By Pam Palmer
[Editor’s Note: Originally published on July 20, 2013 as a Third Saturday Fiction.]
“We should have roast goose for Thanksgiving,” Martin said.
It was 1976 and David, my husband, and I had just bought a house across the street from our long-time friends, Martin and Joan. Two weeks after we moved into the house David left for a six-month stint on a research ship in the Antarctic. It would be my first Thanksgiving in my first house and I felt overwhelmed. Of course, I could go to my in-laws’ house but it was a long drive from Long Beach to Mission Viejo by myself. My parents were going to the desert so having dinner with them was not possible.
One evening I was, as usual, at Martin and Joan’s having a pre-dinner cocktail. We started to discuss Thanksgiving plans. Joan’s parents were going to Northern California to see her sister so they wouldn’t be available. Martin’s parents had been divorced for several years and he was concerned about his mother, Norah, having nowhere to go. Joan, who loathed her mother-in-law, sighed. Several cocktails later Martin had convinced Joan to invite Norah over for the holiday. I said I’d be happy to help cook since I wanted to stay in my new house for the first Thanksgiving.
And then the bombshell hit. Martin made the roast goose suggestion. Joan pressed her lips together, folded her arms across her chest, and said it was ridiculous. My first thought was that it was the cocktails speaking. My second thought was that I wanted turkey with chestnut or oyster stuffing. I wanted tradition. I knew Joan really didn’t care as long as someone else did all the cooking. Her only hope, no Norah, had been dashed. All the while, Martin kept looking at us with a hopeful smile on his face.
I caved in first and said I would go across the street and get some recipes. Joan glared at me as I returned with two cookbooks in hand: Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking and a tattered cookbook from Canada titled Mrs. Allen on Cooking. Mrs. Allen devoted all of five, not helpful, sentences to the subject of goose. Julia Child had six pages. Julia won.
Over the next few evenings we—that is, Martin and I—discussed stuffing, cooking techniques and what we should have with the goose. Joan sat, rum and coke in hand, listening but offering no suggestions. We decided to make a bread, apple, and sausage stuffing. The side dishes would be the traditional Thanksgiving ones: mashed potatoes, squash, broccoli, green salad, pumpkin pie. Martin wanted to make the stuffing since they were cooking the goose. Joan sighed and said she would make the mashed potatoes and put out some hors d’oeuvres. I said I would help with the stuffing and make the vegetables and salad. We decided to buy the pie from the local bakery.
Norah was delighted to be included and called to ask what she could bring. Unfortunately she talked to Joan who was barely able to be civil. According to Joan’s later account Norah was instructed to bring white wine that wasn’t too sweet. I was beginning to suspect that I was going to be used as a buffer between Joan and Norah—a prospect that didn’t seem too appealing. But, at that point, it was more appealing than driving over 50 miles to have dinner with my in-laws.
I put my misgivings aside and headed into the next phase of planning: ordering the goose. Fortunately we had an excellent butcher in the neighborhood. Ray and Eddies had the best of everything. But, as Martin and I discovered that Saturday, they didn’t have a goose. After some discussion with Ray, the owner, he agreed to order a nine-pound fresh goose for us to pick up the day before Thanksgiving.
We were smiling about our cooking adventure when Ray announced the price.
“That will be $55 and we will need a $25 deposit today,” he said as he leaned over the counter.
Martin and I looked at each other. We were speechless. This adventure cost almost five times as much as a turkey. Why, for that price, we could have filets for dinner. Finally, I managed to speak.
“Do you have any cash? I only have $10 and I didn’t bring my checkbook.” My voice sounded strained.
Martin was rummaging around in his pockets and came up with a $20. I asked the butcher for some suggestions about how to cook the thing. He looked at me as if I were deranged and gave us an emphatic “No.” His smirk indicated that he thought we were headed on a disaster course.
With that, we handed over our cash to the bandit behind the counter, took the receipt, and headed for the door, shoulders slumped, faces dismal.
When we got outside, we looked at each other.
“Don’t tell Joan,” Martin said as he gave me a beseeching stare.
“Absolutely not. I’m not going to tell anybody. David would kill me if he knew what we were spending. He’s already upset because I’m not going to his parents for dinner.”
The short trip home was silent as we both thought about our investment. At that price we should have bronzed the thing instead of cooking it.
Martin pulled into his driveway and turned to me.
“Feel like having a drink?”
