Growing up, my family almost always ate a Christmas goose, not a turkey.
That is, we only had it when my dad was home and not stationed somewhere else in the world with the U.S. Air Force. When he was gone, we would eat ham, prime rib or maybe a pork roast. One year, wives and dependents were even invited to the “chow hall” as dining services were called then.
In the best of times, my dad, one of his adult friends and I would go hunting the week before, or even the day of Christmas, to try and kill a Canada goose (Branta canadensis) for the special meal. We always hunted waterfowl like bandits then; so to get the goose was important.
We never bought a goose, mainly because we almost always got our geese, and military commissaries didn’t stock domestic frozen geese at the time.
My mother was the full-blood Cajun in our family. She was also the cook who could roast geese (called f’oie and pronounced like Fwah or the Parisian French word for liver, spelled foie) perfectly. That was done usually with thinly sliced orange on the breast, a rich gravy made of the pan drippings and a voluminous rice dressing based on the Holy Trinity (celery, green peppers and onions). Dessert was always pecan pie.
The traditional rice dish is called “far.” That is the Cajun word for “stuffing,” and it is pronounced like, “Faw.” Later emphasis on so-called Cajun cooking and others call it dirty rice. To be fair to the world’s civilizations who fry rice, it is sort of a form of fried rice. It is rice and all the cooked and minced organ meats combined which make it look dirty.
All this, and time to contemplate, made me wonder where we got the tradition of a Christmas goose and why. In the U.S. today, the USDA estimates the population eats less than a third of a pound of duck per person annually. Goose consumption falls so far behind that there is no good estimate, but some 900 tons of goose meat was produced in the U.S. in 2010.
This all probably snuck through as a custom for serving goose in Europe and followed us Acadians in exile from Canada to Louisiana. When Europeans were mostly agrarians, almost all households had geese.
Domestic geese are territorial to where they were hatched. They will noisily defend their territory acting as a first-generation home security system of sorts.
There were two times of the year to eat goose and that was the spring, when there were young tender birds and the fall after harvest. So, if a gaggle of geese lived on a farm and the farm harvested small grains like many did, the geese were the ultimate gleaners consuming all the dropped grain. By the time Christmas came around, they were about as fat as they could be and ideal for roasting.
Turkeys were native to the New World, thanks to the Old World of Aztecs, Mayans and other Central Americans here long before someone called it the New World. Turkeys didn’t have a footprint in Europe until modern times.
There are almost 60 distinct geese breeds. Geese were first domesticated in China more than 6,000 years ago, and Egyptians followed suit 3,000 years later. Geese are farmed for their meat, feathers and down and to produce fatty livers (goose meat is also notoriously fatty).
I used to hunt and eat waterfowl, but not anymore. Today, too many waterfowl spend too much time on sewer lagoons and golf courses.
Charlie Powell is the public information officer for the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine, which provides this column as a community service.