Last month we discussed the rise of the Turducken as becoming a traditional centerpiece to the Thanksgiving feast. This month we are going to step things back and look at one of the oldest main entrees for the mid-winter/Christmas/solstice/Michaelmas banquet: the fattened goose.
Though it is a prized turkey that Scrooge sends an urchin to buy at the end of A Christmas Carol, goose was the original centerpiece on the Cratchit's menu. As shown to Scrooge by the Ghost of Christmas Present: "There never was such a goose...Its tenderness and flavor, size and cheapness were the themes of universal admiration." The modern American family will sit down to a meal of turkey, ham or beef this Christmas, but goose remains the traditional Christmas meat of choice for many and was long before Dickens wrote of its succulence.
The goose has been perfectly created to make for the ideal Christmas feast. Geese are ready to be eaten twice a year. Once when they are young or "green" in the early summer and again when they are at their fattest and ripest toward the end of the year after having feasted on fallen corn. It also has the softest fat in its category of animal. The fat turns to liquid at 111 degrees Fahrenheit (compared to duck fat, which liquefies at 126 degrees) making it easier to cook and its fat easier to consume - try it on pancakes (I am serious). They were thus used as the centerpiece at Michaelmas, a feast day celebrated during the Middle Ages, which fell on the winter solstice and honored the end of the harvest and the change in season. Earlier than that roast goose was an offering to Odin and Thor in thanks for the harvest. It was also ritually eaten in ancient Greek culture to ensure the crops in the months to come. It was only natural for goose to become the roast of choice for Christmas, which eventually took the place of other winter solstice festivities. For the American settlers, turkey took goose's place because it happened to be living on their new home soil and followed the same pattern of maturation.
Unlike that other holiday bird, geese are naturally migratory, evolving with thicker skin and inbuilt systems for reserving energy in the form of fat stored beneath the skin and in the liver to sustain them in their high-altitude travel. This very same nature also affects the texture of the bird’s lean, all-dark meat, making it firmer with a more resilient “tooth” than turkey. Given these differences between the two birds, it is only logical that they should call for different methods of cooking as well. Be sure to read our goose recipes before you approach the task.
Fun Facts About Geese
- Goose refers to a female, a gander is a male, and a gosling is a young goose under 4 months of age.
- Geese are clever and notoriously territorial (almost the exact opposite of turkeys!). If someone unknown tries to enter their domain, they are likely to attack. This characteristic has been appreciated through the ages; Romans kept geese at their villas as pets to protect their children and properties, and NASA has a flock to guard its launch pads.
- Geese are a rich source of legend and folktales. Egyptian mythology tells that a goose laid the primal egg from which the sun god, Ra, sprang. Brahma, the Hindu personification of divine reality and spiritual purity, rides a great gander. Until the Romans conquered the Gauls, who taught them how to feed and cook their geese, the Romans considered the birds sacred. And let’s not forget the adage of “killing the goose that laid the golden egg.”
- Queen Elizabeth I was a big fan. When she was told about the destruction of the Spanish Armada, it was September 29, the Feast of Saint Michael, or Michaelmas, and she was dining on roast goose with sage and onion stuffing. She decreed that thereafter goose was to be served on this day in celebration.
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