It was a delicacy among the Romans, and later the Jews, a substitute for the pig that helped their Christian neighbors survive the Middle Ages. To French food writer Charles Gerard, foie gras--the swollen liver of a deliberately overfed goose or duck--was "the supreme fruit of gastronomy." Seared and doused with a port-wine reduction, or baked with truffles into a terrine, it is the key to the restaurant industry's holy grail: the $20 appetizer. But to animal-rights activists, it's fur on a plate, an outrageous flaunting of humanity's dominion over other species, and at the same time a wedge issue that can usefully be wielded against the entire meat industry. Which is why, within an hour of Cardinal Ratzinger's elevation last week, an exultant e-mail went out from Bruce Friedrich, director of vegan campaigns for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, calling media attention to the new pope's views on animal husbandry. In a 2002 interview, Ratzinger opined that "degrading living creatures to a commodity," specifically by force-feeding geese and confining chickens in crowded factory-farm cages, seems "to contradict the relationship of mutuality that comes across in the Bible." So perhaps monsieur would prefer to substitute the poached leeks?

That's the hope of celebrity chef Charlie Trotter, who inadvertently helped fuel the debate when he acknowledged to the Chicago Tribune that he had stopped serving foie gras at his eponymous restaurant in 2002--one year after he published recipes for foie gras beignets, foie gras custard and foie gras ice cream in his "Meat & Game" cookbook. "I can't really justify this," said Trotter, who came to his decision after seeing ducks force-fed grain through tubes inserted down their throats. But he continues to serve every other kind of cuddly creature in creation, a position that Chicago's other notable American-French chef, Rick Tramonto of Tru, called "a little hypocritical... Either you eat animals or you don't eat animals." In a comment Trotter now says he regrets, he suggested that Tramonto's liver could go on the menu instead.

But that threat is nothing compared with what happened to Laurent Manrique of Aqua, in San Francisco; a specialty-food shop he co-owned was vandalized just before it was to open, and he was sent a video, purportedly from anti-foie gras activists, of him eating dinner at home with his family. Legislative efforts to ban the product are showing success. California, one of two states where ducks are raised for foie gras, has banned its production and sale, effective in 2012. The legislature in New York is considering a bill that would phase out production, although it would not outlaw, for instance, chef Kerry Heffernan's $17 dish of seared foie gras with vanilla roasted pears and sauternes coulis (left) at Eleven Madison Park. "That will come later!" promises Friedrich of PETA.

It's all a huge misunderstanding, in the view of Michael Ginor, an owner of Hudson Valley Foie Gras, the upstate New York farm that produces most of the estimated 420 tons (or 1.8 billion calories) of foie gras consumed in the United States annually. Force-feeding ducks with a tube "does sound atrocious," he admits, but he maintains that waterfowl, lacking the mammalian gag reflex, do not suffer from the process. "Foie gras is easy to attack: it's for the rich, it's unnecessary, it's vain. It can be seen as all those things. But it's been around for 5,000 years." And Charlie Trotter himself would be the last to deny how good it is. Its texture as meltingly soft as a chocolate truffle, its flavor a mouth-filling meatiness and sweetness that helps justify humanity's million-year struggle to the top of the food chain.

Unless, of course, madame would prefer the vegetable reduction on her asparagus instead?