Boys with geese at the Jewish Children’s Home, Kaunas, ca. 1925. (YIVO)

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Every part of the goose was used by East European Jews, for whom rendered goose fat was a staple and feathers an essential component of bedding. In some regions, Jewish women were responsible for most aspects of the raising, fattening, and selling of geese; women also rendered and sold fat and traded in goose feathers.

Ashkenazim were fattening geese during the Middle Ages, became known as specialists in this trade, and brought the practice with them to Eastern Europe. Whereas Rashi (1040–1105) had condemned force-feeding on the grounds that it caused the goose pain, Mosheh Isserles, whose annotated version of the Shulḥan ‘arukh appeared in Kraków in the sixteenth century, took a lenient position on this question.

Goose market in Kraków. Alois Schönn, 1869. Engraving. (Moldovan Family Collection)

Accounts from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries report that geese were confined and force-fed during the autumn to fatten them up. They were slaughtered before Hanukkah in order to render enough fat to last through the winter when butter was scarce. The thick goose skins were rendered with the fat, which was later strained; the cracklings, grivn, a great delicacy, were stored separately. Not only were Hanukkah pancakes and fritters fried in goose fat, but also goose fat was rendered for Passover at this time and Passover utensils were specially taken out of storage for the purpose. Some people made a living selling kosher-for-Passover goose fat, as described by Sholem Aleichem in his short story “Gendz” (Geese).

Goose fat was to Jews what lard was to Christians, and it appeared in everything from soup to baked goods. Although chicken fat and duck fat were also rendered, Jews preferred goose fat because a goose could produce much more fat and, with its lower melting point, delivered a creamier consistency. East European Jews avoided suet (kheylev, the solid fat around the stomach, kidney, and flank of ox, sheep, or goat, was a burnt offering in Temple times and therefore prohibited) and made limited use of oil (mustard, hemp, sunflower, poppy seed), mainly for pareve (neither meat nor dairy) preparations. Oil played an important role in Christian fast day and lenten dishes, which were made without butter or animal fat, whereas East European Jews depended on butter in season and on fowl fat all year round.

A slice of bread rubbed with garlic and spread with goose fat and grivn, accompanied by a glass of tea, was a meal in itself. In a more elaborate version, reported from Samaskan, Courland, pumpernickel was smeared with goose fat mixed with chopped onion and accompanied by smoked lamb and cold sauerkraut. Grated black radish was mixed with rendered goose or chicken fat and a few cracklings.

Goose was the fowl of choice for those who could afford it, and roasted goose was a delicacy at taverns and weddings alike. Édouard de Pomiane, Parisian son of Polish émigrés and a cookbook writer, visited Poland in the late 1920s, where he saw on the menu of a Jewish restaurant in Kraków not only roast goose and “green” (unfattened) goose, but also goose giblets, stuffed goose neck, sautéed goose liver, and stuffed goose gizzard. In Bobrka, Ukraine, the shoḥet had the right, as a ritual slaughterer, to keep a goose leg for himself. In Apt (Opatów), Poland, goose intestine was wrapped around the shank of a goose foot and cooked in a soup.

Foie gras was the pinnacle of luxury and especially favored by Hungarian Jews. Hungarian Jewish specialties from the nineteenth century include a whole foie gras cooked and preserved in goose fat, as well as fried slices of foie gras topped with a mixture of hardboiled eggs, grivn, goose fat, and minced onion, and sprinkled with paprika. To be strictly kosher, liver had to be broiled to drain it of blood, but due to its high fat content, foie gras was best cooked at a low temperature, which presented a challenge to the kosher cook.

Goose feathers had great value. As reported from Ivenets, Belarus, when a child was first taught to write, the rabbi made him a quill pen by sharpening and slitting the tip of a goose feather. In Apt, around August, farmers plucked the geese live and let them run around naked, their skin blue. The feathers grew back quickly and the farmer could get a crop of feathers before selling the goose in the fall. When a woman bought a goose, she calculated the value of the feathers. After taking it to the shoḥet to be ritually slaughtered, she went to the feather dealers, who plucked the feathers, separating the quill feathers from the down; they paid her for them by weight. Unmarried women, who had to accumulate enough feathers to make bedding for their dowries, would sit together during long winter nights sipping tea, singing, and telling tales as they plucked feathers and stripped the soft part of the feather from the quill; they stuffed pillows and featherbeds, sewing them by hand. Featherbeds were so precious that they would be handed down in the family and were among the few things that East European Jews took with them when they emigrated.

In Lithuania, Belarus, and eastern Hungary, Jews specialized in raising geese and exporting both live geese and foie gras to Germany, Russia, and elsewhere; this type of business enterprise grew with the advent of the railway. In Yurburg (Jurbarkas), Lithuania, live geese shipped on rafts were called “musical transports” because of the honking they made.

Suggested Reading

Michael A. Ginor, Mitchell Davis, Andrew Coe, and Jane Ziegelman, Foie Gras: A Passion (New York, 1999); Édouard de Pomiane, Cuisine juive, ghettos modernes (Paris, 1929).