I can be an old softie when it comes to a holiday tale and its traditions. One tradition I like to keep is the sharing of stories. Last year I presented this story Cooking Shirley Balboa’s Christmas Goose. I had intended to write another new piece of holiday short fiction for this space this year. But in the end I decided that part of the allure of the Christmas story is the tradition of telling the same stories year after year.
So I am bringing back my personal holiday heroine for another year of Christmas Goose. I hope you will read, enjoy and share this story. Merry Christmas to you. GREG
Cooking Shirley Balboa’s Christmas Goose (A Holiday Tale)
Go straight to recipe or read the story here:
Shirley Balboa lays on the bright, freshly waxed linoleum floor looking straight up, past the pitted chrome handles of her old gas stove and directly at the ceiling stained with the grease of Christmases long past. She wonders what she should do. The goose she had just placed in the oven is nowhere near done. Normally her thoughts would have gone to the Christmas goose first. But until you can smell it, there is no reason to think about it. She never, ever bastes until she gets that first fatty fragrance. No aroma means Shirley is free to think about the problem at hand. The problem of course being that she has fallen and cannot get up.
“She is a proud woman”, Shirley thinks to herself. Or did she say it out loud? Shirley has lived alone now going on 40 years and she sometimes blurs the line between spoken words and private thoughts.
Still, she’s a woman nearing 80, laying flat on her back on the kitchen floor. Despite her independence, or perhaps because of it, she wonders just how she is going to get up.
It’s no secret that she’s no longer merely a big-boned gal, dressed in army stripes– one of the few woman to be decorated with a purple heart in Korea. She has to admit she’s now an obese old woman laying flat on her back on the kitchen floor. Looking at a ceiling that’s shamefully less clean than her standards should allow.
But what to do? That really is the question. She could scream for help. She knows she could. The property surrounding this house is no longer as big as it once was and she can still belt louder than any man she ever met. She proved that each Sunday at church. Where she may not be the best singer in the choir, but she has pride in the strength of voice that she can still manage.
They often try to quiet her loud ways, by offering her small Holiday solos. Suggesting she be the angel on high. And sing her part at the top of her lungs from outside the chapel hall, giving the effect of an angelic voice from another realm. Shirley knows she’s loud, but in no way angelic. She also knows that there are no angels on high or anywhere else in God’s great world. Shirley believes that man invented angels to keep women in a subservient role. Not that she ever shared that information.
Especially not at the church where she worships, these are the private thoughts Shirley has never shared with anyone. Not even the ‘She’ with whom she shared the womb. These are her special private thoughts; hers alone since her earliest days growing up in South Georgia, one of two daughters born to a well-to-do cotton mill owner. Twin girls, fraternal in every sense of the word. One called Shirley, one called Shelley. But privately they called each other ‘She’. “What would ‘She’ do when asked by a boy to a dance?” they would enquire of each other.
Well “’She’ would say ‘No”” Shirley would say, unless there was a boy for Shelley too. But Shelley would say “Oh no, ‘She’ would want to go to the dance with that boy.” Because, dancing with boys led to marriage. And marriage led to children. And if there was one thing Shirley and Shelley agreed upon it was that children were central.
As the twin daughters of one of Cairo’s wealthiest families, they understood the importance of children. They were often referred to as the Balboa Princesses. And Shelley loved to play Princess, and constantly stuck Shirley in the role of Prince.
But their father was not one to understand their games. An actual Prince was what the elder Balboa man truly needed. A strong confident son could finally free him from this mill and all its concerns. The mill was a continuously grinding mechanism that offered no spark for Claude Balboa. It was gray and artless. It inspired him not at all.
So watching his slightly older daughter parade about in britches and a crown did not please him. In fact it taunted him. It was one thing to allow Shelley to wear the pink taffeta and crown. But Shirley, his private favorite, should not be seen by the neighbors in the those royal purple pantaloons fashioned from a towel wrapped around her waist and most indelicately cinched up between her legs and into the wide belt that had belonged to his own deceased father; the founder of the very mill that gave these young girls the freedom to behave so flamboyantly.
When the girls were small Claude imagined taking them way from Cairo. He imagined introducing them to faraway places that he himself had never seen, yet somehow knew instinctively. But then, the accident happened. Fast and freakish, as these things often are. His father was literally vivisected by a piece of machinery that Claude had no idea even existed, let alone lived within the safe confines of the warm factory where he himself read the novels that fed his soul.
