The Domestic Goose
( Originally Published 1918 )
BEFORE America had given us the turkey, the goose was sought for its flesh, which does not lack merit, although inferior to that of the bird from the New World. Roast goose was the dish of honor at family feasts. Now that the turkey has supplanted it in the solemnities of the table, it is raised chiefly for its fat, which is very fine and savory, rivaling butter in its uses. As to its flesh, relegated to secondary rank and regarded as a mere accessory, it is salted and preserved like pork. The region of which Toulouse is the center is the most renowned for this branch of agricultural industry. Large flocks are raised there of a species of goose called the Toulouse goose, remarkable for its large size and its tendency to corpulence. Its pouch of fat hanging down under its stomach reaches even to the ground, and grows so heavy as to interfere with the bird's walk. The plumage is dark gray, with brown or black spots; the beak is orange, and the legs flesh color.
"When it is desired to fatten the goose to the utmost limit, the process calls for the fundamental conditions expounded in the chapter on the poulard ; that is to say, as much food as the stomach can bear, immobility, complete repose, and almost continual sleep. These principles recalled to mind, let us consider the Toulouse method. The geese are shut up in a dark place, cool without being damp, where they cannot hear the noises of the poultry-yard. The trumpet-calls of their free companions would awaken in them vexatious regrets and would interfere with their digestion. Three times a day the woman employed to fatten them seats herself on a low chair and takes them one by one between her knees so as to control their movements. She opens the beak by force and thrusts far down the throat the tube of a tin funnel."
"That funnel is for feeding them?" asked Emile. "Precisely."
"Then they are compelled to swallow even if they don't want to."
`What does the fattener care? All that concerns her is not to wound the bird during the operation. Furthermore, to make the utensil slip into its place better she takes care to oil the end of it a little. The poor creature struggles and protests as best it can against the violence to which it is subjected. But all in vain : the woman keeps at it. Now she pours a handful of maize into the funnel, and as the grains would not descend of themselves, the bird contracting that part of its throat not reached by the tube, she pushes them down with little blows on the crop with a wooden rammer; she crams (that is the word) the patient's stomach with maize. From time to time a little cold water is given to aid this painful deglutition. When the crop is full, which is ascertained by the touch of the hand, the bird is set free; another takes its place and, Willy nilly, receives the funnel in its throat. During the thirty-five days that this feeding lasts, a goose consumes forty liters of corn; that is to say, more than a liter a day."
"After such a cramming with quantities of corn rammed down by main force," remarked Jules, "the goose must get discouraged and pine away."
`Get discouraged ! You don't realize a goose's appetite. The miserable creature becomes accustomed to this diet, even takes a liking to it, and toward the end of the operation comes of its own ac-cord and opens its beak to receive the funnel which ere long proves fatal to it. Soon we see the pouch of fat under the stomach dragging on the ground, the orange color of the beak turning pale, the breathing rendered difficult, and every sign pointing to a near end—suffocation by excess of corpulence. But the knife forestalls this. The bird is cut into quarters and salted; its melted grease is put into pots or bottles, where it can be kept for two years with its beautiful white color and fine flavor unimpaired.
`In other countries the fattening process includes the application, in its utmost rigor, of the principle of immobility. Under an earthen pot, the bottom of which has been broken, the goose is put in such a way that only its head is left free, projecting through the opening. Thus immured in its earthenware coffin, which barely permits it to turn round, the goose has only one distraction, eating. With food served in abundance; it eats just for the pleasure of it, and consumes so much that at the end of two weeks it becomes a ball of fat. To get it out of its cell the pot must be broken.
"Elsewhere, especially in Alsace, the goose is shut up in a little pine box so narrow that the bird cannot turn round in it. The floor of the cell is made of slats far enough apart for the dung to fall through; the front wall is pierced with an opening for the passage of the head, and beneath this opening is a trough always full of water, in which are placed a few pieces of charcoal as a disinfectant. Charcoal, in fact, possesses the property of absorbing infectious gases, and thus prevents the corruption that might develop in the bird's drink. The captive in its narrow cage is kept in the cellar or at least in a dark place. Morning and night it is forcibly stuffed with corn softened by several hours' soaking in water; the rest of the time it thrusts its head through its dormer-window and drinks, dabbling as much as it pleases in the trough just below. With twenty-five liters of corn—for the northern species is smaller than that of Toulouse—the goose, at the end of a month, is fattened sufficiently.
"The presence of a ball of grease under each wing, together with difficulty in breathing, announces that the time has arrived for cutting the prisoner's throat; if deferred, it would die from suffocation.
"The lack of exercise that attends the fattening process in captivity, whether in a pot with broken bottom or in a pine box, makes its effects felt principally in the structure of the liver, which grows to an enormous size and •becomes charged with fat, as I have already told you in speaking of the duck. With the method used in Alsace the liver attains the weight of half a kilogram and sometimes double that. Moreover, in the process of cooking, a goose yields from three to five pounds of fat admirably suited for use with vegetables through the rest of the year. Goose livers serve the same purposes as ducks' livers : they go to the making of the ragouts of Nérac and Toulouse, and they form the chief ingredient in the celebrated Strasburg pâtés de foie gras.
