The holidays all have their culinary big guns: latkes and brisket for Hanukkah, black-eyed peas for Kwanzaa, the indispensable champagne on New Year's Eve. And in the U.S., Christmas usually means roast turkey or ham, accompanied by dishes like mashed potatoes and stuffing. Though green options like heritage hogs, free-range fowl, and organic produce have become more widely available, there’s a stealth-eco holiday meat choice that also happens to be a true classic: the Christmas goose. And as a side dish, another old-school fave—the chestnut—is an especially eco-forward option.

The dish on goose

Once central to the American Christmas table, roast goose was popular in Victorian England (as evidenced by its role in Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol), and became trendy on this side of the pond in the early 1900s. Though goose is still common in countries like Israel, Russia, France and Germany, nowadays Americans consume less than 1/3 pound of the fowl per person yearly.

Why the difference? The answer lies in the way most meat and poultry are produced in the U.S. Geese are among the few species of meat animals to have escaped factory farming, largely because it's difficult to get them to reproduce. Artificial insemination generally doesn't work, and geese are usually monogamous; males and females need to live together for a month or two before they will produce fertile eggs. Eggs are generally laid in springtime, goslings hatch around June, and the birds aren’t ready for slaughter until midautumn. "We raise geese once a year for Christmas," explains Jim Galle, vice-president of Grimaud Farms, a sustainable duck farm in northern California. "This year we'll have about 1,000 geese — they're just not something you can grow year-round." So most geese are still raised on small, family-run farms, grazing on pastures instead of being confined in cages.

Chestnuts on the side

Until about a century ago, chestnuts were abundant in the U.S. The American chestnut tree flourished along the east coast and as far west as the Mississippi River. The sturdy tree was integral to the ecosystem of these areas. It was the top food source for a vast array of species, it provided farmers with healthful feed for their livestock, and many rural economies depended on the sale of its nuts and lumber. At the turn of the twentieth century, though, the American chestnut tree was struck by a massive blight that had been imported along with Asian chestnut trees. By 1950, the native tree had essentially disappeared.

Now there are concerted efforts to bring it back. Agricultural researchers, like a team at the University of Missouri, are experimenting with techniques to make the endangered tree more blight-resistant. Meanwhile, the few remaining domestically grown chestnuts are produced by small farmers using other species, like the Chinese chestnut. Experts estimated U.S. chestnut production at just 1.5 million pounds annually, compared with 200 million pounds worldwide. So buying American-grown chestnuts helps support small-scale farming, and burns less fossil fuel in shipping.

The tree is also particularly well suited to eco-friendly growing practices. "When you grow a bushel of corn, you lose two bushels of dirt through erosion, but when you plant chestnuts, you lose only a teaspoon of soil per acre per year," says John Wittrig, cofounder of the organic J&B Chestnut Farm in Winfield, Iowa. Moreover, the Chinese and Japanese chestnuts grown in the U.S. are easy to raise without pesticides, as they have only one natural pest, which gestates in the fallen nuts around the tree — so it's easily eradicted by removing the nuts.

Both Chinese and hybrid American-European chestnuts have a sweet taste that's somewhere between a hazelnut and a yam, with a potatolike texture (especially when roasted or boiled). And as for nutrition, chestnuts are rock stars: low-fat, gluten-free and a great source of fiber, vitamin C and beneficial fatty acids. They’re a great addition to a healthy holiday table.

Of course, this also means that the birds cost more than mass-market meat, because it's more expensive for producers to raise them. Still, the extra cost may be worth it to supporters of small-scale agriculture — and to foodies and health-conscious eaters alike. Because waterfowl make up such a small market in the U.S., drug companies haven't bothered to get antibiotics certified for use on geese and ducks; thus, the FDA prohibits giving the drugs to these birds (unlike turkeys, which are routinely pumped with antibiotics to speed production).

While goose is a bit fattier than the traditional holiday turkey, much of that fat melts away during cooking (or it can be trimmed beforehand). Goose meat is rich in beneficial fatty acids and monounsaturated fats, and has fewer unhealthy saturated fats than meats like beef or lamb. Many chefs say goose has a firmer, less mushy texture than turkey; it tends to be darker, moister and more flavorful, with a crispier skin.

Story by Christy Harrison. This article originally appeared in Plenty in January 2007. The story was added to in December 2009.

Copyright Environ Press 2007.

Classic Christmas feast: Goose and chestnuts
Why did we ever stop incorporating chestnuts and roast goose into our holiday meals? Get back to American roots with these former staple dishes.