Once the will was read and it became real that the mill, the house and all the holdings were to be his, Claude knew his life would never go the way he planned. He was not even 30. He had hoped to travel to Paris, where artists were breaking new ground and speaking the language that was born into his brain. The cubists and impressionists intrigued him. But it was the men and even, surprisingly, a few women of the written word that enthralled him. He had always been a reader. So when the words of Hemmingway began to trickle into to South Georgia, he in his youth sang bright and loud in the joy they brought to him. The strange allure of far away places and masculine pursuits.
The death of his father and the war in Europe made travel out of the question. He had even tried to enlist, but his age and the irony of poor eyesight made him ineligible. So Claude Balboa made cotton broadloom. This was his life.
He had married young and well by Cairo standards. They were happy those first few years when Claude’s father had still been alive. The two of them sharing a dream of world travel and bright places; but once the mill became their reality it was clear neither the job nor the wife were Claude’s true calling. His once rebellious and romantic wife seemed to slip seamlessly into the role of Matriarch. A role even his own mother had purposely rejected through death when Claude was a teenager.
Without the dream it became apparent that he was not a particularly good husband. There were affairs– sometimes sexual, but often intellectual. The 1940s and ‘50s were full of women from Tallahassee, Columbus, even Atlanta– caught up in the same dreams of wide Parisian Boulevards and African safaris. These women transported Claude and filled a void, each one temporary– but very important to his reality.
As bad a husband and mill owner as he was, he was an even worse father. His girls a constant reminder of all he had not achieved. Especially the bright but boyish Shirley. At 8 years old there were already smirks and smears regarding her strong bold mannerisms. Each remark reminding Claude that he had no son. There was no escape from this mill.
Fortunately the needs of the war effort kept the mill running. Layoffs were common. As were hire backs as soon as the need arose. Claude knew he should be able to foresee these fluctuations. But they always took him by surprise.
His 4 older sisters owned a small share of the company and were always on his back. Questions about profits and losses. Audacious ideas about swing shifts and the possibility of milling other products than cotton, which just confused him further.
But his father had been a good businessman. So the worries however real, did not overwhelm him. The large house and the five acres it sat upon were now Claude’s free and clear. Left to him by a father who worked non-stop and whom Claude barely knew.
Why Shirley should be thinking about her father at this moment is unclear to her. She’s not a sentimental woman. So she put her efforts back on the problem at hand. How to get up off the floor?
She had slipped while placing the big bird in its ancient metal roaster into the oven. It happened so fast and with no warning.
How many times had she preformed these exact movements? How many Christmas geese pulled in and out of this oven without the least snag? At least 70 Christmases past. Just then a new rhyme passed through Shirley’s thoughts. “If life is as short as they say, why is the past so far away?”
Shirley would never consider herself a poet. But she found comfort in rhyme; so neat and complete. A perfect thought with a beginning middle and end.
But first things first– how long has she been laying here? She breaths deeply. She’s looking for that moment when the fat of the goose begins to caramelize. Her nostrils know this moment well. There is nothing in the air so she relaxes, knowing instinctively that she has been down less than an hour.
She knew she wasn’t hurt. She had already wiggled her fingers and toes. She could even lift her arms off the floor. Her head did not ache and her vision is as clear as could be expected. Her glasses had flown from her face and were now somewhere out of reach.
Having fallen while cooking a Christmas goose did seem funny to Shirley. If she had been the type to laugh out loud, this certainly seemed like the moment for a good chuckle. But the goose is in the oven. Her nephew-in-law Randall and her grandniece Sheila are expected for Christmas dinner. Though Christmas was still a few days off. The older she got, the further away from Christmas her Christmas goose got. After her sister and niece Rebecca died in the car crash, what was left of her family always seemed to be busy. Other obligations now take up both Christmas and Christmas Eve, leaving Shirley and her goose in an open pattern of wait and see before she knows upon which night her Christmas Eve will fall each year. But Shirley doesn’t mind, it’s the ritual of cooking the goose that Shirley cherishes. The day itself seems inconsequential. She knows God does not keep a calendar the same as his children do.
Shirley also knows she has some time to figure out her next move, the front bell won’t be ringing for hours yet. So that’s not her worry. Still, she really can’t get up. She hasn’t the strength or mobility. Besides, there is nothing to hold onto even if she had. But something must be done. The goose will not wait for her to act. It’s what she likes best about cooking. One action leads to a perfectly understandable reaction. That is why this fall has taken Shirley by such surprise.
Shirley was a big girl, who has grown into an even larger woman. But her size never seemed a handicap before. Slip-on shoes and no more dunagrees are the only real concessions she’s had to make. Well, that and the lawn crew who bring along that useless woman once a week to help clean up. As if.
