I Don't Know From Goose: A Jewish Christmas Story

Cooking a roast goose for the holidays requires trial and error, plenty of patience, and commitment to a starry-eyed fantasy of a Dickensian Christmas.

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It's Christmas Eve, 2010, and we're cooking a goose. Or at least, that's the plan—right now it feels more like surgery than cooking. Step one of our Cook's Illustrated recipe says, "Use tweezers or small pliers to remove any remaining quills from the goose," but I'm starting to suspect that we're plucking something else, some vestigial remnant of the quill, because the recipe doesn't say anything about the process potentially taking days—or there being a remaining quill in virtually every pore.

But there are plenty of tweezers to go around, so all four of us—myself and my boyfriend, Josh, his mother and sister—are clustered beneath a bright overhead light, a team of post-mortem beauticians. Occasionally someone emits a self-satisfied ah hah! and waves around an especially long...quill? A follicle? I'm mystified.

It's only my second Christmas with Josh's family but I already feel at home. Their roomy bungalow in Takoma Park, Maryland, seems custom-made for comfort—cushy couches and deep armchairs, lots of soft throws and plump pillows. I pause and step away from the goose, wiping greasy hands on my jeans, and let my surroundings swim back into focus.

Over the kitchen countertop, I can gaze out at the living room, where the Christmas tree lights are set to twinkle mode behind a heavy armor of glinting orbs and hand-crafted ornaments. I'm pretty sure Bing Crosby's "Silent Night" has played at least twice, and the album, I realize, has probably been cycling on repeat for hours.

Using tweezers to pluck quills from the skin of a goose

I don't mind, though. Christmas, I've decided, is a grand old time. Josh's dad, Ray, has already taught me how to artfully arrange tinsel and fashion replacement ornament hooks from paper clips. I've played carols at the piano and deposited presents at the foot of the tree under the cover of night. I've plowed through Advent calendar chocolates and eaten actual chestnuts, roasted over a real, live open fire. But the goose is bound to be this year's crowning achievement.

I love the way it sounds, Christmas goose, so I say it out loud every chance I get. I even have a tuneless little ditty, a chant, that goes a goose, a goose, a Christmas goose, and I've been wandering around humming it under my breath for days in anticipation. On Christmas Eve, on the phone with my grandmother, we exchange Hanukkah wishes before I mention it casually, in passing, and then, unable to help myself, once again, emphatically, "A Christmas goose!"

She grunts, skeptical. "I don't know from goose. What does it taste like?"

"I'm positive it will taste like a flurry of snow and jingling sleigh bells and the collected works of Charles Dickens"

"Like a cross between duck and turkey," I venture, unsure. But secretly I'm positive it will taste like a flurry of snow and jingling sleigh bells and the collected works of Charles Dickens. Every Christmas fantasy I've ever had—and, as a voracious Jewish consumer of antiquated British fiction and films, I've had plenty—certainly seems to promise as much. It is, after all, a goose and this, this, is Christmas.

Or at least, this is our Christmas—an affair so irreverent that it has the curious habit of veering into the opposite extreme, as cloyingly fairytale as it gets without spraying the windowpanes with fake frost and inflating a giant Santa on the lawn. At the Scannell-Szapiro household (if you can't tell by the last names alone), Christmas is something of a mixed-faith affair. Actually, scrap that: Given that Ray's the only gentile in our group of five, it's pretty damn Jew-y.

I'm chopping apples and onions for stuffing when Miriam, the curly-haired matriarch who's leading our foray into goosedom, confesses that she used to find the sight of a Christmas tree "nauseating." I laugh—it seems impossible, given that this is the woman who bought our goose in the first place, who is spearheading all our efforts. "But it was just so important to Ray," she adds.

Ray is a lapsed Irish–Puerto Rican Catholic with a soft spot for tradition; to compromise, Josh and his younger sister were raised with a "holiday tree" studded with stars of David and topped with a porcelain angel, a sort of religious halfway house between their Jewish upbringing and their paternal cultural heritage. It's only in the last decade that Miriam has gradually come around and the family has finally started calling it a Christmas tree instead.

Which is a nice thing, considering just how much Ray loves Christmas. I mean really loves it, and it's infectious. He's the kind of guy who grew up with midnight mass and an elaborate, hand-crafted crèche in the basement of his split-level home in Long Island. Left to his own devices, I suspect he'd play nothing but carols year-round. He insists on visiting the National Christmas Tree each winter, and he's a real hard-ass when it comes to proper tinsel and ornament distribution. But while Christmas in Takoma Park may have started for Ray, these days it's for the rest of us, too.

Then again, Ray's not a cook, and he's certainly never had a Christmas goose. None of us have.

