It was Christmas day, and as I sliced through the crackling-crisp skin of the 4-pound Canada goose that I’d just finished roasting, I felt a sinking sense of disappointment much like that of a boy digging coal from his stocking. Because, as the knife was making grimly evident, the meat of the goose resembled coal: dense, dry, and though not black, a dunnish gray, and certainly as unappetizing. This was a little more than a decade ago when I was living in a 12×30-foot hunting cabin on 300 acres of hardwood forest in northern Mississippi. I’d shot the goose over one of the ponds near the cabin, and after arduously plucking and then replucking it, I had spent droolsome hours poring through cookbooks, scouting the perfect recipe for a Christmas goose for me and my dog. The recipe I settled on promised a bird as festive and warm as the colored lights strung ’round my cabin, a honker stuffed with enough oysters and cranberries and chestnuts to make Tiny Tim wet his drawers with anticipation. As it turned out, however, I glumly ate only the stuffing while the dog ate the goose. Eggnog numbed my sorrows, but still. “Ho, ho, ho,” indeed.
FAT IS GOOD The blame for this blundered holiday meal, I later learned, didn’t lie with the goose, or with me, and it certainly didn’t fall on the dog. No, the recipe was to blame. Hundreds of cookbooks tell you how to make roasted goose, but they’re almost always aimed at cooks using domestic, farm-raised geese. And therein lies the rub: You can no more roast a wild goose the same way you would a domestic goose than you can substitute catfish for beef in a pot of chili. Wild geese have so much less fat than their domestic brethren that, as far as the kitchen is concerned, the two birds should be considered different species altogether–so much so that they require opposite roasting methods.
When cooking a domestic goose, the trick is to render the excess fat (by pricking the skin, simmering the goose beforehand, etc.) so that your bird doesn’t arrive at the table awash in blubber. But when it comes to roasting lean, wild geese, every scant bit of fat is precious, and that dearth of fat, beyond meaning that the meat dries out in the oven, also causes the bird to cook 30 to 40 percent faster than a domestic bird–yet another reason to disregard the standard Christmas goose recipe.
Leave it to a hunter to solve this problem. Ernie Mellor, a barbecue pitmaster and an ardent waterfowler from Memphis, Tennessee, has devised a method for roasting wild geese that yields a supermoist result that drips with flavor. For hunters wishing to adhere to the Victorian tradition of a roasted Christmas goose, Mellor is as close to Santa Claus as it gets. He brines his geese overnight in a mixture of water, salt, pepper, and brown sugar–“the salt helps to moisten the meat,” he says, “plus you’re getting a little sweet flavor from the sugar”–and then, prior to roasting, he sears the skin in hot bacon fat to lock in the juices. He also roasts his geese over a pool of liquid in the bottom of the pan (“anything from chicken broth to Sprite with as many herbs and spices as you like”), and that, along with the brining and searing, helps ensure that the meat will bear no resemblance to coal.
His other secret? A digital meat thermometer. “A good meat thermometer is particularly important with a goose,” he stresses, since the line between cooked and overcooked is so dramatically thin. Mellor hauls his from the oven when the thigh temperature hits 160 degrees, and then he lets the goose sit uncovered for 10 to 20 minutes to allow the juices to settle evenly in the meat.
Juices in the meat of a wild bird? For a goose hunter sharing his largesse on Christmas Day, that’s all the bounty one could ever want beneath the tree. “Ho, ho, ho,” indeed.
ROASTED WILD CHRISTMAS GOOSE WITH CRANBERRY, OYSTER, AND CHESTNUT STUFFING
In this recipe, Ernie Mellor’s roasting technique is paired with a cornbread stuffing loaded with just about every Christmas flavor save that of popcorn garland. Be persnickety about regularly poking the bird with your meat thermometer (every 30 minutes for the first hour and a half, then every 10 minutes after that)–an overcooked goose is only suitable for your dog, and even he’ll grumble about it. Serve with maple-glazed sweet potatoes and some cider-braised greens, or whatever family tradition dictates, and a first-rate pinot noir. Serves four.
•2 gallons water
•1 cup salt
•1 cup black pepper
•1 cup brown sugar
•1 wild goose, 4 to 5 pounds dressed, well plucked and cleaned
•kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
•½ cup bacon fat (or oil)
•2 to 4 cups chicken stock
•3 tablespoons butter
•1 cup diced yellow onions
•¾ cup diced celery
•2 teaspoons minced garlic
•1 teaspoon fresh sage, chopped
•1 teaspoon salt
•1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
•½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
•1 dozen shucked oysters, drained and liquor reserved
•¼ cup chopped roasted chestnuts
•¼ cup dried cranberries, plumped in warm water
•2 large eggs, lightly beaten
•1 to 2 cups buttermilk
•4 cups stale crumbled cornbread
TO BRINE THE GOOSE
Mix the water, salt, pepper, and brown sugar together in a large pot. Place the goose in the brine mixture and refrigerate overnight.
TO MAKE THE STUFFING
Heat the butter in a large saute pan. Add the onions and celery and cook for about 4 minutes, or until soft. Add the garlic and cook for another 30 seconds. Season with sage, salt, pepper, and cayenne, remove from heat, and set aside. When cool, fold in the oysters, chestnuts, and plumped cranberries. In a mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs, oyster liquor, and a cup of buttermilk, and pour the mixture over the crumbled cornbread. (If using fresh cornbread, first crumble it onto a baking sheet and dry in a 200-degree oven for 1 hour or more, until very dry.) After the cornbread has absorbed the liquid, fold in the oyster mixture. Add more buttermilk if the stuffing seems perilously dry, but don’t overmoisten it.
TO ROAST THE GOOSE
 Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Remove the goose from the brine, pat dry, and season all over with salt and pepper. In a large saute pan or Dutch oven, heat the bacon fat on high. Sear the goose on all sides, for about 2 to 3 minutes each, until the skin is seared and lightly golden. Reseason with salt and pepper, making sure to include the inside of the goose this time, and fill it with the stuffing. (If you have any left over, bake it in a greased pan or glass dish alongside the goose for 55 minutes.) Truss the goose’s legs and place it breast side up in a roasting rack.
 Pour the chicken stock into a roasting pan until it comes ¼ to ½ inch up the sides. Lower the rack into the pan and roast the goose for roughly 2 hours, until a thermometer placed in the thigh reaches 160. Maintain the liquid level by adding more chicken stock, if necessary. (If the skin begins to get too brown, cover it loosely with a tent of aluminum foil.) Remove from the oven and let the goose sit, uncovered, for 10 to 20 minutes. The center of the stuffing must reach 165 degrees; if it’s not cooked thoroughly, transfer it to a pan and place it back in the oven until done.