The Goose of Christmas Past

The Goose of Christmas Past

I’ve been a haunted man for 13 years, and I place the blame squarely on Tiny Tim’s crooked little shoulders. It was December 1990, and I had just finished rereading A Christmas Carol. Inspired by Tiny’s exultant prayer, “God bless us every one,” I decided that I, too, would have a proper Christmas dinner. The next day I marched into my local butcher shop in Brooklyn and ordered a goose. Luigi, a short, rotund man who had to stand on a milk crate to talk to his customers, leaned over the meat case and cocked an eyebrow: “Have you ever made a goose before?”

“Puh-lease,” I replied, even though the only experience I had cooking fowl was microwaving Swanson turkey dinners. “Plenty of times.”

“What size do you want?” he asked, obviously trying to entrap me. But I outwitted him.

“Oh, the usual.”

When I returned several days later to collect my bird, Luigi instructed me in the ways of goose cookery. While he babbled on about something to do with pricking the skin and draining the fat, I imagined myself parading into the dining room with a bird so splendiferous, my guests couldn’t help but break into a chorus of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.”

On Christmas day, I awoke early to prepare the goose. To ensure a moist bird, I tucked pats of butter under its skin, then slid it into the oven. After several hours, I checked to see if the magic thermometer had popped up, signaling the goose was done. But I couldn’t find one—anywhere. I yanked the goose out of the oven, sloshing a tsunami of fat on the floor, and turned the bird over and over looking for that confounded popper. Just then the doorbell rang, so I returned the goose to the oven and hoped for the best.

Now, back then I wasn’t the intrepid cook that I am today (minus the kitchen fire, that is), so I proudly offered my five guests Diet Coke and an artfully arranged platter of Doritos and Lipton Onion Soup Dip. I then excused myself and took the phone into the bedroom closet.

“Ma,” I whispered, “how do you know when a goose is cooked?”

“Is this a joke?” she asked.

“No, I’m serious.”

“How do I know? I never made one.”

“What do you mean? You make capons all the time. Aren’t they emasculated geese?” With that, she put my father on the line.

I returned ten minutes later, fully educated in the sex life of fowl, but alas, none the wiser about how to cook one. I steeled myself and asked my guests to be seated. I placed the goose on the table and began carving, but every time I sliced, I hit bone. No matter what angle I tried, the knife simply slid off.

“So much for ‘Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat,’” I tried to joke, as I strip-mined the bird for meat with a fork. With each slice, more and more of the mutilated carcass was exposed. In the end, the hatchet job on the platter could easily have passed as a stunt double for one of Jason’s victims in Friday the 13th. Embarrassed, I gave up and divided the two legs among six plates. My guests looked down at their pitifully small portions.

“We could always order pizza,” one guest offered. I glared at him until he withered back into his chair.

After they all left, I railed against God, Tiny Tim, and Luigi as I cleaned up. Furious, I grabbed the platter and flipped the goose into the trash. And there, staring up at me, were two perfectly plump breasts. In my frantic search for the magic thermometer, I had ended up turning the goose upside down and carving from its scrawny, meatless back.

Haunted by the memory of that bird’s mutilation and my humiliation, I chained myself to my stove, Thor, until I became a whiz at roasting fowl. Indeed, at my country home in Connecticut, I’ve cooked a barnyardful of chickens, turkeys, poussins, even guinea hens. But never, ever goose.

Then during a proper afternoon tea spent sipping Earl Grey and nibbling biscuits with Danny, a Connecticut neighbor, I told her about my debacle. “AND YOU HAVEN’T MADE A CHRISTMAS GOOSE SINCE?” she bellowed. An expat from England who’s blessed with an alto’s lungs and cursed with a hearing problem, Danny clocks in at a decibel level just below that of a Boeing 747.

“Nope.”

“WELL, NEXT WEEKEND WE’RE MARCHING INTO YOUR KITCHEN, AND I’M GOING TO SHOW YOU HOW IT’S DONE PROPERLY,” she announced.

She thrummed her fingers on the table as she dictated a shopping list. Then suddenly she thundered: “OH MY, WE’LL HAVE A THUMPINGLY GOOD TIME!” I had my doubts.

The day of our lesson, Danny burst into my kitchen with her arms filled with herbs, bottles, scraps of paper, and two roasting pans. “LOOK, ” she said, waving a carving fork that would do the Marquis de Sade proud. “FOR INFLICTING THE JABS. YOU HAVE TO PRICK THE GOOSE ALL OVER TO DRAIN THE FAT.” Drain the fat? Where had I heard that before? Suddenly, I remembered Luigi’s lecture. Maybe he wasn’t such a bad butcher after all.