“Absolutely. Maybe I can forget the price if I drink enough.”
We both laughed half-heartedly and headed into the house. Luckily Joan was at work so we didn’t have to pretend to be cheerful about the goose.
An hour later, I was walking in my back door when the phone started ringing. I picked it up to hear the voice of a ham radio operator; David’s only way of communicating with anyone. Ham radio operators were always helpful but the conversations were stilted owing to the delay between speakers and the necessity to say “over” when you were done speaking.
“Where were you? I’ve been trying to get through for two hours. Over.” He sounded petulant, which was his customary tone when speaking to me, and my greatest wish was that I hadn’t picked up the phone.
“At the grocery store and working in the yard, over.” No need for him to know about the goose or drinks across the street.
The conversation drifted on for a few more sentences and then the connection mercifully broke. I decided to pull some weeds—always my answer to David’s unsatisfactory calls. If he kept calling I would eventually run out of weeds and what then? I considered that possibility as I yanked.
Thanksgiving didn’t exactly sneak up on us but it certainly arrived much sooner than I had anticipated. The night before the event, I went across the street to help make the dressing. Martin had picked up the goose and, I had to confess, the thing was really unattractive. Yes, turkeys were unattractive before they were stuffed and cooked to golden perfection, but this thing had no promise of perfection ever. It looked scrawny, gangly, and completely unpromising. As usual, Joan hadn’t gotten home from work, so Martin and I were left to consider what we had done. And it wasn’t a pleasant moment.
We looked at each other and, without a word, Martin made two drinks. We each took a sip and I ventured the first comment.
“It’s really ugly.”
“I know,” he said. “Maybe it will taste better than it looks.”
My first reaction was to state unequivocally that it would never taste good and it wasn’t too late to get a turkey but the sad, hopeful look on Martin’s face stopped me. I wasn’t sure what hopes he was pinning on this horrid thing but something was going on and my job was to help try to make dinner a success.
“OK,” I sighed. “Let’s make the stuffing and for heaven’s sake put that thing in the refrigerator.”
We couldn’t do all the stuffing because it involved apples and some melted butter which needed to be added just before the creature (I suppose it was a bird, of sorts, but I couldn’t think of it that way) went in the oven. We did manage everything else: bread, raisins, onions, celery, and some dried cherries for good measure.
The door banged as we were almost finished and Joan appeared in the kitchen. Without a word to either of us she opened the refrigerator, took out the goose, unwrapped it and shrieked “EWWWWWWW.”
Then she turned to Martin and said, “Make me a drink and a cheese sandwich.” With those commands issued, she headed down the hall.
I took the hint and left.
Back at home I cleaned vegetables, washed lettuce, and thought about tomorrow’s schedule. We had planned dinner for 3:30. I was to be on call all day should anything be required. Norah would arrive at 2:30, which meant I had to be there at the latest by 2:00. I was as ready as I could be and with that, I went to bed.
The morning was promising. Martin called to say he was in the process of stuffing the creature. I said I was putting the vegetables in steamers and making the salad dressing. It seemed as if things would be just fine.
Wrong. Around 11:00, I turned on the kitchen faucet and water gushed from the top spraying me and most of the kitchen. I quickly ducked under the sink and turned off the water valves. It was a holiday, there was no solution but to call Martin, which I did.
“It’s probably the washer or a small part,” he said. “I’ll be right over.”
I got out my tool kit and all the faucet parts I had at hand. When Martin arrived, he looked at it and, sure enough, it was just a washer that had come loose from its moorings. As he was dismantling the faucet, the phone rang.
“The oven’s on fire,” screamed Joan.
“Take the goose out and I’ll be right there,” I said, since I was sure Martin had heard her.
“Why is the goose in the oven now, it’s too early?” I asked, expecting no answer.
“It’s all that fat,” he muttered as he kept working on the faucet.
As soon as I got in their back door I could smell burning grease. Joan was standing in the kitchen with a disgusted look on her face. The goose in all its pale, gangly ugliness sat in its pan on the counter. No smoke from the oven but there was white stuff on the floor.
“Baking soda,” she said defensively.
“OK. What do you think we should do now?”
“I don’t care. You and Martin wanted to do this so you figure it out.” And with that, she flounced into the living room. I had visions of her sitting with a magazine and I also had visions of whacking her with the magazine, but what good would that do?
