When I told people I was planning to eat a Canada Goose, they looked at me as if I'd said I was roasting a rat for dinner. The wild Branta canadensis is ranked down there with the pigeon and the seagull as one of North America's most loathed birds. And for good enough reason. A flock of geese flying in formation might look beautiful from a distance, but these birds cause problems, crowding parks and public space and polluting waterfronts with their waste. Many farmers hate them too. A group of hungry geese searching for seed can trample a newly-planted field in mere minutes, wasting the crop. Their reputation both city-side and in the country is so bad that, when, over the years, officials have suggested culling the flocks and then offering the meat at homeless shelters, the response often has been outrage at the idea of forcing on the poor the indignity of eating a Canada Goose.
But ask a hunter and it's a different story: Those in the know call the Canada Goose the roast beef of the skies. There are people who prefer to hunt geese over other game, and, on both sides of the border, paid hunting tours are organized to stake out the birds. In an excellent short story set in Toronto, three struggling newcomers to Canada salivate at the sight of the food wandering around the city's parks. The punch line comes when they catch a few geese one dark night and cook them up. As the narrator says after dinner: "Well them geese taste good."
These divergent opinions have led to a debate: Should we eat the Canada Goose?
I recently jumped into the discussion when my dad called to say that a hunter friend had pulled up with the carcass of a freshly-killed goose—blood, feathers, guts, and all. He said we would be cooking it for the next family dinner. To be honest, I was hesitant. I am locavore-inclined and eat domesticated fowl of all sorts—I adore duck and am particularly fond of a lightly poached duck egg—but there was something about eating a wild goose that made me stop. Was it that I had seen too many of them paddling around polluted lakefronts? Or maybe it was their predilection for foraging on the pesticide-saturated lawns of golf courses? It was as if the Canada Goose's close association with human activity meant there was something unclean about them. Sure, on the one hand they were wild, but because they like to wander in all sorts of icky places, eating one of the birds sounded just as appetizing as eating a back-alley pigeon.
So I called up a goose hunter.
Drake Larsen is a researcher in sustainable agriculture at Iowa State University who happens to be an avid hunter and who bags well over a dozen Canada Geese a year. He learned his passion for waterfowl hunting from his dad, who called his kids after the birds: Drake is named after the male duck, and his siblings Teal and Woodie after two different species. Canada Goose and venison are the main protein sources for Larsen and his wife. The day I called, he had been out on a goose hunt. "They're so yummy," he said. "It's good, lean, rich meat. I find they are similar to a good cut of beef."
It turns out that goose meat is just as versatile as beef, and the best way to cook it depends on the season. In the fall, the geese have not yet fattened up for winter. Their meat is lean and does not lend itself to roasting. Larsen slices open these fall birds and pops out their breast meat. They he cooks the breasts like steaks, stir fries them, or even grinds them to fill casings and make Canada Goose sausage. A winter bird, however, is fatter and is ideal for roasting. Larsen said his colleagues at work really enjoy a pulled-goose sandwich that he prepares in a slow cooker at the office.
And not only are the birds good to eat—they are also fun to hunt. Because of their flâneur-like loitering, a Canada Goose might seem an easy snatch, but it takes skill to nab one. To catch a goose, Larsen will set up a flock of decoys designed to attract the attention of his prey in an area near to where the geese congregate. Then he lies down amid the faux geese, waves a black flag to get their attention, and practices his goose calls. "Ducks have a simple language. Geese have more of a vocabulary," he said. "If [the geese] were coming toward me, I'd do a soft, slow, rhythmic honking. But if they were sideways, I would do a more distinctive pleading like 'Turn here! Turn here!' I find the calling is the invigorating part."
While my dad isn't a hunter, he is a pretty handy guy, so he was able to pluck, skin, and gut the goose himself. It did take him five hours and, when he was done, the lawn was covered with a fine layer of goose down. My mom decided to slow-roast the goose upside down in red wine. The smell of the cooking meat was rich and fragrant, but when she pulled the bird from the oven, it had a dark, shriveled quality and I still wasn't convinced that eating the goose was a good idea.
Then I took a bite. The meat was dark as liver, and earthy too, but not greasy or gamey. It was delicious. Aside from the lead shot my husband found embedded in his dinner, the Canada Goose made for a delicious meal and even our kids loved it. As for the debate about whether or not to eat the birds, I now wholeheartedly fall into the eat 'em camp. This summer, Canada Geese that strayed too close to New York City's airport were culled and shipped to Pennsylvania to be offered in food banks there. But if Manhattan's chefs knew how scrumptious those birds were, there's no way they would have left the island.