by Terry Wieland
For reasons that completely escape me, I have a persistent memory of a cooking show in the 1980s in which a Cajun of indeterminate age—heavy set, moustachioed, slick black hair—gave a class on preparing a goose for the table.
Referring to his subject, both singular and plural as “dem gooses,” he proceeded to produce a meal that, even through the impersonal lens of television, made my mouth water.
That’s one memory. Another is Robert Ruark’s unforgettable description of hunting in the bayous with his grandfather and a raft of Cajun denizens, who then prepared a meal fit not just for gods, but for the über-gods—Wotan & Co. It can be found in “The Old Man Paid My Passage,” which is included in The Old Man’s Boy Grows Older. I recommend it heartily as an exercise in food writing that only someone who has been truly hungry could produce.
My own experience in cooking a goose has been limited to two. (Actually, I shouldn’t say that, having cooked my own a few times.) Anyway, the first, after that Cajun chef on TV, worked out pretty well. My dominant recollection, though, is taking the roast pan full of sizzling goose fat and pouring it off into a plastic measuring vessel that resembled an ice cream cone on a base: As the hot fat hit the narrow connection with the base, it softened the plastic and the entire pint of goose fat slowly tipped over, covering my kitchen counter and floor mere minutes before the first guests arrived.
Twenty years later, having regained my nerve, I accepted a Canada goose as a gift from a friend. It was a big old gander that had spent five years in his freezer and which, I’m sure all would agree, did not portend an epicurean delight. Fortunately, les filles du roi of Old Quebec could turn a cavalry boot into a feast, so I turned to a book of ancient Quebecois recipes. All I remember is that it required two cups of red wine, one cup of cognac, a dozen tart apples, and four hours in the oven. The result was everything you might expect with those ingredients, and four of us just put the goose in the middle of the table and ate with our fingers.
Given all of the above, when an invitation arrived to hunt geese in Arkansas with a group testing some new non-toxic shot loads from Backridge Ammunition, it was with visions of succulence dancing in my head that I accepted. The quarry were white-fronted (aka, speckle-bellied) geese, reputed to be the best eating of them all.
Alas, I am unable to offer an opinion since I managed to shoot but one (1) goose, and it was subject to immediate autopsy to determine the penetration and effectiveness of the tungsten pellets—“excellent” and “very,” for those who are wondering.
But if the red gods did not favor us with great hunting conditions (warm and windless) there was no shortage of geese to watch criss-crossing the sky above our blind, and I was given the opportunity to at least dip my toe into the legendary waterfowl culture of northern Arkansas, with a dash of Cajun thrown in.
Kelly Haydel, of Haydel duck call fame, came up from Louisiana, and his pal Brent Ray, a sort of honoray Cajun, came over from Kentucky, and between them they had the wherewithal for us to emulate Bobby Ruark among the bayous. Brent had his cooker with him, a stand-alone oversize pot sort of like a self-heating (propane) wok, about two feet across. He also had sausage, chicken, and the “holy trinity” of chopped onions, celery, and bell peppers that is a mainstay of Cajun cuisine.
A team of five combined, over the course of several hours, to turn this into the classic jambalaya, all the while enjoying a running commentary on how and why it is done this way. While we were sitting outside taking turns on the stirring paddle, a skein of geese the like of which I’ve never seen passed overhead: The lead goose was long-since beyond the horizon and the longest tail was still trailing, beyond the other horizon, with no end in sight. How many thousands it might have been is anyone’s guess.
Anyway, there was no shortage of geese, just a shortage of new-to-the-district geese that had not yet had a chance to choose their accommodations and preferred dining area among the vast, flat rice fields. For that, we needed a stiff, cold wind from the north, and that we did not get.
Amid the complexities of hunting leases, permissions, conflicting requirements of goose hunters (us) and prospective duck hunters (season to open shortly), we were restricted in where we could set up our blind.
These blinds are long wigwam-type grass structures, with flaps at the top that open when the time comes to shoot. We sat, surrounded by decoys—up to 1,500 at one point—and a clutch of skilled callers doing their best to woo the flocks overhead to forget about the flooded rice patches over there and settle down here.
Mostly it didn’t work. On day one, no one fired a shot; on day two, I fired twice, and, on day three, decked my one speck with one shot.
This is the chance you take, though, hunting any migratory bird. It helps if you’re a resident, but not all of us can be. The great saving grace, regardless of bird numbers or migration patterns, is the opportunity to savor a different culture.
Between “dem gooses” and little Bobby Ruark, I’d go back in a heartbeat, birds or no birds.
Gray’s shooting editor, Terry Wieland, has turned writing about the non-productive hunting trip into a fine art, and specializes in locating even the most obscure of silver linings. It’s a gift. Or so he insists.