The holiday goose—once prized for its rich, dark meat and dramatic-looking presence on a platter—has become a rare bird. These days, it’s more common to find turkey, beef, or pork at the center of a winter feast than an elegant and inherently festive roast goose.
South Dakota’s Schlitz Goose Farm—with about 100,000 geese—is the largest goose producer in the United States. If you buy goose at the grocery store, it’s likely from Schlitz. Locally raised goose is somewhat of a novelty.
“Geese were more likely part of the farm or food system in the days of homesteads and farmsteads. It was normal for families to raise their own geese for their own survival or their own sustenance,” says Nicole Witham, the statewide coordinator for Washington State University Food Systems. “We’re somewhat removed from those ways of life and how we buy our food now.”
Roast goose was a staple at the Victorian table. The 1843 novella “A Christmas Carol” describes in-depth the anticipation for the Christmas goose. “Such a bustle ensued that you might have thought a goose the rarest of all birds; a feathered phenomenon, to which a black swan was a matter of course—and in truth it was something very like it,” Charles Dickens wrote. Even Tiny Tim “beat on the table with the handle of his knife, and feebly cried Hurrah.”
Roast goose—elongated, majestic-looking, and swaddled in a thick layer of fat—still makes for a spectacular centerpiece. But, throughout the generations, demand for goose has declined in the United States. According to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, Americans eat about a third of a pound of duck per person per year; consumption of goose is even less—so much less that a specific figure wasn’t given. Sales experience an uptick during the holiday season. But geese aren’t popular poultry.
Portrayals in art and literature present geese not just as a symbol of simplicity—the phrase “silly goose” comes to mind—but also selflessness, innocence, or personal freedom. In her famed 1986 poem “Wild Geese,” Mary Oliver wrote, “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely / The world offers itself to your imagination / Calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting.”
Geese mate for life and are protective of their families, so they also represent loyalty, fidelity, home, and vigilance. In Homer’s ancient epic Greek poem The Odyssey, they represent Penelope’s suitors. Twenty geese appear to the queen of Ithaca in a dream only to be killed by an eagle representing Odysseus back home after twenty years of traveling. And, in ancient Rome, legend has it that the sacred geese of the Temple of Juno warned of an impending attack by invading Gauls by flapping their wings and honking.
Of course, then, there’s Mother Goose. The term la mère oye dates to mid-seventeenth century in France, where Charles Perrault’s collection of folktales was published in 1695 with the subtitle “Tales from my Mother Goose.” Not quite a century later, in England, Mother Goose became synonymous with nursery rhymes following the publication of Mother Goose’s Melody, or, Sonnets for the Cradle. The character is typically portrayed as an old woman riding a flying goose or, sometimes, as a bonnet-wearing goose.
Bred in ancient Egypt, China, and India, domestic geese arrived in the New World via Europe, where they remain popular—especially in northern countries—for holiday dinners. Roast goose is also particularly popular in Hong Kong, where restaurants specialize in the dish—often displaying whole birds, ready for carving, behind glass cases.
Today, breeding and raising geese in the Northwest is more the exception than the norm. And farms that keep them often use them not for meat but for help. “They’re more like really good on-farm labor,” Witham says. “They really help manage a lot of different issues, especially in an orchard situation where the trees are hardy enough. They don’t injure or bother the trees; they just mow the grass. But, even in a strawberry or berry patch, they’ll come along and graze along the bottom of the plants. They might also offer a byproduct of extra eggs. But I’m not seeing them much these days as a full-blown meat enterprise.”
Finnriver Farm and Cidery in Chimacum, ten miles south of Port Townsend in rural Jefferson County, uses geese in its apple orchard to keep grass down. Their work “allows airflow down around the trunk and soil line, which is an area where we have a lot of problems with fungal pathogens because grass holds moisture. When you crop that grass really low, like the geese do, that allows for more airflow and helps relieve that pressure of the pathogens,” such as anthracnose and collar rot, says orchard manager Cameron Denning, who landed a full-time job at Finnriver after completing a FIELD (Farm Innovation, Education, and Leadership Development) internship through WSU’s Jefferson County Extension.
Two years later, in 2015, Finnriver acquired geese from WSU’s Twin Vista Ranch on nearby Marrowstone Island. “We found that 30 geese could manage about two acres if you rotate them every month,” Denning says, noting Finnriver’s orchard covers ten acres. A grant from the Seattle-based Tilth Alliance allowed Finnriver to add 90 goslings from California’s Metzer Farms as well as electric fencing, three solar fence energizers, and food and water dishes to help support them.
Today, Finnriver has about 100 geese. In addition to grass, “they eat whole apples that drop prematurely and, in the process, they’re reducing the load of codling moth that would overwinter and become a problem the following season. Geese are vegetarians. But they’re eating apples that have the larvae of the moth in them. We’ve seen a reduction in codling moth pressure since we’ve had the geese,” says Denning, who’s also led an orchard management workshop through WSU’s Extension Regional Small Farms Program.
This is the first year Finnriver has been collecting goose eggs to sell to the public at a nearby farm stand and food co-op. The farm is also considering selling geese, directly to customers and on a small scale for a limited time, for meat. “We’re finally at a point where we can make those decisions to balance the flock to meet our winter needs,” Denning says, adding, “I think they would be sold in a heartbeat.”
Goose is a good source of iron as well as B vitamins, riboflavin, zinc, phosphorous, and selenium. One 5-ounce serving has 41 grams of protein and 340 calories—of which 163 are from fat. Most of the fat on a goose lies under its skin, not marbled throughout the meat. During cooking, that fat melts and basically bastes the bird, helping to keep it moist and tender. You’ll want to save it, too; goose fat stores well and makes for gloriously crispy roasted potatoes.
WSU Executive Chef Jamie Callison’s recipe for roast goose, potatoes, and Brussels sprouts.