Like so many Jews, I grew up fetishizing Christmas. Douglas firs, jingle bells, plastic reindeers cavorting on suburban lawns—I loved it all. And because I was a kid whose stomach always grumbled for the next meal, my obsession with Christmas extended, naturally, to the imagined delights of plum pudding and mince pie.
This is not to say my family lacked celebrations of its own. Rosh Hashanah was a good one, filled with brisket and apple cake. For Passover, we ate platefuls of matzo brei; for Hanukkah, potato latkes. Our holidays were miracles of gustatory excess, and I’d always assumed Christian holidays were similar, except with fancier, more sophisticated food.
Around my 28th birthday, I was able to test that proposition when I became engaged to a man who’d been raised Catholic. Ben eagerly downed my grandmother’s gefilte fish and lokshen kugel; in return, I looked forward to drinking eggnog by the fire while stringing popcorn and listening to Bing Crosby croon “Silent Night.” I’d seen television. I knew how this was done.
That first December 25 together, we arrived at Ben’s parents’ house on an ideally frosty afternoon. The dog wore a Santa hat, mistletoe hung from a doorway, and Ben’s sister sang “Good King Wenceslas” in her gorgeous soprano. Perfection.
And then we sat down to a Yuletide dinner of…vegetable lasagna.
Although my kind in-laws have never mentioned it, I fear that perhaps I failed to hide my dismay that night. Where was the chestnut-stuffed turkey? The figgy pudding? The pine-tree-shaped cookies decorated with crushed candy canes and corn syrup icing? Instead of cookies, for dessert, we had cheesecake. Cheesecake is a food Jews eat all the time.
For years, I spent Christmas with Ben’s family silently lamenting the lack of plums or mince or cookies. And then finally, after two years of marriage, it occurred to me. If I wanted a real Christmas dinner, I was going to have to create one for myself.
“You know, none of this is necessary,” Ben reminded me one morning in mid-December as I called local butchers to source my goose. For the past several weeks, I’d been collecting recipes for a traditional multicourse Viennese Christmas dinner.
“Did you know that goose is kosher?” I asked him. “In Yiddish it’s called gandz.”
“No,” Ben sighed. “I had no idea.”
The Thursday before the holiday, I picked up my bird, longer and skinnier and pinker than a chicken, and trudged home through chilly Brooklyn with the carcass slung over my shoulder. The next few days, I parboiled and defrosted and julienned like a madwoman, starting the meal I’d finish cooking at my in-laws’ house. I stewed cabbage in red wine, sautéed chestnuts in honey and cream, separated herbs and spices into sealed plastic bags. I made Ben call his mother to check on her kitchen equipment.
“Seriously,” he said. “You don’t have to do this. Nobody cares if there’s goose on the table or spaghetti or whatever.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said. I studded onions with cloves, picked out the odd-looking chestnuts from the pan and ate them myself. I roasted apples into the night. I dug up a cooler and laid in a supply of ice. Every so often, I opened the freezer to gaze tenderly at the gandz.
Usually on Christmas, I pay attention to the weather, but looking back I can’t recall if it snowed or drizzled that Christmas. This is probably because I passed the bulk of the day in Ben’s parents’ kitchen, cursing like a football coach. But when the bird finally emerged, skin burnished, smelling like 19th-century Vienna, I admit to having felt a certain amount of pride. I tipped the chestnuts into the goose’s cavity, arranged dumplings around its perimeter. Ben’s mother called the troops in for dinner. We all bowed our heads and gave thanks for the meal.
And here, I thought: You’re welcome.
But only when the food was dished out did I realize I was too exhausted to eat. I managed a few bites of the goose, but it was actually only medium-good, attractive but dry. As for the dumplings, I couldn’t really face them, nor the chestnuts, nor the mound of stewed cabbage.