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 melted 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 10 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 barnyard full 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.
“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 against 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.”
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.
☞ COOK THE RECIPE: MUSTARD AND GARLIC ROAST GOOSE
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.