Foie Gras from Louisiana? Yes, It’s a thing.
Just an hour north of New Orleans, a former financial advisor and his wife are doing something that’s never been done before, and local restaurants have embraced the results.
Poppy Tooker has spent her life devoted to the cultural essence that food brings to Louisiana, a topic she explores weekly on her NPR-affiliated radio show, Louisiana Eats! From farmers markets to the homes and restaurants where our culinary traditions are revered and renewed, Poppy lends the voice of an insider to interested readers everywhere.
Louisiana backwater is not the place you would normally hunt for luxury foods, but that is exactly where Ross McKnight and his wife, Dorothy, are producing artisanal foie gras — or as they call it, Backwater Foie Gras.
Far from “high-falutin’ snob’s food,” Ross believes, “Foie gras is really the ultimate product of the peasant kitchen economy. Aside from the beautiful, juicy duck, it also provides all the fat needed for cooking and preserving, along with the culinary crown jewel, the foie gras.”
Just a few years ago, the McKnights were exploring sustainable farming techniques in the backyard of their suburban Covington home, cultivating a large kitchen garden alongside a bustling chicken coop. Ross was supporting his family by working as a financial advisor, but dreamed of a day when he could pursue “mankind’s first vocation” as a full-time farmer.
In 2018, after the couple’s friends, Laurent and Mailys Dias, returned from a visit to her Toulouse home with authentic French foie gras, that first taste lit a spark in Ross’ soul.
“Hey!” he proclaimed, “I think we can do this!”
The Frenchwoman however, had serious doubts.
Now laser focused on a product no one had ever attempted to produce in Louisiana, Ross pressed on, purchasing a flock of ducklings with questionable bloodlines from a farmer outside of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, who “said they were Muscovys.” Those first ducks yielded very small golden livers that were not very good, but after finding a reliable source for ducks in Pennsylvania, the McKnights were on their way to success.
For her part, Mailys traveled back to France to learn directly from foie gras farmers there who generously shared their knowledge, along with their own doubts about replicating the process in Louisiana. She also acquired vintage French books on foie gras production.
With almost 90 ducks in the backyard, Ross’ health began to seriously decline due to a lifelong struggle with an autoimmune disease. After experiencing “mortality at a very visceral level” during a long stay at the Cleveland Clinic that followed multiple surgeries and a complete colectomy, Ross said he realized, “Sometimes you must make friends with death to live your dreams.”
Ross’ parents, Julie and Dan McKnight, trusted their son’s instincts. Together, the multigenerational clan purchased a large homeplace in Bush, Louisiana, with enough room to produce healthy ducks and, ultimately, foie gras. For the operation to be sustainable, it was necessary to run multiple species on the land to build up the vital pastureland.
Gulf Coast sheep and a milk cow named Patty were added to the mix, along with Pekin ducks, guinea hens, Red Ranger broilers and a Creole derivative of the famous Bresse chicken. With a bright red comb, snow white feathers and deep blue legs, the Bresse is said to resemble the French flag and is as delicious as it is beautiful. Specialty poultry provides an income when it’s too hot for the seasonal production of foie gras.
The addition of a state-approved processing facility built on the property allows everything to be processed, cleaned, butchered and packaged on site.
Backwater’s greatest achievement by far are its creamy lobes of foie gras.
“The first time we saw Backwater Foie Gras called by name on a menu, it blew us away,” Ross remembered. “To bring something up from a tiny fuzzball and create this beautiful thing that’s honored in the hands of people who devote their lives to cooking … I realized maybe we can do this and do something beautiful. Weave a legacy, leave an impact by making it a gift to our culture and the state we love.”
New Orleans restaurants responded with love and support. Backwater’s products are on menus like Four Seasons Hotel New Orleans’ Miss River, Brennan’s and Commander’s Palace. Dickie Brennan’s Commissary sells fresh ducks and chickens when available. At local farmers markets, Backwater’s offerings often include rillettes, foie gras paté and mousse, duck leg confit and magret séché, along with duck eggs and other primal pieces.
“Backwater is both a farm and working homestead,” said Dorothy. “Our own family eats almost exclusively from the land.”
Luckily, they have plenty to share with the rest of us.
Catch Poppy Tooker on her radio show, “Louisiana Eats!” Saturdays at 3 p.m. and Mondays at 8 p.m. on WWNO 89.9 FM.