Some months ago before I returned from my travels, I visited a friend in the north of France. AL was most hospitable and graciously wanted to introduced me to as much French food as possible. Amongst other things was a jar of foie gras, something about this particular one being “entier” which is of better quality. I’m not into livers and as much as I enjoy eating, I’m hardly a gourmand or a gourmet. The only other time I had foie gras was at a restaurant in Singapore which frankly was smothered with so much sauce that I could hardly taste the highlight itself. Of course, I was also aware of the dubious practices of force-feeding birds to produce these fatty livers.
But I travel by the motto when in Rome and that no travelling experience is complete without eating locally. With a glass of white wine (I forgot the name. Sorry to AL for all the painstaking explanation in English!) in hand, I tucked into the foie gras on a lettuce leaf and the buttery delicate texture melted straight in my mouth. Suddenly, I understood why this gourmet delicacy inspired centuries of wild craze. Forget about manners! With my mouth full, I ooh-ed and aah-ed over the gluttonous pleasure. At the same time, I’m gently reminded by AL that this is not how French people eat everyday and that usually foie gras is saved for special occasions like Christmas.
I pondered whether to buy a jar back but decided against it. The need for refrigeration whilst still on the road would have been too cumbersome.
Recently, there is a BBC news article about foie gras burgers going for 5 euros each (comparable to a Big Mac) and I can’t help think back to my own experience with foie gras and food in general. Sure, it is egalitarian for food that was once expensive and considered unattainable to be accessible and more affordable. But there is also something unsettling about this – and I’m still not talking about the ethics of the food production itself. By definition, a delicacy is rare and fine. If something that was once deemed special becomes so easily available, what would be so special, rare or fine about it anymore? And it is not just foie gras. Think shark’s fin soup, a Chinese delicacy, that is now readily served at most Chinese wedding banquets. In fact, forget about banquets. You can get shark’s fin soup any time of the year and not just on special occasions.
One of the reasons why these food producers (and consequently the guys down the supply chain like restaurateurs) are successful is because a broader consumer base has prospered to the level that is able to support or demand for these delicacies. On the other hand, there is the school of thought that it is revenue-driven over-production backed by innovating marketing that fuels consumerism, artificially creating desirability and demand when there is none (or not as much) in the first place.
Either way, the consequence is the same: over-production devalues rarity, and over-consumption devalues the consumption experience.
Isn’t it ironic then that increasing prosperity and economic power doesn’t guarantee conventional luxury?