The Wild Side: Cooking the Christmas goose
Last year was the first time we prepared a Christmas goose meal from a traditional German recipe, utilizing a Canada goose I had harvested that fall. I had hoped it would be a great way to try to help our kids see our ties to the past.
Unfortunately, it didn’t go over well. For boys used to eating more “American” foods, like chicken nuggets, corn dogs and hamburgers, the taste and texture of the wild game meat was not appetizing to them. They ate some, because I made them, but they definitely did not come back for seconds.
Traditionally, migratory geese were a prized holiday meal in Germany during the winter months. In fact, the goose was not just a preferred German holiday feast; many European stories and songs reference the Christmas goose. Tame geese were relatively affordable, and wild geese were not too difficult to capture or tame. Goose may not have been selected because it was the best tasting meat, but because of its availability this time of year. Some of my research points to my German ancestors choosing fish for Christmas; or ham, if the weather was suitable for butchering and preserving pork. Ham is still a popular Christmas meal today.
Turkey is another popular holiday meal, especially in the United States. Turkeys are native to North America, so they would not have been a common food source in Europe. Explorers and travelers are thought to have brought turkeys back to their European homes from overseas excursions in the 1500s or 1600s. Commoners would not have been able to afford these large birds, and would opt for a goose. This is a point of focus in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Bob Cratchit can only afford a small goose, but once his employer Ebenezer Scrooge sees the error of his ways, he purchases a large turkey from the butcher and gives it to Cratchit’s family on Christmas day.
Today, the turkeys sold at grocery stores are extremely different from the wild turkey found across much of Wisconsin. Wild turkeys do not have white or dark meat, to speak of. Tame turkeys (and chickens) very rarely use their wings, and the breast muscles that operate them. Consequently, these muscles have very little myoglobin, a blood-related protein that helps muscles use oxygen efficiently. The more a muscle gets used, the more efficient it has to be to get the most muscle function with the least fatigue. So, migratory birds that fly hundreds or thousands of miles, like ducks and geese, have very dark meat. Birds that walk and fly short distances on a daily basis, like ruffed grouse or turkey, have more chances to rest and recover between travels than their migrating relatives. They need less myoglobin and have lighter coloring to their meat, but no plain white meat like tame birds.
If you were to ask my wife which she would prefer, a wild turkey or wild goose for Christmas dinner, I can state with confidence that she would choose the turkey. Even then, she prefers to eat the younger birds, or jakes, rather than the larger older toms I have bagged. I know it took her a while to get used to eating the variety of wild birds I have harvested, including ruffed grouse, pheasant, geese, turkeys and a variety of ducks. Wild game has a widely varied diet, and heavily used muscles, giving them distinct strong flavors often referred to as “gamey.”
By contrast, the bird meats sold in typical grocery stores tend to have predictable standardized diets and are far less physically active, resulting in a flavor with which we all have become quite accustomed. If you are like me, you may never have given this much thought, until you ate meat from a bird that really surprised you. I can tell you my boys give it thought every time I prepare something I harvested.
Jeremy Holtz is a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin DNR and writes a weekly column in the Star Journal. To contact him, call 715-365-8999.