Clearly, the goose fat had escaped the pan, dribbled onto the coils of the electric stove, and caught fire. Maybe a bigger pan would solve the problem. Not wanting to interrupt the sulking Joan, I rummaged through the cabinets. No large pan. Sighing, I headed across the street. I knew I had one just the right size in the garage.
Martin and I met in the middle of the street.
“The faucet’s fine.”
“We need a deeper pan. I’ll be right back. Oh, and thank you for the faucet fix.”
We installed the goose in the deeper pan, removed all the extra racks in the oven, made our first cocktail of the day and assumed the worst had passed.
The phone rang. It was David’s mother calling to wish me a Happy Thanksgiving and to say how much she wished I had decided to come to their house. At that moment, I wished I had been there but, alas, I was not. Trying to be apologetic and gracious, I said I hoped they had a lovely day and I was so sorry I wasn’t there and told the story of the faucet in hopes they would understand I was overseeing a falling-apart house. She was concerned but did not get the point and said she needed to get back to her dinner preparations.
By this time it was 12:00. The phone rang again. It was Joan.
“It’s on fire again,” she screamed. I could hear Martin in the background and the noises sounding like something being taken from the oven.
“Siphon off the fat into a container,” I suggested. “Maybe that way it won’t splatter around so much.”
The phone slammed down. I cursed Julia Child. She never warned us about the possibility of repeated fires in electric ovens. It was all her fault for making everything seem so simple.
My cursing had moved on to Joan’s attitude when the phone rang again.
“Hello,” I snapped. It was, of course, a ham radio operator who was just thrilled to be patching David through on this happy day. I tried to sound grateful but I don’t think I sounded convincing. The next thing I heard was David’s faintly unpleasant voice.
“You were on the phone. I’ve been trying to call for hours, over.”
“And a Happy Thanksgiving to you. I was talking to your mother, over,” I responded, hoping for total phone failure.
“Oh.” Silence but no “over” followed. He was considering what to say next. How could he fault my conversation with his mother? But there were those other hours to be explained.
“I tried for three hours, over.”
“The faucet in the kitchen broke and I had to call Martin since no plumbers are available today, over.” The nuances of home repair had always been a mystery to David but I hoped this was simple enough for him to comprehend.
“Did he fix it? Over.”
“Yes, and now I must get off the phone. I love you and have a good Thanksgiving, over.” And with that, I hung up.
Weeds were not enough. Nothing was enough. I lay on the bed and wondered what I had gotten myself into. I had to get up, I realized. My contribution was not finished. The prospect of a glass of wine while I steamed the vegetables and made the salad dressing got me upright and into the kitchen. By 1:00 I was almost done and thinking about taking a shower when the phone rang. I had to pick it up but knew that nothing positive would be on the other end.
This time it was Martin sounding like he’d been drinking straight bourbon.
“It caught on fire again. Maybe if I turn down the heat.” His words were slurred and his voice was discouraged.
Trying to sound cheerful and positive, an almost insurmountable task, I said I would be over in about ten minutes with the vegetables, the salad greens, and the dressing. The one thing I knew I wouldn’t need would be serving dishes. For someone who never lifted a finger to cook anything Joan, surprisingly, had several sets of beautiful china.
Martin offered to come over and help carry the casserole dishes and I could tell he just wanted to get away from the twin black clouds—Joan and the goose.
As we carried everything across the street we talked about what could be done to prevent more stove fires. Lowering the oven temperature seemed to be the only answer, despite the fact the goose might not cook thoroughly. At this point, I didn’t care if it cooked or not just as long as it didn’t catch on fire.
We went in the back door and the acrid smell of burnt fat greeted us. Joan was standing at the sink washing wine glasses. She turned and glared, then went back to her glass washing.
“Would you like some help?” I asked, trying to sound soothing and not quite making the grade.
“No,” she snapped. “Just don’t put your pans in my way.”
What a day to be thankful for, I thought as I arranged the casserole dishes on the side of the counter far, far away from Joan. The lettuce and dressing went in the refrigerator.
As soon as he put down my casseroles, Martin opened a beer and headed for the garage. It was up to me to mollify Joan—no easy task, even at the best of times.
The first thing I did was look in the oven at the offending goose. It wasn’t brown, it didn’t even look like it was cooking. The only activity at all was the fat bubbling in the bottom of the pan. I quietly shut the door.
“If you’re sure you don’t want any help, I’m going home to take a shower. I can come back about 2:00 to help you set the table and put hors d’oeuvres (better known as crackers and cheese) out.”