She is big, but even now while laying flat on her back she still has the strength to bend slightly at the waist, lift her shoulders somewhat off the ground and rest on one elbow. It’s the same way she gets out of bed every morning. But the floor is different because there is no edge to slide toward. No gravity to give the momentum she needs to haul her large frame to a standing position.
Still, from this awkward angle right beneath the stove she had hoped to be able to reach the countertop and somehow pull herself up from her ridiculous recline. But it’s useless. The right arm is needed to prop herself up a bit and the left cannot come close to reaching all the way to counter height, nor is it alone strong enough. But while she’s in this slightly elevated position, as tiring as it is, Shirley cannot resist the temptation to check on the goose.
Fortunately there is a tea towel hanging from the handle of the oven door. It’s a decorative tea towel and the vanity of it always makes Shirley blush with hidden pride. Such a pretty towel, in just the right shade of pale, pale green with happy yellow flowers her own sister had embroidered across its borders in 1972 while pregnant. Forty, unmarried and pregnant, leave it to Shelley to do things all backwards. But the child Rebecca had been a blessing, and Shirley has no regrets. Except perhaps the day she agreed to help Shelley move into town in order to raise her daughter closer to other children.
Anyway. The past is the past.
She uses this towel and its perfect placement to pull the oven door open. She’s not quite prepared for the blast of heat that hits her full force in the face. It’s a wet heat, aromatic with herbs– and actually quite pleasant, despite the shock of it. When she opens her eyes again she sees the bird is progressing nicely. She might have considered tenting it with a piece of foil had she been fully upright and mobile. But in truth that is more a tinkering bit of busy work she performs to make the cooking of the goose seem more mysterious to those who always remark upon her excellent skills with roast meat.
But this is an old oven, and Shirley can see right away that she will need to rotate this bird to assure a nice, evenly browned skin.
This might prove to be difficult. In order to reach into the oven she has to remain propped up on her right arm, bottom stuck to the floor, leaving her only the awkward and somewhat weakened left arm which had been shattered by a bullet in Korea free to do the work.
She hates to do it, but she has no choice. She grabs her sister’s tea towel from the handle of the stove to protect her hand from the heat of the roasting pan. Though she’s being quite careful not to scorch or stain the towel, she is still able, after a bit of struggle to turn that pan 180 degrees, and close the door without losing too much of the heat.
She drops her head back to the floor, fully exhausted– but quite satisfied with herself.
Her mother never understood the triumphs and comforts of the kitchen. She had preferred the luxury of professional help. This was how Shirley and Shelley grew up. Being fed and bathed by a string of women whom their mother always called Alice. No matter what their names may have been. These woman were most always colored. And though at a young age Shirley knew that it was somehow wrong to call each of these women Alice, she could also see the imploring look each gave when either she or Shelley tried to correct their mother.
The long line of Alices mostly had their own families. So the need for a holiday cook arose. Shirley learned young that the praise she could receive from her mother was directly related to the amount of holiday cooking she was willing to take upon herself.
As Shirley lay on the linoleum, strangely warmed and comforted by the goose and its bubbly murmer, she begins drifting off into a hazy sort of sleep. And in some almost dreamlike place she can actually hear her younger self, bragging about how the Christmas goose became her responsibility. On the rare dates with the men Shelley arranged for her, Shirley could be counted on to nervously tell the same exaggerated story.
“But cooking during the holidays is a lot of work.” The younger Shirley would extole loudly, even in the least appropriate situations. “When I was a child my mother refused to cook during the holidays, so the goose and all the fixins fell on my young shoulders. I don’t believe I was but 8 years old.”
She awakens sometime later to a frantic beating on the side door. She still lives in her long dead granddaddy’s house. From her position on the floor it is just possible to see across the kitchen and through the pantry to the service door. There is Randall with an insanely jaundiced look on his face. Pounding on the door and turning the knob all at the same time, in a ridiculous effort to get the door open. What did he think? She says to herself. She is an old woman living alone. Of course the door is locked. She is just about to say, “look under the mat”, when crash. Randall uses his elbow to break one of the panes in the door.
The morning after the embarrassing incident, Shirley comes into the kitchen. There is that goose. Sitting on the counter. At least Randall had the good sense to pull it from the oven. Sure it had shriveled some during the night and its glassy sheen is gone. But Shirley can tell from the golden color and crackly skin that it is a perfect Christmas goose.
