of the Capitol Hill area, not just H Street NE. And so far, he says the protesters haven't impacted business.
"The restaurant was packed. We had a really good night," Feltz says. "For a kick-off night for this event, we've never had a busier start."
PETA senior policy associate Stephanie Jaffa, among the protestors, argues "I wouldn't call the restaurant packed by any means." However, the less than 20 protestors were only there from 6 to 7 p.m.
In the lead up to the event, Feltz says he got around 80 emails, including at least one from as far away as Sweden, asking the restaurant to stop serving foie gras. Feltz says he did his best to respond to the messages and explain how all the participating restaurants use the "highest quality" foie gras from Hudson Valley Foie Gras farm in upstate New York.
"This is a small-scale farm at which the ducks are never kept in cages, are free to roam around (vital to the animal’s health), hand fed by the same person throughout the process, and every part of the animal is used. These ducks are treated with respect, and we, in turn, seek to treat their gift with respect and celebrate the men and women who work so hard to do this the right way," Feltz wrote to protestors.
Some of the emailers were actually appreciative of his response, although one person "wished a long and painful death via liver cancer on me," Feltz says.
Jaffa claims the festival's foie gras source, Hudson Valley Foie Gras, doesn't treat the birds as respectfully as it claims. She cites a PETA investigation in 2013 that found ducks were crammed by the thousands into warehouse-like sheds, treated harshly by workers, and sometimes diseased. (You can read more about PETA's investigation here and info from Hudson Valley about its own practices here.)
"Investigations of every foie gras farm in the United States and throughout Europe have all documented sick, dead, and dying animals, some with holes in their neck from pipe injuries," Jaffa says.
Instead, Jaffa touts vegan faux gras made of walnuts, lentils, and onion.
Feltz points out there are plenty of foie gras fans; they just aren't as vocal as the detractors. "So the only opinions we hear are those from people who are totally against foie gras and refuse to engage in dialogue of any sort," he says.
Feltz rescheduled the foie gras festival from December to January to allow more restaurants busy with the holidays to participate. However, not everyone was in. Sally's Middle Name initially planned to participate but then backed out. "We spoke to some people in the neighborhood who were uncomfortable with the idea of protestors and the other negative attention that might be brought to the neighborhood because of the event," co-owner Aphra Adkins explains. "We didn't want to make anybody uncomfortable." At the same time, she says they have nothing against foie gras or others participating.
The festival continues through Jan. 20. As for whether PETA has more protests planned, Jaffa says "some plans are in the works."
Whether you're for or against foie gras, here's a list of those who are participating:
The Big Board
The Queen Vic
Rappahannock Oyster Bar
Photo courtesy Boundary Road