And on that cheerful note, I left.
Thirty minutes later I was back. Martin was nowhere to be seen, the goose fat was making bubbling noises in the oven and Joan was in the dining room. She looked slightly less angry that she had and, for that, I was pitifully grateful. Since Norah would be arriving soon, I offered to put out crackers, cheese, wine glasses, and napkins. My offer was received with a grunt, which I took to mean “yes,” so I set off to work.
Promptly at 2:30 the doorbell rang. Joan’s face hardened as she turned to me. “Let her in and give her a glass of wine. I’m going to get ready.” She turned and headed down the hall.
Norah was standing on the porch with a hopeful smile on her face. I had met her before and didn’t know why Joan hated her so. She was very pleasant and intelligent. Years later, I finally figured out why. Joan loathed losers and Norah was, in her mind, a loser. She had been married to a rich man who took her inheritance and then left her for a younger woman. It was typical of Norah’s generation, but Joan never gave quarter to anyone who didn’t meet her standards—especially not to her much disliked mother-in-law. But, at that moment, my only concern was to make sure Norah had a glass of wine and some crackers and cheese.
I got her settled in and then went to the garage to look for Martin. I found him, beer in hand, straightening out his tools.
“Your mother is here and you need to come in and talk to her. Joan is in the shower. Oh, and you could make a fire. It’s cold in the house.”
He gave me a bleary look and lurched outside toward the woodpile. I went in the house, checked on Norah, and told her Martin was going to build a nice fire since it seemed a bit cool. She seemed relieved that someone pleasant was in charge and we sat and chatted while Martin took care of his fire-building duties.
Joan emerged from the bathroom and Martin disappeared for parts unknown. She gave Norah a curt greeting and headed to the kitchen saying she needed to look up the mashed potato recipe in the cookbook.
If I had thought the day was heading downhill slowly, the mashed potatoes put all events on a fast-moving slippery slope. The moment Joan made her announcement, Norah and I looked at each other. The understanding between us was instant. Mashed potatoes were not something that required a recipe. Cooked potatoes, a potato masher, half and half, butter, salt, pepper. Why, you could even make do with whole milk. But a recipe—no one could possibly need a recipe.
My first thought was to prevent Norah from heading to the kitchen, but she was too fast. I hurried after her knowing that anything she said to Joan was going to lead to unpleasantness.
And I was right. The instant Norah got into the kitchen she offered to do the mashed potatoes. Joan was furious at both the offer and the implication that her cooking skills were inadequate.
“No, I don’t need any help,” she snapped as she reached for a saucepan, poured in milk, and set it on the stove. I could see the hand mixer to the right and beyond that the cookbook.
“But—” Norah started, as I took her by the hand and dragged her back to the living room.
“I know. It’s ridiculous. Please, let’s let Joan do whatever she wants. The last thing we need now is for her to have another tantrum. I’ll get you another glass of wine and then I’ll look for Martin. Maybe he can help.” My words, delivered not much above a whisper. came rapidly. At this point I would do anything to avert the inevitable disaster.
Fortunately, the wine was in an ice bucket in the living room so I didn’t need to confront Joan. I made Norah promise not to go in the kitchen and then I headed off to find Martin.
As expected, he was back in the garage with a fresh beer in his hand. I gave him a hard look and told him to get in the house and behave like a host. I then went on to say that the goose had better get its final cooking because the vegetables needed to go in the oven to heat.
He peered at me and for a moment I considered the possibility he hadn’t understood a word I said. But he had, and he headed toward the kitchen. I went back to the front door, let myself in, and joined Norah. I told her that Martin was in the kitchen with the goose and that I would be re-heating the vegetables in about 30 minutes. We tried to keep up a normal conversation but it was difficult to talk when you were trying to hear what was happening beyond the closed door.
After what seemed like an eternity I heard screaming. It was Joan. She was cursing Martin and the goose, which had caught on fire again. I patted Norah on the wrist, told her to stay put, and sprinted to the kitchen.
Martin was standing by the counter with the flaming goose. Joan, white with fury, was brandishing the mixer. The oven was open and black smoke was pouring out.
It was time for Field Marshall Pam.
“Cover the goose with foil, right now,” I ordered. “Joan, just shut up and finish your potatoes. I’ll reheat the vegetables on the stove and then I’ll take the stuffing out of the goose.”
They stared at me but did what I said. Then, Martin made two drinks, handed me one, and bolted for the back yard.
