The Glories of Goose
No bird makes such a splendid centerpiece for the holiday feast.
Enlarge Image Credit: Todd Coleman"God Bless us, every one!" is the famous benediction that Tiny Tim Cratchit pronounces over what is perhaps the most famous holiday meal of all time, in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. On the Cratchit family's holiday table are potatoes, gravy, applesauce, a pudding "like a speckled cannon-ball" blazing with ignited brandy. But at the center of the meal—and the heart of Tiny Tim's prayer—is a glorious roast goose.
That goose has always stuck with me, and no wonder: It moved Dickens to a culinary rapture unparalleled in the thousands of pages he wrote. The Cratchits rush to take their places at the table with their spoons crammed in their mouths "lest they should shriek for goose before their turn came to be helped." The family says grace, and a breathless pause ensues as Mrs. Cratchit prepares to plunge the carving knife into the goose. "Bob said he didn't believe there ever was such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavor, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration. Eked out by the applesauce and mashed potatoes, it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family; indeed, as Mrs. Cratchit said with great delight (surveying one small atom of a bone upon the dish), they hadn't ate it all at last! Yet everyone had had enough, and the youngest Cratchits, in particular, were steeped in sage and onion to the eyebrows!"
There's lots to love in this passage: the atom of leftover bone, the children sauced in sage and onion. But what's always most delighted me is the vision of the little Cratchits politely sucking their spoons so as not to clamor out of turn for their helping of goose.
Certainly that was the feeling in our family when, a few years ago, we cooked our first Christmas goose. Without the sense to put our spoons in our mouths, we relied on some notion of civilized behavior to keep from yelping and scrambling as my husband took the goose out of the oven, carved it while we hungrily watched, and brought it to the table.
In our extended family, which now includes two grown sons, spouses, grandchildren, relatives, and friends, we've cooked dozens of holiday turkeys. I say we, but my husband is the cook; my job is to page through the Joy of Cooking for its ruling, which we can never recall, on how many minutes per pound it needs to cook. But though our kitchen has produced some truly gorgeous, glistening, and flavorful birds, none of them has sparked quite the excitement that greeted that platter of goose.
Attracted by the challenge, the novelty, and—to be honest—a certain competitiveness with a friend who had boasted about his success in roasting a goose, we decided to try it. We also knew that it would mean lots of flavorful goose fat left over for roasting vegetables, baking, and making luscious confit. The prospect sent my husband, a skilled and effortlessly confident home cook, to consult several cookbooks and the Internet. His hesitation stemmed partly from the fact that we'd had to special-order the goose. And we were definitely not exulting, as Bob Cratchit had, in its cheapness. Even at our enlightened, reasonable, noncorporate local supermarket, the sticker shock had inspired one of those what-the-heck-it's-the-holidays moments of giddy abandon. On principle, you don't want to screw up an expensive 12-pound bird you've personally had to ask the butcher for—especially when it's the main course at the family holiday dinner.
Far more daunting was the rumor that cooking a goose is tricky. What you hear is that it requires hard work, mostly because it's so fatty, and the grease must be closely monitored and frequently siphoned off to avoid ruining the bird—and the oven. Several of the cookbooks from which my husband read aloud were not only unhelpful but positively alarming as they warned us about the challenge of getting the legs to come out done and the breast still moist.