On an arctic-cold morning in late December, I spied six geese performing their morning ablutions in an open patch of icy water on the Chicago River. They used their elongated necks as scoops to ladle water onto their feathered backs, then toweled off by standing erect in the icy water and flapping their wings until the water evaporated. I never knew geese were so fastidious.
The scene reminded me of the time I promised to treat my family to a Christmas goose, just like the one in the illustrated version of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol – all plump and juicy. The image of Bob Cratchit striding along the cobblestones clutching a large goose by the neck inspired my decision to forgo the traditional turkey in favor of something far more evocative of the grand tradition.
It was 1980 and I lived in Seattle with my wife and three teenage children – Matthew, Gwendolyn and Jennifer – on the shore of Lake Washington in a classic northwest house built of local fir from evergreen forests. The house was ample: four bedrooms, three baths, a pool room, and large plate-glass windows facing the lake. Seattle was a quiet city, tucked away in the northwest corner of the country minding its own business, before Bill Gates and the internet revolution, before Pearl Jam and Kurt Cobain made it one of the coolest places on the planet. Seattle had Boeing and some of the most lush scenery found on Earth. An oasis. I had come to Seattle four years earlier to launch my consulting business, and business was good.
The urge to do something special for my family at Christmas was motivated by a gnawing guilt from too much business-travel and too little time spent at home. I grew up in a time when men went to work and women cared for the children, but I still felt derelict for being absent so often. Perhaps I could find my redemption, I thought, in serving up a rousing Christmas dinner.
It was by accident that I found a recipe book titled How to Cook His Goose displayed in the window of a store that specialized in outdoor souvenirs like duck decoys and miniature crab pots. The author’s name was Karen Green. The feminist twist in the title was unmistakable.
Thanks to earlier struggles with Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, I was reasonably skilled with a chopping knife and a recipe, though cooking a goose was not in my repertoire. Should I put my faith in a recipe I had never tried before? Should I do as instructed, “…find a specialty butcher, order the bird two weeks in advance, allow [bird] to thaw in refrigerator, expect a lot of fat…”?
My youngest daughter, Jennifer, only a few years from having a full-fledged imaginary friend named Elephant, now had a real friend named Janet, whom she invited to dad’s special Christmas goose event. That brought the dinner head-count to six.
I found the specialty butcher through a popular publication called Best Places in Seattle under the heading “Best Meat Markets,” not two miles from home. I ordered an eighteen pound goose.
“Sorry,” said the butcher. “The largest goose available anywhere is fourteen pounds and they come frozen, by law.” He spoke in that authoritative manner butchers display when they have cleavers in their meaty hands. I quickly did the math: 2.3 pounds per person—no sweat.
Two weeks later, bird thawing in the refrigerator, my attention switched to the dressing: apricots, figs, raisins, dates, apples and lots of exotic spices and stale Italian bread drenched in extra virgin olive oil—no compromises.
Before Whole Foods Market and the green movement, the Pike Place Market was the Mecca of foodlovers. Right on the bay in downtown Seattle, it covered a full city block with stalls displaying fresh vegetables, fruit, flowers, and an iconic fish market where vendors wrapped ten-pound fresh salmon in newspaper and heaved them across the counter at unsuspecting customers. Anyone with any pretense of being a cook ended up there. I set my car on automatic pilot to the Pike Place Market.
I had my check list: Turkish bay leaves, ground cumin seed, yams, sage leaves, Yukon potatoes, sweet potatoes, pearl onions and a bag of marshmallows. I darted from stall to stall, filling my canvas shopping bag with fruit and vegetables, the exotic spices and artisanal goat cheeses; I shopped with the aplomb of the great chefs of Europe, or so I imagined, on that heady, rainy Saturday morning in December.
I learned from my experience with Julia Child that it was best to plan a complicated meal thirty-six hours in advance lest one discover, as I did once, while my guests sat waiting to be served, that the last item in the recipe required twenty-four hours of refrigeration. Determined not to be caught unaware this time, I applied a technique from the field of project management known as “Critical Path Analysis”—I plotted each step along a time-line to ensure that all the pieces would fall into place to serve dinner at precisely 4:30 p.m. I imagined I was Zubin Mehta conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Bolero—I would build this meal into a crescendo of culinary splendor as the cymbals crashed and the drums roared.