Such a waste, she thinks. She should have insisted that Randall and Sheila sit right down at the table and let her finish that goose. But once they hauled her up off the floor, well, Randall made such a fuss. It was all she could to keep him from calling 911. That was just what she needed. Shirley knew darn well who would be on the receiving end of that call, and she would simply not be talked about in that manner. No indeed.
So this morning as a bold gesture to banish her ordeal completely from her mind she is tempted to take that bird and dump it– pan and all into the garbage heap outside. But two things stop her. First she was a child of the depression. Even the children of those less touched by the financial hardships of that time are well aware of the suffering faced by most. That kind of austerity changes a person and it often shows itself in Shirley’s inability to waste food of any kind.
But secondly, and this is the part that gives Shirley pause, she’s afraid if she even attempts to move that goose she’ll land right back on the linoleum. Two falls she can not endure. So she makes a pact right then and there.
“Lord” she says out loud, more out of habit than belief. “I want you to know if you have any other trials in store for me of that variety, well I’d rather not comment.”
Besides, she has to get the house ready. Randall and young Sheila are coming by to carry her off to the doctor. As much as she insisted that she was just fine. The only way she could get Randall out of her bedroom last night was to promise she’d let him escort her to the doctor first thing in the morning. “Escort”, that was the word Randall had used. It was such an old-fashioned word. Even Shirley knew that. But its familiarity made Shirley’s heart ache a little with missing her dear dead sister.
All these thoughts of Shelley lately, Shirley wonders if it is a sign. As much as she had loved her sister Shelley, it’s true that whole weeks can go by without that girlish laugh passing through her memory.
But enough dilly-dallying with the past. Today she needs to talk her way past that doctor. She had been a nurse, both before the war and all during. So she knows a thing or two about doctors. But in an odd way she also looking forward to the visit. Not that she needs a doctor herself, but in truth she misses nursing. She never intended to leave the medical profession. The day she returned from Korea, her left arm was in a cast, bent at the elbow, jutting out to the side and braced to a corset. It was elevated up and away from her body in a pose that made her feel both ominous and ridiculous.
She remembers leaving the tarmac in the heat and blue of Atlanta, heading for the terminal. She can even recall the surprised feeling seeing her own daddy standing there. More surprisingly there was her mother and her dear sister too. Her initial glee turned to suspicion the moment she met Shelley’s eyes.
Her father embraced her, even kissed her on the forehead. He then handed her a set of keys.
“These go to the mill and all that accompany it.” He said. “I know you’ll do the right thing. Whatever that is.”
He then picked up his good leather case, turned and walked away, leaving Shirley face to face with her mother. “Well dear, you know what your sister’s like. Now that you’re home, you’ll have to do the driving”. Then, almost smiling, ”Can you drive in that contraption?”
Shirley harrumphs out loud at the memory of that day. She never heard from her father again. She never got the satisfaction of seeing his face when he found out that she sold that mill within weeks of his leave taking to a clothing manufacturer. If it was such a burden to him, why hadn’t he thought of that himself? They make the cloth for dungarees there to this day. Oh the irony. The very same dungarees her father refused to let her wear as a girl. But once he left she wore them exclusively, until her size no longer allowed it.
More memories. Today is a day burdened by too many memories. Still, all that money, where did it go? It seemed like so much at the time. Not that Shirley is poor, but she lives as frugally as this big house will allow. She’s hoping to leave a little something more than the house and what’s left of the acreage to Randall or even young Sheila. She realizes this old house may be more curse than blessing, still she hopes they will keep it in the family. But who knows? Sadly, there will be very little actual money left once Shirley leaves this earth.
Of course that’s beyond her control, so she turns her attention to sweeping the kitchen floor. Having spent so much time in its close proximity last night she knows first hand a thorough sweeping is needed. It’s a job she enjoys, so she opens up the side door and begins to sweep the dust and debris straight out and onto the back steps. There it will be taken care of by the lawn crew. Let them earn their money.
Just as she is finishing Randall walks in. Perhaps this bit of casualness is merely a reaction to the side door being open. So she lets it go. But she hopes the unfortunate incident of last night does not leave Randall feeling that Shirley is not fully capable of running this house as she sees fit.
“I’d like you to carry this with you Aunt B”, he says while kissing her on the cheek. He flips the thing open. “It’s a phone”, he says.
She does not like the dim blue light it emits.
“I have a phone.” She says pointing to the parlor.
“Yes I know that, but this is a phone you can slip in your pocket. It would comfort me to know that you had it with you”.
“How much does a thing like that cost?” she demands
“It doesn’t matter. I’ll pay for it.”