A pair of rubber-gloved hands dipping a goose in a pot

Which is how, as we wrap up the plucking, it becomes increasingly clear that this goose is a flight of Christmas spirit–induced fancy—we have absolutely no idea what we've gotten ourselves into.

Instructed to remove the wishbone, I spend a good 30 minutes watching tutorials on YouTube before daring to pick up a knife myself, groping and slicing blindly at the neck cavity before emerging with my prize. Then the recipe tells us to prick the goose all over with trussing needles and lower it into a pot of boiling water, first one end and then the other. It's so slippery that we almost drop it, both times. A wave of scalding liquid, glinting with fat, slops over the side of the pot, narrowly missing Miriam's feet.

"The goose is out to get us," I say, resentfully. We slip it into the fridge, exchange hugs, and stalk off to bed.

The next day, though, spirits are once again high. After resting in the fridge overnight, the goose has, I've decided, shed its antagonistic inclinations; presents have been opened and a heavy breakfast of cheesy eggs and bacon consumed. So we pick up where we left off, pressing our stuffing—a sticky mix of apples, onions, bread, and sherry-soaked prunes—into the body of the bird before sewing it shut.

Sidestepping scraps of wrapping paper and ribbon, I take a sip of wine and check the time: 5 p.m. We tuck the goose into the oven, relieved, and set a timer. Dinner, we announce, will be ready in a few hours. Little do we know that the real struggle is just beginning: Nobody warned us about the fat.

In the first hour of cooking, rendered fat has practically flooded the roasting pan. We scramble with paper towels and turkey basters, sopping and siphoning to manage the onslaught. By the time we've transferred the bird to a cutting board a few hours later, our faces are all flushed. I'm so stupefied by the volume of fat that I've measured it out: nearly two whole cups. Even so, we haven't rendered enough; when we go to carve the goose, we have to take turns because, in a matter of minutes, we're greased to the elbows, the shoulders, fat is everywhere.

This is not the God bless us, every one goose of Dickens. Instead, the bird, golden brown and crisp-skinned, threatens to slip and slide its way right off the counter, a last-ditch escape attempt. And when we've finally, finally scraped all the meat off the 11-pound beast, we realize it isn't actually done, so the mangled pieces get tossed in a casserole dish and returned to the oven. The hacked-apart carcass, abandoned on the counter in a puddle of red-streaked juices and grease, looks ancient and otherworldly, a Jurassic murder scene.

It's such a process that when we ultimately sit down to eat, it's 11 p.m., and everyone's frazzled, disillusioned. All except Ray, that is, who doesn't much care for cooking and has spent the evening reading and relaxing by the fire, a glass of wine in hand, more Crosby on the stereo. His work is done: After all, he is the reason we're observing Christmas in the first place.

But then we take our first bites and gradually, one by one, we perk up. The meat is all dark and moist and incredibly, stunningly rich. It is like a cross between turkey and duck after all, but it's the pairing of the tangy-sweet, fruit-heavy stuffing and silky, savory gravy that really makes it shine. The skin's so fatty it tastes like cracklings, and I surreptitiously snatch another piece from the serving plate. After a few bites of fat-drenched stuffing, though, that feeling of decadence slides into excess—everything's so saturated that in a moment, I'm stuffed. The leftovers last us all week.

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Since that fateful night, we've learned a lot about making Christmas goose. This year—our fifth—it'll be labor-intensive but, hopefully, smooth sailing. It's routine now, plotted out, busy but not hard. We've tweaked our recipe here and there—now we dry-brine the bird for extra moisture; add tomato paste to the gravy stock for a darker, more savory intensity; and incorporate chestnuts into the stuffing for an earthy-nutty element that balances the fruity sweetness. We've learned there's no real plucking required (those "quills" do indeed seem to be vestigial and just dissolve in the oven), and I can remove that wishbone blindfolded.

The goose renders all its fat these days, and we know to siphon it off partway through. We've even started cooking the stuffing in a casserole dish to keep some of that richness in check. When we sit down to eat, it'll be a reasonable hour, and we'll cackle together as we recall the ghosts of geese past—the time we accidentally used cherry-flavored prunes or the year we left bits of boney goose neck in the gravy.

As we clear the dishes, we'll pick at scraps of stuffing and meat, stomachs bursting but never quite done with that precious little goose. Which is why, later this week, we'll gather around the kitchen counter once more for yet another newfound tradition, grating potatoes and onions for a belated Hanukkah feast of goose-fat latkes. A goose, a goose, a Chrismukkah goose, I'll chant, as we fry each pancake golden-brown and crisp. This time, it'll be Ray's turn to celebrate a different faith. He'll light the menorah, and together we'll start to sing the Hanukkah blessing.

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