I took the bird from the refrigerator, and Danny cooed, “MY, THAT IS A PROPER CHRISTMAS GOOSE, DAVID!” She took it from me, rinsed it, and lightly seasoned it with salt and pepper. Then she stood as if in a trance.

“Danny? Is something wrong?” I asked.

She put her finger to her lips, lowered her head, then said softly (well, softly for Danny), “NOW’S THE TIME TO THINK OF ALL THE PEOPLE WHO HAVE EVER BORNE A GRUDGE AGAINST YOU, AND YOU—GO FOR IT!” With that, she descended upon the bird with her carving fork. To judge from the ferocity of her stabs and the contentment on her face, my guess was she was fantasizing about Tony Blair. When the bird was sufficiently pincushioned, she leaned again the counter and trumpeted, “BOY, WAS THAT CATHARTIC!” She looked like a boxer who had just won a prize fight.

“So what’s next?” I asked, enjoying being a private to her Patton.

She slipped the bird in the oven. “WELL, YOU SIT HERE AND MIND GOOSEY, AND I’LL BE BACK IN A COUPLE OF HOURS.”

“What? Why?”

She looked at me as if I were daft. “I’M KNACKERED,” she said. And with that, she tramped out the back door. “THE DIRECTIONS ARE ON THE TABLE,” she barked from her car.

Without Danny there to guide me, I was immediately haunted by the goose of Christmas Past. I riffled through her scraps of paper, which in Danny’s world constitutes a recipe. One read that the bird needed to be turned three times. “Turned?” I said aloud. Another: “Drain the fat.” But when? Visions of snickering guests danced in my head.

Still, I knew that if I didn’t face this bête noire head on, I’d develop a severe tic every time I saw a goose or break out in hives when served foie gras. So I made some calculations and estimated when to turn the goose, poured off the fat several times lest there be another flood, and brushed on Danny’s secret mustard-and-garlic coating.

When I removed the goose, it was nothing like the catastrophe I had wrought in my youth. It was a beautiful mahogany color, and the mustard coating had formed a crackly, crisp crust. One last hurdle, though, before I could be free of my demons. I poked the top of the bird. Yes! Just as I thought: It was a lovely, juicy breast.

Twenty minutes later Danny muscled through the door. When she saw the goose, her face clouded over. She leaned in close, inspecting. She tilted the bird one way, then the other. Oh, no, I thought. I did it again. Finally, she said, “BRILLIANT, DAVID.” I beamed.

She transferred the bird to a platter and held it aloft. “BEHOLD THE GOOSE,” she crowed. Then she thrust her chin toward the dining room. “NOW, GOOD GOD LET’S EAT!”

Tiny Tim himself couldn’t have said it better.

David Leite's signature 

swirl

Mustard and Garlic Goose

This dish from my Connecticut neighbor is the best goose I’ve ever eaten. But in Danny’s inimitable way, she simply insists it be served with red currant jelly. Nothing else will do.–David Leite

LC Best Goose Ever Note

We can’t really improve on what David just said about this being the best goose ever. Nope. Not even going to try.

Mustard and Garlic Roast Goose Recipe

  • Quick Glance
  • 50 M
  • 4 H, 30 M
  • Serves 6

Ingredients

  • For the mustard and garlic goose
  • One 13-pound goose (thawed if frozen); neck, heart, gizzard, and wing tips reserved for stock
  • 3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried savory
  • For the stock
  • Three 14-ounce cans low-sodium canned chicken broth, or 5 1/4 cups homemade chicken stock
  • 1 carrot, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1 small onion, sliced
  • 3 1/2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 3 fresh Italian parsley sprigs
  • Reserved goose neck (cut into 3-inch pieces), heart, gizzard, and wing tips
  • For the gravy
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons Tawny Port
  • 1/3 cup all-purpose flour

