I've just come face to face with the fact that I'm a complete hypocrite. As readers of this site know, I'm mostly vegetarian. We eat fish regularly, and I eat turkey on two holidays (Christmas and Thanksgiving) and I eat meat two other days of the year chosen by me.
We go to Kentucky for Thanksgiving, but for Christmas, the in-laws drive up here. (By the way, if the in-laws are reading this - avoid Northern Indiana tomorrow. Try jumping over west of Lake Michigan early since I believe Northern Indiana is going to get hit with another 8 inches of snow.)
This year, in my head, I had visions of a pseudo-Victorian Christmas. I'd already committed to making a figgy pudding so I thought we should try cooking a goose this Christmas to really make the day Dickensian. By that I don't mean cold hungry children dying in the streets Dickensian, I mean more Scrooge tossing down a coin to a boy in the street to buy the biggest goose in the window Dickensian. You know, without the harsh realties of the eary 19th Century London.
So first I went where all aspiring goose-cookers in an urban setting would go - Whole Foods. Whole Foods is the emporium of fancy and schmancy when it comes to gourmet foods. There are places you can go that do a better job in certain areas (I'm thinking of Chicago's Fox & Obel), but few with the size or seelction of a Whole Foods. Whole Foods didn't let me down; they had geese, and organic geese at that. I was all set to put a nice 12-15 pound honker in my cart when I turned the bird over and saw the price - $87.43. Even a smaller goose was $63. (For those of you in the Euro zone that's about € 12 at current exchange rates (kidding (sort of))). Considering geese are very high fat birds, you're paying an awful lot per pound for not much meat on those birds.
OK, so I went home gooseless. But since I had three very heavy bags of groceries, I hailed a cab to take me home. The cabbie was a friendly Mexican immigrant who didn't know the English word "goose". "You mean like a duck?" he asked. "No, well, sort of. Honk Honk! You see them in the park a lot." "Yeah, a duck!" he insisted. "Uhh, not a duck. Honk Honk!" I flapped my hands like wings.
I'm pretty sure he thought I was trying to buy a flying car for Christmas. He gave me in any case the information that there existed on Armitage just east of Western a place called Ciales that could set me up with a goose cheap. I made sure he meant a bird of some sort and not the type of bird who used to frequent Bucktown in the days before the vice squad started cleaning up the streets. For some reason the conversation deteriorated into a discussion of how he buys bull testicles ("huevos del toro"), slice them real thin and cooks them up with lime juice. Thanks but...
I liked the idea of a fresh bird and figured even if I didn't get a bird there it was a good excuse to go to Arturo's Tacos at Western and Armitage, the best taco/Mexican fast food joint in town. After a few gift buying stops and a great avocade sopes at Arturo's, I walked east and found at 2141 W. Armitage Ave. Ciales Poultry.
The store front is very yellow and painted by hand with big letters. Inside, the smell is more like a pet store than a butcher's shop. A small front room with stainless steel display cases filled with organ meats and varietals and dim lighting greeted me on entry. The front room led to an intermediary room where a child was watching TV and two other men wearing butcher's aprons stained with spatters of dark blood joked together.
The smell is prominent because Ciales kills and cleans the birds to order. A glass door with a sign advising that entry to the next room is at your own risk; beyond were stackas and stack of cages. I admit, I figured this might be the case, but I believe you should know where your food comes from. I asked the man behind the counter if I should buy a bird today if I were serving it. "I kill for you now. You come back 20 minutes."
"No, no, I just want to know if I'm serving it on Saturday, when should I get a goose from you? Today? Thursday?"
"Ah, you get any time. You call me, I'll get ready for you. Half-hour".
That's when I asked the question I shouldn't have asked. "So how much would a 15 pound goose cost." He wandered back to the room where the child was watching television and said something in Spanish to the taller of the two guys who were joking aorund. The tall man wandered back and to my shock, grabbed a live goose out of one of the cages. Pinning its wings behind it, he brought it out to the front room. "We weigh for you now," the counter man told me.
The tall man lifted the bird by its wings and put it on the scale. The goose's wings were magnificent. Angel wings in paintings were definitely inspired by the wings of geese and swans. The head of the goose was much squarer than I imagined. The goose didn't flail or struggle. In its eyes I projected a resignation to its fate. Dirt smudged the side and top of its head. "Thirty-two dollars," the counterman said. "Is good?"
I took the counterman's card and told him I'd call him in the next couple of days before coming to pick up the goose, but I had no intention of doing so. When I got out in the fresh cold winter air, I muttered, "Oh my god" under my breath and walked a block east to the map room to sit, have a coffee, and gather myself together.
My father-in-law and brother-in-law hunt and I know that every sausage or steak or chicken leg or turkey I ever ate was once a scared animal about to be executed. I admire the hunters because they do face the source of their food and have to reconcile themselves up close to taking a life to feed themselves - something I don't think urban supermarket-hunters don't ever do.
My vegetarianism has not come from a moral perspective regarding the animals. My reasons for vegetarianism revolve around my own health and around the convenience of serving vegetarian entrees in a house where my wife actively dislikes the taste of beef and pork and chicken.
Today, though I think I saw there are other reasons to become a vegetarian. I'm not naive. I understand animal byproducts are in 80% of the common household items we use, but when I was confronted with the smell and the sight and the beating heart of my prospective Christmas dinner, I couldn't go through with it.
However, I have another principle that I hold highly, and that's the importance of being a good host. For a few minutes I was tempted to ditch the idea of poultry altogether and to force Tofurkey on everyone, but it would have been too rude. I couldn't do it. So, on the way back home, I stopped at Gepperth's Meat Market on Halsted and bought an organic turkey for Christmas - a dead, cold, plucked turkey in a box - one I would never have to see alive, one I'd never see as an animal, but only as meat.
I'll cook the turkey up and serve it and eat and even enjoy some of it, but I'll be thinking of that live goose, and I think I'll probably cut one of my floating meat days out of the calendar next year. Christmas is about birth and life. I'm going to try to keep my thoughts oriented that way.
By the way, if you don't share my squeamishness, Ciales Poultry looked about as clean as a place with live poultry could be and the prices were very good compared to the alternatives in the city. Meat-eaters should give them a call at (773) 278-1118
Goose photo from KATU News Portland - http://www.katu.com/news/story.asp?ID=65488