"We have not yet exhausted the uses of the goose. Before the invention of steel pens, in general use today, large goose quills were employed for writing. Their preparation consisted in passing them through hot ashes and then scraping them a little to remove their greasy coating, which would prevent the ink's flowing. Of very convenient size for the fingers, their combined firmness and elastic flexibility made them also admirably adapted for writing; but they had to be recut from time to time, and the handling of a penknife was not without its difficulties, its dangers even, in inexperienced hands like yours. So steel pens have almost entirely supplanted them.
"Another product of the goose's plumage consists in the small feathers and down used for bedding. I have told you how aquatic birds, especially those of cold countries, have under their outside coat of feathers, which is impregnated with oil to resist wet and storm, an inner coat composed of the finest down and very fit for protecting the bird from the cold. This down we called eider-down. I revert to it now on account of its importance.
"The best eider-down is furnished by a kind of duck called the eider-duck, intermediate in size between the goose and the tame duck. This duck lives in a wild state in the frozen regions of the North. It is whitish in color with a black head as well as black stomach and tail. The female, which is rather smaller than the male, is gray except for some brown spots under the body. Its food is composed of fish, which its untiring wing enables it to catch at long distances from the coast and well out to sea. On the water all day searching for fish, the eider-duck re-turns at night to some icy islet, a warm enough resting place for its purpose, well muffled as it is in eider-down.
"In some hollow of the sharp rocks of the shore it builds its nest, composed on the outside of mosses and dry seaweed, and on the inside of a thick eiderdown lining which the mother plucks from her stomach and breast. On this soft little bed rest five or six dull green eggs."
"We have already seen the wild duck plucking its stomach to cover its eggs with down," put in Jules.
`The eider-duck does the same, but with a greater expenditure of down. When the mother leaves her nest for a moment, she shelters her eggs under an abundant covering of her finest down. After the departure of the brood, those who hunt for eiderdown, especially the Icelanders, visit the abandoned nests and collect the down, but not without danger, since the nests are generally situated in inaccessible places on the ledges of high cliffs. They can reach them only by being lowered with ropes along the face of the precipitous rocks.
"The quilts that we call eiderdown are large coverlets filled with these very fine feathers. Their flocky mass, very light in spite of its size, is the best covering for retaining heat. Those most in demand are made of the down of the eider-duck, and are so elastic and light that one can press and hold in two hands the quantity of down necessary for a large bed-coverlet. But as this down is rare and very high-priced, the coarser kind, from the poultry-yard duck and goose, is commonly used.
"Every year the sheep yields its fleece to the shearer, and in the same way, four times a year, the goose is robbed of a part of its fine feathers and down. The operation is especially easy at molting time, for then the feathers come out with the least effort. The goose is plucked, but not entirely, you understand, beneath the stomach, on the neck, and on the under side of the wings; it is only when dead that it is plucked completely. This harvest of feathers is put into a bag without being pressed, and must next be subjected for some time to the heat of an oven from which bread has just been taken out. This removes its disagreeable odor and the parasites that often infest it. If, however, other parasites appear later, notably moths, greedy, as you know, for anything of animal origin, such as cloth, hair, down, or wool, the feathers must be fumigated with burning sulphur.
"The eggs of the goose are white and remarkably large, as one would expect from the size of the bird. When one sees, generally in February, a goose dragging with its beak some bits of straw and carrying them to its nesting place, it is a sign that laying time is approaching. The goose is then kept at home instead of being sent out into the fields. A laying numbers fifteen eggs at the most; but if care is taken to visit the nest and remove the eggs as fast as they are laid, the number increases and may go, it is said, as high as forty. The goose has the same fault as the duck: she is not a very assiduous brooder. Hence it is thought best to have the turkey do the setting. As for the hen, she is, despite her motherly qualities, out of the question, however small the setting may be: goose eggs are so large that she could not cover more than half a dozen at the most.
"Incubation lasts a month. As the eggs do not all hatch at the same time and as the brooder, goose or turkey, might be tempted to abandon the backward eggs in order to take care of the first-born goslings, it is advisable. to take the little ones from the nest as fast as they hatch and to put them in a wool-lined basket. When the hatching is all finished, the family is given back to the mother. Warmth and a special diet are necessary the first few days. The goslings are fed with a mixture of bread-crumbs, corn-meal, milk, lettuce, and chopped nettles. At the end of eight or ten days this careful treatment may cease, and if the weather is fine the mother goose can be allowed to lead the brood whither she pleases, even to the neighboring pond, providing the water is warm. The male, the gander, as it is called, generally accompanies the family, protects it, and proves his courage in time of danger. Woe betide the thoughtless person who, even with no evil intention, approaches the goslings. The gander runs at him, neck outstretched, with loud and hissing cry, and gives him battle with wing and beak. When I was young I knew a little scamp who threw a stone at the goslings and was straightway knocked down by a blow of the gander's wing and then well thrashed. Timely aid was rendered, else the imprudent assailant would have been disfigured by the bird."
"You caught it that time, stone-thrower!" cried Emile. "For my part, I never pick a quarrel with geese; but one day they chased me and caught me by the blouse. Oh, how frightened I was!"
"If you are not strong enough to defend yourselves, children, do not go near the goose when she has her little ones with her. She is very distrustful then and might do you harm."