Directions

  • Make the mustard and garlic goose
  • 1. Position the oven rack in the bottom third of the oven and preheat to 425°F (220°C). Remove any excess fat and skin from the main body cavity and neck cavity. Pierce the goose with a sharp fork, especially where the fat is thickest on the legs and lower breast. Sprinkle the cavities and skin with salt and pepper. Tie the legs together to hold their shape. Place the goose, breast-side down, on a V-shaped rack set in a roasting pan. Add enough water to the pan to reach a depth of 1/2 inch. Roast for 40 minutes. Spoon off the fat from the surface of the liquid in pan; reserve 1/4 cup of the fat.
  • 2. Reduce the oven temperature to 350°F (175°C). Using tongs as an aid, turn the goose onto 1 side. Roast for 30 minutes. Turn the goose onto the other side. Roast for 30 minutes.
  • 3. Whisk the mustard, lemon juice, garlic, salt, pepper, and savory in a small bowl to blend. Turn the goose breast-side up. Brush the goose with the mustard-garlic mixture. Roast until a meat thermometer inserted into thickest part of the thigh registers 175°F (80°C) and the juices from the thigh run clear when pierced with fork, about 50 minutes. Transfer the goose to a platter; tent loosely with foil to keep warm. Reserve the pan juices.
  • Meanwhile, make the stock
  • 4. While the goose is roasting, bring all the stock ingredients to a boil in a large saucepan. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer, uncovered, until reduced to 3 cups, occasionally skimming the surface, about 1 hour. Strain the stock into a bowl; spoon off fat. Set aside.
  • Make the gravy
  • 5. Spoon off the fat from the top of the reserved juices in the roasting pan. Add 1/2 cup of Port to the pan. Place the roasting pan atop 2 burners and boil until the mixture is reduced to 1 cup, whisking occasionally, about 5 minutes. Whisk the flour and reserved 1/4 cup fat in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat until the roux is light brown, about 5 minutes. Gradually whisk in the Port mixture and 2 1/2 cups degreased stock. Simmer until the gravy thickens enough to coat a spoon, whisking constantly, about 3 minutes. Stir in 2 tablespoons of Port. Season with salt and pepper. Carve the goose and serve with the gravy.
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Comments
Comments
  1. Dale C. says:

    I love this story. For our daughter’s first Christmas on her own, she invited us for turkey dinner. As per custom, she would ask Dad to carve it. It did seem awfully lean, albeit moist. I suddenly realised that she had (you guessed it) cooked it upside down. Didn’t say a word so as not to embarass her. Managed to find enough meat for the three of us. Weeks later we told her and she laughed about it then. To this day, the Christmas joke is “Will it be an upside-down bird?” And her reply: Best way to keep it moist, Dad! And yes, I have not done a Christmas goose for many years (long story). Suffice to say that my wife got a “Fannie Farmer Cookbook” that year.

    • David Leite says:

      Thanks, Dale. So I’m not the only upside-down cook! A lovely story. I hope you and yours had a wonderful Christmas.

      • Dale says:

        Just had to re-read this tale. It makes me laugh with its self-depracating humour. We had Christmas at Grandma’s, and my daughter brought the turkey. Thank you. Happy New Year to you and yours.

        • David Leite says:

          Dale, I’m so happy you enjoy the post. Too bad you didn’t have a goose at Christmas! Happy 2012. May it bring all you desire.

  2. Bkhuna says:

    David, I always enjoy your stories!

    The one and only time I ever tried to prepare a goose was a total disaster. I did however learn that you can’t do goose low-and-slow on a smoker and that nothing short of a pressure washer will ever get all the fat off the patio deck.

    Merry Christmas to your and yours. I look forward to your articles in the upcoming year.

    • David Leite says:

      Bkkuna, thanks for the kind words. Oh, my! Low and slow on a gril. That’s interesting. Goose can be a challenge, can’t it? Merry Christmas to you and yours, too.

  3. Another enjoyable read, David. I come to Leite’s Culinaria for the best food writing on the web. Merry Christmas.

    • David Leite says:

      Michele, thank you so much. And what a Christmas gift to know you seek us out for the “best food writing on the web”!

  4. Fran Carona says:

    Love this story, David. Merry Christmas!

  5. Renee Oliveira Rogers says:

    Another great article! Glad to know a savvy cook such as yourself came from humble beginnings! Gives us hope! Boas Festas!

  6. Elizabeth says:

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful story. I needed something to cheer me up! First year as a widow. I will not attempt making a goose-breakfast casseroles for me!

    • David Leite says:

      Dearest Elizabeth, I’m so sorry to hear about your loss. I can only image how hard the holidays are. All of our thoughts and good wishes go out to you. Warmly, David.

  7. Pat Porter says:

    David, I loved this story and have one of my own. Thirty years ago, a new love interest and I decided to spend Christmas together. Ah, early, youthful romance. He tossed a goose into our shopping cart, dismissing my howls. “You’ll figure it out.” I need to add that we were in my home town, a college town, and all of my friends and distant acquaintances who were not home for the holidays realized that I would probably be in town. Christmas day, folks started knocking on the door. “Just wondering if you were around.” By the time the goose was cooked, we had over a dozen hungry diners, excited to be treated to a Christmas dinner cooked by yours truly. We each had, perhaps, one teaspoon of meat. It was, however, the most memorable Christmas meal ever, enjoyed by all with an ample amount of Jameson. Not bad for a bunch of teenagers.

