Things do have a strange and often serendipitous way of happening, as we discovered this past Christmas day. For the past twenty or so years we have roasted a goose for the occasion — in our first years in an oven but of late on a rotating spit in front of a blazing fire in the eighteenth century fireplace.
I’m not sure if it was my memory of having goose as a child in Wales or the big fuss Tiny Tim made of the goose (Shouting as it arrived: “God Bless us everyone!”) in Dicken’s The Christmas Carol that inspired me to revive this fading Christmas tradition. But revive it we have, and since we started Turkana Farms raising our own geese, we have begun doing our best (with little success) to introduce goose at Christmas time to our farm customers.
So the traditional centerpiece of Christmas dinner here at Turkana Farms is always goose. But each year the accompanying side dishes vary according to what we still have in the way of available garden or greenhouse produce. This year for the first time Mark, while we were discussing what kind of potato dish to include, came on strongly favoring latkes. Since I like potato pancakes and the dish seemed a good combination with roast goose I said fine, and pointed out that we could fry them in goose fat to get full flavor.
In doing so I was unaware that our Christmas dinner had also become a Hanukkah feast. But this neither of us realized until the day after Christmas when I came across a New York Times article entitled “Goose: A Hanukkah Tradition” by Jeffrey Yoskowitz, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/24/opinion/goose-a-hanukkah-tradition.html?r=0, in which he points out that for Jews in the Old World goose was an important component of Hanukkah celebrations both for its meat and the rendered fat (that is, schmaltz), in which latkes were fried. But for today’s American Jews, the article points out, the Hanukkah connection between goose and latkes_ has almost completely vanished.
Mark had fastened on latkes for our dinner because Hanukkah coincided with Christmas this year, and he had childhood memories of the rather simple Hannukah dinners his family prepared in which the central dish was solely latkes topped with sour cream. There was in his memory no goose, not even goose schmaltz. Maybe there could have been some ancestral memories at work? But Whatever the cause, serendipitously Mark and I had unwittingly, while celebrating what we thought was a Christmas dinner, reestablished the ancient traditional combination of goose and latke, and thus were in a way observing Hanukkah.
How the connection between goose and latkes broke down for American Jews is an interesting food story that Mr. Yoskowitz elucidates. The connection was definitely still there when eastern European Jews arrived in this country, as is attested by the “tenement geese” of the Lower East Side. Much to the dismay of New York City Health Inspectors geese were commonly raised by Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side in tiny tenement apartments, hallways, basements, and back yards. The goose still continued to be for these immigrants, as the French food writer Edouard de Pomiane wrote in 1929, the “beneficent animal” since it supplied households with everything from “feathers for bedding to flesh for roasting to fats for rendering”.
For a Jewish minority living amongst a majority that cooked with lard, it was extremely important to produce goose shmaltz in order to remain observant of kosher dietary rules.
Several factors in American food production in the Twentieth Century were instrumental in severing this age old Jewish reliance on the goose. Changing tastes were not really the factor. Instead it was the shift in poultry raising from family farms to industrial confined-animal feeding operations. Geese are temperamental and aggressive and do not take to confinement and cannot be exclusively raised on grains, requiring pasture grazing as well. Therefore, raising geese has become an increasingly expensive operation compared with industrially raised chickens, which because of confined-animal methods have become cheaper and cheaper. Similarly the processing of geese, which require hand plucking, is considerably more expensive than the mechanical plucking of chickens. The result is that the chicken has become the go-to bird in American Jewish kitchens.
Another major factor was the introduction of inexpensive vegetable shortening, chiefly Crisco and seed oils which like schmaltz, but unlike lard or butter can be used in meals containing meat without violating Kashruth. These innovations have done away with the labor intensive job of rendering goose fat to produce schmaltz for cooking oil. These days for those Jews who use it, schmaltz is now synonymous with rendered chicken, not goose, fat.
Not only has goose become increasingly difficult to find in shops and supermarkets but obtaining kosher goose has apparently become almost impossible and very expensive.
Mr. Yuskowitz sums up his article with something that is like music to our ears suggesting that Jews “Try to find a goose from a small farm or… local butcher.” And in doing so he points out they “…will be reviving a distinctive Jewish tradition.. as well as supporting small-scale farms that practice sustainable agriculture.” Like ours, of course.
All this is advice that we feel would be good for the Gentiles too. As the saying goes: “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”
But whatever the result is of this information and advice on all of you, Mark and I plan to continue our Christmas (now also Hanukkah) tradition of roasted goose. And latkes fried in schmaltz.