From The Three Musketeers to the "Testicle Festival"

The "Duckathlon" pushes back against NYC's anti-food tyranny


In Alexandre Dumas' foodie classic The Three Musketeers, main character D'Artagnan and his three associates wager with a rum-swilling, goose-fat-eating Swiss mercenary and his ragtag mates: the musketeers will go to the Bastion Saint-Gervais (which D'Artagnan had made a bloody mess of the night before) and enjoy a boozy picnic breakfast, under threat of gunfire, for at least an hour without ceding ground. The winner would enjoy "a dinner for eight…with no limits on the menu."

In fact, the musketeers stood their ground, drank, ate, chatted, and killed about two dozen bad guys.

Earlier this month I attended the fourth annual Duckathlon in New York City, thanks to an invitation from event founder and host D'Artagnan, seller of foie gras and other fine foods. In the Duckathlon, billed as an epic food battle among four-chef teams from top New York City-area restaurants, squads competing against each other earn points by taking part in what D'Artagnan calls a twenty-event "gastronomic obstacle course" that sends competitors on "an action-packed tour" of area dining hot spots.

I realized only after seeing its numerous team culinary events that the Duckathlon is just slightly less impressive a foodie challenge than the one Dumas dreamed up more than 150 years ago.

Baylen Linnekin recently sat down with Reason.tv to discuss the Duckathlon, "culinary freedom," and the notion that cooks and customers, not bureaucrats, should decide on what they can and cannot eat. Click on the video above to watch, or follow this link to Reason.tv

The Culinary Paradox

There is probably no better place in America to hold an event celebrating and defending haute cuisine—and the chefs who cook it—than in New York City. The city is home to many of the best restaurants in the country.

But New York City is also a burgeoning food nanny state, boasting many new regulations that would seem more at home in, well, France.

Two years ago, a city councilor briefly considered attempting to ban foie gras, but thought better of it. But that was the last time New York's restaurant cops showed anything resembling restraint.

Since then, the city has also banished trans fats from restaurant kitchens and forced chain restaurants to display calorie totals, in large type, alongside every menu item. The city, which claims the menu regulation "will help guide informed and healthier food choices," apparently didn't find it relevant that this information was already available online and in handouts available in each chain restaurant.

The real pleasure of the Duckathlon is this culinary paradox—a troublesome attack by the state on what people eat that is playing out here and in California, Chicago, and many of this country's bastions of gastronomy. I wanted to know what these foodies—chefs, suppliers, and journalists—think about what is effectively a fight to keep food legal.

Many at the center of the paradox, including some of the best New York City's kitchens have to offer, are critical of bans that impact what some consider to be staple foods.

"They're trying to change doughnuts," a chef at Daniel, one of the city's (and the country's) top restaurants, laments when I asked him about the city's trans fat ban. "I mean, doughnuts are good. They're great the way they are."

The Event

D'Artagnan, a twenty-four-year-old, New Jersey-based company, bills itself as "the favorite food purveyor of chefs." If you've ever bought foie gras, guinea hen, or wild boar bacon from an upscale grocer, chances are you have eaten D'Artagnan products.

Owner Ariane Daguin, who like Dumas's D'Artagnan hails from France's Gascony region, drew her inspiration for the Duckathlon from a French wine competition.

"I always dreamed of doing something close to what they have in Paris, the Marathon des leveurs de coude," she tells reason. "Where you go to all the St. Germain cafes, and you drink at every café, and you are in a team formation. Except I wanted it to be more gastronomic."

Though a culinary challenge and promotional event first, Daguin also sees the Duckathlon as an opportunity to push back against the food police, calling it a "counterbalance to people who are trying to limit our choice in food and life."

The Challenge

The Chelsea Market, near the edge of the Meatpacking District, was home to this year's event—though D'Artagnan kept the site secret to all but competitors and press, no doubt to discourage the appearance of foie gras protestors who, like pretentious cockroaches, seem to materialize only where excellent food is served.

Most of the twenty Duckathlon events took place at restaurants and bars immediately around the market. The challenges were often as surreal as those faced by D'Artagnan and his fellow musketeers. In the Saucisson Fan-Dangle, contestants donned hoop skirts and—in repeated squats—blindly maneuvered an especially phallic sausage, tied at the waist, into the opening of a milk jug as many times possible within a two-minute time limit.

I found Scott Gold, blogger and author of a recently published meat paean, The Shameless Carnivore: A Manifesto for Meat Lovers, manning the Testicle Festival challenge. Gold, a Brooklyn resident, defends meat eating, and staunchly opposes foie gras bans. Still, he supports the city's menu-labeling requirements, and isn't so sure where he stands on the city's trans fat ban.

"As far as banning trans fats, I don't know if that's such a great idea," Gold tells reason. "But then again, trans fats are useless. I don't see any reason, as long as you're cooking decent food, that you should have trans fat at all."

The tenor of Gold's comments is echoed by Josh Ozersky, who edits the Grub Street food blog for New York magazine.

"I don't think, in its upper reaches, New York City is a food nanny state at all," says Ozersky, also author of the recently published The Hamburger, to reason. "It's closer to a sybaritic free-for-all."

Ozersky and Gold are probably both right. The city's worst food laws don't really impact those in the "upper reaches" who choose to eat subjectively "decent food."

So while the city has hundreds of outstanding restaurants, each likely claiming thousands of devoted customers, it also has millions of residents who can't afford (or be bothered) to eat in them. Those people instead frequent the inexpensive chain restaurants city regulators target.

New York City might be foodie heaven, but if you're an eater rather than a gastronome, regulators are increasingly futzing with your food. The food really under fire in New York City right now is not that eaten by, for example, billionaire Michael Bloomberg—whose mayoral manse chefs competed at the Duckathlon—but by everyday diners.

Still, the vigilance of Daguin, her staff, and Duckathlon participants is as important as it is admirable.

"In a small little way," Daguin says, "I hope it's paving the way to more freedom."

It is. She is. While groups like the New York State Restaurant Association have rightly challenged New York City bans in court, Daguin brings together the people who love to buy, sell, cook, and eat great food.

At best, it's a budding movement. At worst, it's still a lot of fun. And if nothing else, Daguin has again reminded her allies and foes alike that D'Artagnan is willing to occupy the bastion simply to ensure the continued promise of a good meal.

Full disclosure: After writing a few thousand kind words about foie gras in a magazine piece last year, the nice folks at D'Artagnan first sent me an enthusiastic email, and followed that up by sending me the occasional free shipment of foie gras and other foods. I happily devour each one.