For the past 30 years, my family has celebrated Thanksgiving in France, far away from the U.S. Our annual tradition is to invite another family, or sometimes a few couples, to our home; and often our children each invite a friend to enjoy the “experience”. Through the sharing of food and historical context with our French friends, we have naturally discovered who enjoys the spirit and feast of Thanksgiving and wishes to repeat it, giving us the comfort and pleasure of guests who “replace” my extended family, none of whom are in France.
An American tradition in France
Working full-time and with kids in school, we plan our Thanksgiving on the weekend before or after the real date, most often a late Sunday lunch, but occasionally a Saturday evening. I always go New England traditional: turkey with sausage, onion and bread stuffing and gravy, a potato dish and a dish of “sweets” as my grandma called them. There is always a green vegetable, cranberry sauce, Parker rolls in a perfect world, but mostly just baguette, a cheese course for the French, and three pies – pumpkin, pecan and a third – with whipped cream because everyone likes to use the siphon. In deference to French tradition, we also serve a pretty, light salad as a starter. The children decorate the table with a ceramic turkey, fall leaves and Indian corn, and set out the special inherited serving dishes.
… with a few local adaptations
The challenge abroad is you no longer have access to all the traditional short-cuts and no mothers, aunts or sisters are in the kitchen with you, or arrive arms laden with food. In the days of two suitcases, I brought back canned pumpkin. Now I stew it myself. We scout the open market and supermarket for cranberries, and sometimes get lucky – otherwise they come back by plane and go in the freezer. You have to “scratch” the surface of sweet potatoes at the open market to check if they are the white or orange-fleshed kind.
But most importantly, you need a dependable poultry butcher. They will find it amusing that you need your bird a full month before the year-end festivities, and will charge you an arm and a leg for it. I once did not have a dependable seller, and ended up with a tiny bird and a last minute run to the supermarket for turkey thighs.
My current guy has always been dependable, but I never know if he will turn up with a 5 or 7 or 9 kg bird as he says “it is hard to weigh them as they are flapping around the yard”.
Then comes the oven issue – French ovens are just not that big. So I keep my former oven in the basement for roasting the turkey once a year. All the clean clothes smell of turkey, but that way, the kitchen oven is available for the waltz of dishes in and out, as we struggle to get everything to the table hot at the same time.
Adding French touches
For about 20 years, I did all the cooking myself over two days. These days, one French couple who are Thanksgiving “regulars” help out, arriving with two wicker baskets filled with potatoes au gratin and side dishes or a pie. It is like the cavalry coming – absolutely divine. Our recipe choices have matured to haute cuisine. Whole-berry cranberry sauce with ruby porto and oranges, brussels sprouts au gratin, roast turkey with stewed fruit, multiple twists of pumpkin and pecan pie…
The Bon Appetit Thanksgiving album is my bible! The variants make the day even more special. My state-side family might not recognize the table if they were here. This being said, I finally dared put marshmallows on sweet potatoes recently and they were devoured by everyone, so you have to laugh.
Our guests still admire the turkey as I man-handle it up the basement stairs as if it was their first time all over again. From eating timidly the first years to manning up and going back for seconds, Thanksgiving is practically their own holiday now also, and that is what makes a tradition.