Thanksgiving Day, à la Française
PARIS — Ask long-timers at the American School of Paris how to do Thanksgiving dinner, and you’re likely to be told the tale of the gourmet turkey.
It seems that some time ago, an American family celebrating its first Thanksgiving in Paris ordered a turkey from the neighborhood butcher. The butcher offered to fill it with a special poultry stuffing and roast it.
“Bien sûr!” the wife told the butcher.
When the couple picked it up on Thanksgiving Day, the turkey was perfect, with a golden, crackly skin on the outside and juice oozing from the inside. The special stuffing was indeed special. It was made not with ordinary fowl livers, but with foie gras.
The turkey cost $200.
No matter what the price, Americans can’t ignore Thanksgiving. The French don’t quite get it. One veteran Parisian butcher insists on calling it le Noël Américain — the American Christmas.
I explain that unlike almost all of their official holidays, Thanksgiving marks neither a religious event nor a military victory. It’s the closest thing we have to a holiday without an agenda.
It is also the only American day designated to bring together family and friends for a home-cooked afternoon meal.
The humorist Art Buchwald said it best in a newspaper column in November 1952. Using free-form translations, he told the French all about “Kilometres Deboutish” (Miles Standish), the Fleur de Mai (Mayflower), the Pelerins (Pilgrims) and the Peaux-Rouges (Redskins). He said that Thanksgiving was the only time of year when Americans “eat better than the French do.”
For the French, however, every Sunday is a day to bring together family and friends for a home-cooked afternoon meal. And they would never, ever pile the courses on the plate all at once.
And yet, Thanksgiving could be French. The holiday was inspired by traditional fall harvest festivals in Europe. It is all about the preparation and consumption of ritual foods. (At the first Thanksgiving in 1621, the settlers at Plymouth Colony joined with Native Americans to eat venison, waterfowl, lobster, clams, berries and other fruit, pumpkin, squash, and, of course, wild turkeys.)
The French understand turkey. France is the leading turkey producer in the European Union. The breeds are named after their colors and regional origins: the Bourbonnais Black, for example, or the Red Ardennes.
Long ago, turkey replaced goose as a staple of the traditional French Christmas table, along with champagne, raw oysters, smoked salmon and foie gras. Poultry farmers time the hatching of turkey eggs to bring their free-range birds to maturity towards the end of December. If you want one a month earlier, it’s likely to be embarrassingly small. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck with a farm-raised version, perfectly acceptable if you don’t crave the gamey taste and darker flesh of birds that have run wild.
Over the years, even the most Frenchified American expatriates in Paris have embraced the holiday.
Alice B. Toklas had Hélène the cook to roast the Stein-Toklas Thanksgiving turkey, but made the stuffing herself. Since Gertrude Stein could not decide whether she wanted chestnuts, mushrooms or oysters in the stuffing, Alice, a great cook, threw in all three. The stuffing became one of her signature dishes.
Julia Child’s most traumatic Thanksgiving in Paris was her first — but it had nothing to do with food. It was a party hosted by Paul and Hadley Mowrer. (He was a newspaper columnist, she the first Mrs. Ernest Hemingway.) More than half the guests were French, and Julia was so frustrated by her inability to communicate that she signed up for private French lessons at Berlitz immediately afterwards.
Just about every American in Paris seems to have a Thanksgiving story.
There was the American businessman who smuggled a turkey fryer from the United States and procured gallons of American peanut oil from the American military commissary in Brussels. He deep-fried the bird in the courtyard of his apartment complex.