“Do not speak to me or argue with me,” I said to Joan. “Just get the serving dishes so I can put this dinner on the table. After I’ve done that I will find Martin, since he has to carve this thing.” As I said that I gestured toward the goose, loitering under its foil.
For once, Joan did as she was told. Everything made it to the table, including the very watery-looking mashed potatoes. The goose in all its beige glory sat in front of Martin’s place with carving implements at the ready.
I finally found Martin in back of the garage, drink in hand, sad look on his face.
“All right. You have got to pull yourself together right now and get in there to carve that goose.” I advanced, prepared to drag him into the house if necessary. He gave me a bleak look and walked slowly, like a prisoner advancing to the scaffold, toward the house.
The table was beautiful. Norah and Joan were sitting quietly. I took my seat. Martin advanced on the goose. He picked up the knife, sharpened it, plunged the fork into the goose’s breast, and prepared to carve. The knife couldn’t penetrate the skin and bounced off the goose. The creature started to advance to the edge of the platter.
Martin dragged the goose back to center and started again. And again the knife couldn’t penetrate the hide. Without looking at us, Martin stuck the point of the knife into the breast and hacked off a piece, which he placed on a plate and gave to his mother. The process was repeated and we each received a scruffy-looking piece of goose breast. Stuffing, potatoes, vegetables, and salad were passed. The moment had arrived.
“Happy Thanksgiving,” I said as I raised my glass. “And here’s to the chefs and hosts.”
We clinked glasses and set about our goose pieces. Joan’s silver was inadequate to the task at hand. We all delicately sawed at the rubbery meat but it resisted all efforts. I moved my stuffing closer in hopes the moisture would seep into the recalcitrant goose flesh. Finally, I managed to detach a small piece. I popped it into my mouth and began to chew. I continued to chew. I kept chewing. It was much like trying to eat the sole of a well-cooked shoe. And it tasted like the sole of a well-cooked shoe. It was truly horrible. The stuffing was good, the vegetables were good, the salad was good, even the overly beaten, watery mashed potatoes were all right, but the goose, the thing we had all waited for, was horrible.
What did everyone else think? The answer never came. All diners chewed with fixed and set expressions on their faces. Goose pieces carved up with great effort were hidden under stuffing. Vegetables, mashed potatoes, and salad were passed around. Conversation was held to the minimum. When it was clear no seconds of the thing would be requested and all the side dishes had been consumed, I offered to help Joan clear the table. For once she was struck speechless. She thanked me and said no more. We silently picked up the dishes and the goose platter and headed to the kitchen to make coffee.
When we emerged from the kitchen with coffee cups, dessert plates, a pumpkin pie, and whipped cream, we saw Norah sitting at the table but no sign of Martin. I looked at her and she waved vaguely toward the back of the house.
“He said he would be back soon,” she said quietly.
He didn’t come back. Joan and I served dessert and coffee. I poked up the fire and added some logs. The three of us finally adjourned to the living room with after-dinner drinks. Conversation was stilted. And in all that time, Martin was the invisible host.
Norah was the first. “I must get home,” she said. “I’d like to thank both of you for a lovely afternoon and delicious dinner.”
Her departure was swift. To Joan’s credit she accepted the lies graciously. Martin’s absence was not mentioned.
A few minutes later, I asked if I could help with the dishes. To my surprise, Joan accepted the offer. We went into the kitchen and the first thing I did was to put the goose in a plastic bag and head out the kitchen door. As I was opening the trashcan behind the garage I heard rustling. Then I saw Martin peek at me from behind a tree.
“Did she leave?”
“Yes. It would have been nice if you had come back.”
“I couldn’t,” he said as he shuffled his feet and wove back and forth.
I turned and went back in the house. Joan was washing dishes. She glanced at me but said nothing about Martin.
“You should go home,” she said. “It’s been a long day.”
“It has,” I agreed. “If you’re sure you can manage, I’ll just take my pans and head home.”
She nodded. I said my thank-you and left, relieved to return to the quiet sanctuary of my own house.
It has been 30 years Martin and Joan divorced. She married a very wealthy man and moved to Montecito. David and I divorced and I moved to San Francisco.
And I have never eaten goose again.
|Copyright © 2016 by Susan C. Price|
Pam Palmer was a friend of Susan C. Price. She died young of dementia. This is her work and it is all true. Only some of the names have been changed.