Come Christmas morning, I was in the kitchen at 6:30 a.m. wrapped in a fresh apron and wearing my preppy uniform of khakis, L.L. Bean boat shoes and a blue button-down Oxford shirt. The luxurious goose was in its plastic wrapper perfectly thawed, the chopping knife honed to a fine edge and the stuffing ingredients aligned on the chopping block awaiting their turn at the guillotine. Without warning, my oldest daughter, Gwendolyn, appeared at my side in her blue flannel pajama, her blond hair pulled back with a braided band. What made her appearance so endearing was that she normally slept in on holidays, but this day, she wanted to be my sous chef. I put her to work coring apples, crushing nuts and pounding coriander seeds with a mortar and pestle, while I attended to my goose.
Sure enough, just as the book had cautioned, there was a surfeit of fat I would need to surgically remove before the goose could go in the oven. But I had not imagined how much fat that meant: a three-inch slab covered the entire belly. No wonder geese float. No wonder geese survive arctic waters with the calm and contentment of a soak in a bathtub.
I made V-shaped incisions in the goose with a large butcher knife, and scraped the fat from the meaty part of the belly until I produced a clean bird ready for stuffing and roasting. Without the fat globules, the goose looked like a patient emerging from liposuction. It looked like the pictures of starving children in Biafra, rib cages exposed.
I had six people coming for dinner, and I was beyond the point of no return. I had no fall-back plan, no turkey in the freezer waiting to be pressed into action, the stores were closed, and I was becoming claustrophobic.
I wanted a drink, but it was only 11 a.m.
“Puncture the skin to allow the internal fat to ooze out during cooking,” my book instructed. It did not tell me that my large roasting pan with three-inch-high sides stood in mortal danger of being breached by the accumulation of said fat – that did, indeed, ooze from every single pore while the goose roasted in the oven.
Great! Just what I needed: fat-spill, flame-engulfed oven, smoked vegetables, and the fire department as my guest at Christmas dinner. Fortunately, I caught it just before it reached disaster proportions. It meant spending half an hour with a bulb-baster syphoning the scalding fat, an ounce at a time.
This wasn’t so much fun anymore.
Beads of perspiration ran down my face. The armpits of my button-down Oxford shirt were drenched with the sweat of an enormous fear.
Was I about to become the goat of Christmas present?
The meat thermometer registered 175 degrees—the goddamn goose was cooked. I took it from the oven and placed it on the carving platter to rest. The side dishes stood ready, as I set about to carve the bird.
I cut into the breast, but instead of the long, thin pieces of succulent white meat I expected, all I got were little rounds of brown that reminded me of the chipped beef my mother served in cream sauce over mashed potatoes. Instead of a plump, juicy goose, I had half a platter of skimpy morsels. It looked like something that might be served at Sing Sing.
In the last desperate minute before my debut, I placed the marshmallows atop the mashed sweet potatoes, turned on the broiler and watched with the intensity of a neurosurgeon, taking critical care the marshmallows would not turn into a charred monstrosity. One more problem and I would climb in my Volvo and head for Mexico.
I poured myself a generous glass of an excellent vintage 1974 Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet brought from Napa Valley the previous fall. I downed it in four gulps, as I awaited my hour of judgment. By this time I was feeling like Scrooge before his redemption, with a little buzz.
The steaming side dishes were on the table. I made my grand entrance, the pathetic platter of scrawny goose medallions hiding my sheepish grin.
I placed my prize on the table. At first there was muted chuckling from everyone, including my usually supportive wife. Shortly, the chuckling gave way to embarrassed snickering. Finally the table exploded in uproarious laughter.
To my kids, this was better than vaudeville: The stuffed-shirt gets a pie in the face; the balloon gets pricked; the ego gets deflated—it doesn’t get better than this.
No one really cared about my goddamn goose. Another slice of mincemeat pie with vanilla ice cream, and my monumental goose disaster joined the chopped vegetable detritus in an extra-large-with-yellow-pull-strings black plastic trash bag.
In my last grasp at dignity, I stood erect and proudly proclaimed that I had bought the goose merely as a surrogate to carry the exquisite dressing to full term. More laughter; more joy.
Now, I wear the memory like a scarlet letter. Each Christmas the image of Bob Cratchit insinuates itself and lest I forget, one or more of my children is always there to remind me, “Hey dad, are you serving a plump goose this Christmas?”