“I’m not so destitute as all that, I’ll have you know.”
“It’s a Christmas present Aunt B.”
With that something catches in her throat. She blinks back the emotion and says, “Well, Christmas. Who can argue with that?” He slips the device into her apron pocket and she decides to say nothing more about the phone.
“Speaking of Christmas. Now it won’t be as good as it might have been last night, but I do believe your good sense about the goose may have salvaged our Christmas dinner.”
“Oh I didn’t do that. After I got you settled into bed last night. I came in here and Sheila said the bird was right near done.”
“You shoulda seen her too” said Randall proudly. “Wearing your apron and takin’ charge. I thought she was going to slice it up and serve it to me right then and there. So I grabbed me a plate. But she said ‘Oh no Daddy. A bird that size is gonna need to rest quite a long while before we eat it’. Rest! Where ever did she pick that up?”
Where had she picked that up? Shirley’s was the only goose that child ever ate. Shirley was quite sure of that. Nobody ever took the time to make a proper Christmas goose anymore. They all seem to prefer a big, dry tasteless turkey. Not raised on the farm, but invented in some laboratory.
It’s then that she notices young Sheila standing beside her. Looking up into her eyes and smiling in a totally unexpected way. Shirley decides to wipe that boastful grin off the young girl’s face with a very deliberate question. “What do you know about Christmas goose?”
“Christmas goose tastes like Christmas itself” said Sheila, twirling like a ballerina. I like it best with sherry and giblet gravy. But there was one year you made it with bourbon and dried figs. That was good too, but daddy said it was a waste of good bourbon.”
“What did you mean by ‘resting’ the goose last night?” her father chuckled.
Shirley almost answered the question for the girl. But Sheila raised her hands to her mouth and giggled in the most girlish manner. Reminding Shirley so much of Shelley that the words would not form.
“Daddy, resting is when you take the goose out of the oven. It’s not really like sleeping. Resting is when the goose finishes cooking.”
With that Shirley Balboa sits herself down in the big chair at the front of the table. When was the last time she actually sat in this chair she wonders? She might have cried, were she the type. Instead she let out a deep sigh, and said “everybody could use a rest now and then”, knowing this had been the last goose she would ever cook.
serves 8-10 CLICK here for a printable recipe
- 1 (10 lb) fresh goose with gizzards and liver, separated
- 1 bn sage
- salt and pepper, to taste
- 2⁄3 c dry sherry, whiskey, bourbon or cognac
- 1 T flour
- 2 c giblet broth or store bought chicken stock
Carefully prick the goose skin on all sides with a skewer, taking care to avoid piercing the flesh. Fill a pot large enough to hold the goose 2/3 full of water, and bring to a boil. Submerge bird neck side down for 1 minute, until goose bumps arise on the goose. Turn goose tail side down, and repeat the process. Remove goose from the pot, and drain. Place breast side up on a rack in a large roasting pan. Set in the refrigerator, uncovered, to dry the skin for 24 to 48 hours.
When ready to roast. Remove the goose from the refrigerator. While it is still cold use a sharp knife to cut a cross hash pattern in the skin of the breast, taking care to avoid cutting the flesh. Let the goose come to room temperature before continuing.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).
Sprinkle the goose inside and out with salt and pepper. Place the sage and goose liver in the cavity. Seal cavities with kitchen twine, and place the goose breast side up on a rack in a roasting pan.
Roast bird 1 1/2 hours in the preheated oven; do not open the oven door during this time. After this time you may baste as often as you see fit. Use the baster to remove some of fat if more than about 1/2 inch accumulates at any time during cooking. Continue roasting 1 hour (2 1/2 hrs total), or until the internal temperature when tested with a meat thermometer has reached a 180 degrees F.
Increase the oven temperature to 400 degrees F. Remove goose from the oven, and transfer to a larger pan. Return to the oven for 15 minutes to further crisp and brown the bird. Take out the goose, and transfer it to a platter. Use a coffee mug or small bowl to elevate the tail end somewhat. This heightens the flavor by allowing the juices to flow down through the breast meat. Let the goose rest in this position loosely covered with foil for at least 30 minutes.
To make gravy, pour off any of the pan juices. Placing them into a fat separator until you are able to pour away the fat. Place the remaining liquid back into the original roasting pan set over 2 burners. Mix in 2/3 cup of dry sherry, and 2 tablespoons flour. Scrape the pan with a wooden spoon. Combine these drippings with homemade giblet broth or store bought chicken stock to make a gravy for the goose and stuffing.
SERIOUS FUN FOOD (A Holiday Tale)