    Many years later, I was in the grocery store the day after Christmas and found a huge D’Artagnan goose in the freezer case for $0.50 per pound! Someone had ordered it and failed to pick it up. Karma is not always a bitch. By then, I actually knew how to cook that thing. Baste it with boiling water and the fat melts right off. Confit, anyone?

    • David Leite says:

      Pat, what a charming story! Yes, karma isn’t always a bitch, as you say. I’ve never tried the boiling water method. I may have to investigate….

  8. Beth says:

    Oh, you’ve done it again!

    “Danny cooed, ‘MY, THAT IS A PROPER CHRISTMAS GOOSE, DAVID!’” sent me into fits! I adore the juxtaposition of “cooed” and DANNY’S ALL-CAPS PRONUNCIATIONS.

    • David Leite says:

      Well, you just made my day, Beth. Thank you for zeroing in on such a small detail. No one has ever noticed that juxtaposition before.

  9. Amanda says:

    Thanks for this gorgeous retelling of your culinary humiliation and subsequent redemption, David. We’ve all had kitchen disasters which are hysterical in retrospect, but fail to amuse at the time. (I could tell you about the time I served raw prawns to guests on Xmas eve!)
    Lucky you to have the loud & lovely Danny in your life to steer you right. I’ve never attempted a goose before, but if I do, your story is engraved in my memory! Thanks.

  10. Beth says:

    My pleasure. Thank you for the entertainment!

    I hope you read my comment on your iNeedConstantLoveMachine.

  11. Jamie says:

    Brilliant tale, David, wonderfully told – a tale to tell every Christmas right after a bit of Dickens. A very Merry & Joyous Holiday Season to you and yours!

  12. Chef Dennis says:

    What a wonderfully told story! I’m glad to see you got over your fear of goose, and do have to commend you for being brave enough to give another try, although I’m sure your cooking skills have improved by leaps and bounds since that first attempt!

    Cheers and best wishes for a healthy and happy new year!
    Dennis

    • David Leite says:

      Thanks, Chef Dennis. Yes, it seems every year The One asks for a goose, and I comply. It’s not my favorite kind of bird, but, hey, it’s the holidays–a time of giving. Here’s wish you a prosperous and delicious New Year.

  13. molly says:

    hi David,

    I read your note about the goose. being a jewish descendent, I learn from an aunt how to make it. first cut it in pieces and then put lots of chop garlic, leave it in the fridge (very well wrap if you dont want the smell) for about 5 days, and then you put it in a roasting pan, add salt and start roasting it. add a little of hot water once in a while until it is tender and with a dark brown color. when we were little we enjoy a lot thid dish.

    sorry my spelling but my mother tongue is spanish.

    good luck

    • David Leite says:

      molly, what an interesting method. Do you add the hot water to help render the fat or to keep the pan from drying out?

  14. Ling Teo says:

    OK it looks like it’s gonna be Project Tiny Tim for us this Christmas… hubby’s put in a order for a 7lb French free-range honker (please don’t let it be a Canada goose shot over French territory) at our local butcher in our town in the Netherlands. I will be launching myself, apron-clad and kitchen knives flourishing, off a KLM flight straight into our kitchen to do battle with the bird – and the many, many pin feathers that will have escaped plucking, and have to be tweezed off as the bird cooks…

    My favourite part about cooking goose – watching the glorious fat render off straight into the oven tray below, and saving every precious drop for the best roast potatoes, potato gratins and fried eggs for breakfast ever…

    David, since I read this story of yours a few years ago, the association has been Christmas goose = David Leite = his funny friend Danny’s recipe. A story I will always treasure reading at this time of the year! So thank you again for sharing :)

    • David Leite says:

      Ling, do you hear that? That’s Danny saying, “OH, LING DARLING, THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR READING MY LITTLE STORY. I DO HOPE YOU AND YOUR HUSBAND HAVE A THWACKINGLY JOLLY CHRISTMAS. BLESSINGS TO YOU BOTH.”

      (She really sounds like that.)

  15. Kelley Butler says:

    I now have to cook a goose for Christmas. Glad I stumbled on your article/recipe this early so I can read and re-read it a few times before “cooking my goose.”

    • David Leite says:

      Ha! Kelley, when you do (cook your goose, the real one, that is) let me know how it turns out. Also our new podcast, coming out in a few weeks, has a method from Hank Shaw for cooking goose.

  16. Angel Tan says:

    Your story cracked me up so much that I can’t stop smiling! I sure wish to meet a Danny someday in my life because I have never cooked a whole bird (even a small one). God Bless all Dannys!

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