When Continents Collide: The Tribulations of Making (and Serving) Thanksgiving Dinner in Paris
- Category: C'est Ironique!
- Created on Monday, 21 November 2011 23:00
- Published on Monday, 21 November 2011 23:00
- Written by David Jaggard
The French don’t need Thanksgiving. They already have nationally mandated days off on New Year’s Day, Easter Monday, Labor Day (May 1st), VE Day (May 8th), Ascension (the sixth Thursday after Easter), Pentecost (the eighth Monday after Easter), Bastille Day (July 14th), Assumption (August 15th), All Saints Day (November 1st), Armistice Day (November 11th) and Christmas (October 86th), plus five weeks of paid vacation per year.
Their minds reeling from so much time off, most French people are only vaguely aware of the existence of my favorite American holiday. When I mentioned at a business meeting a few years ago that I was going to be in the States the following week for Thanksgiving, one of the two Frenchmen present asked what that was, and the other, whose wife was American, offered this explanation: “People get together with their families, there are a lot of football games on TV, and everyone stuffs themselves senseless” (“on s’empiffre grave”). Nicely put.
I, unlike my adopted countrymen, need Thanksgiving. And love Thanksgiving. I love the season, I love the holiday, and I love the meal, both cooking and consuming. As far as I’m concerned, the entire history of the United States, from the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock through the American Revolution, the Industrial Revolution and the Sexual and Digital Revolutions, right up to the mass production of Girls Gone Wild DVDs, all took place for one reason: so that I can eat bread stuffing with giblet gravy.
I have lived in France for nearly 30 years and have never once missed Thanksgiving, although unless I’m in the United States, I usually celebrate it late, on a weekend in early December, because of course there is no day off here on the fourth Thursday of November.
And that’s not the only inconvenience involved. Here is a list of the basic things you need to make a proper Thanksgiving dinner:
- A turkey
- A turkey baster
- Day-old bread or cornbread (for stuffing)
- Potatoes (for mashing)
- Sweet potatoes
- Pumpkin pie
Now here is a list of the basic things you need to make a proper Thanksgiving dinner and that are easy to find in Paris:
Everything else requires foresight, logistical planning, time, money and effort. The French usually only eat whole turkeys between Christmas and New Year’s, so you have to order one from a butcher at least a week (better make it 10 days) in advance.
You can get turkey legs and breast filets any time of year, but in my opinion, and I’m sure most readers will agree, spare parts don’t count. The focal point of a real Thanksgiving dinner is an entire roasted bird, from neck to pope’s nose, preferably one big enough to put the entire French national rugby team into a tryptophan coma.
And to cook that turkey right, you need a baster. I don’t know why, but this particular kitchen implement is, in my experience, nearly impossible to find in France. After years and years of frustratingly inefficient basting using a soup spoon while visions of squeeze bulbs danced in my head, I finally found one in, of all places, an Asian restaurant supply store at the corner of Rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud and Boulevard Richard Lenoir. I keep it in a locked velvet-lined case with handcuffs attached to the handle.
As for the other ingredients, cranberries only grow in North America, so you have to look for them in the “imported” section of a “gourmet” grocery store. Depending on which kind of stuffing you prefer, you can buy bread in advance and let it dry for a day or two, or buy un-precooked polenta (i.e., plain cornmeal) from an Italian specialty shop and make your own cornbread.
Whatever you do, do not, I repeat not, ask a French bakery if they have day-old bread. They don’t, and they resent the implication that they do. I speak from experience. I had flour in my ears for a month.
You can get patates douces at just about any greengrocer’s, but they will be the white-fleshed starchy kind, not the sweet orange-yellow yams we get in the States. They will do in a pinch.
This brings us to the dish that defines the day, and the ultimate comfort food for millions of Americans: it just wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie. Unless you are venturesome enough to take a leftover jack-o’-lantern and try to convert it into filling yourself, the only solution is to buy either canned filling or a pre-baked (and pre-ordered) pie from one of the American specialty grocers in Paris, like The General Store or the Real McCoy on Rue de Grenelle, or the shop in the Marais called, in one of those inexplicable quirks of fate, Thanksgiving.
But that’s not all: if you’re feeding French guests, procuring a pumpkin pie is only half the battle. You then have to convince them that it really is a dessert. For a European, putting pureed pumpkin pulp into a pie shell and calling it a sweet treat is a ludicrous absurdity and possible grounds for involuntary internment, like making broccoli brownies or pouring a can of cold baked beans over an angel food cake.
I once made a Thanksgiving dinner for 12 French friends. After we had finished the main courses, all the serving bowls were scoured so clean they didn’t need to be washed and the turkey carcass looked as though it had spent the last half hour in a piranha tank. Everyone was smiling contentedly. I brought out the pumpkin pie. Everyone frowned in dismay.
You know how when you cut a pie at the table there’s always one person who says, “Oh, I’m so full, just a tiny sliver for me”? At this meal, out of 12 guests, 12 people said that. And then revised downward my estimation of what constitutes a “tiny sliver.” And then only ate about half of that. I ended up finishing three-quarters of the pie myself over the next few days.
Nevertheless, Americans in Paris, take heart. Yes, it’s daunting and, depending on your guest list, ungratifying to go to the trouble of fielding a pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving. But if you’re really devoted, if you want to pull out all the stops and go that extra 1.6103 kilometers to offer your friends and family a true, authentic, bona fide, traditional Thanksgiving dessert, the pumpkin pie specified in the Bill of Rights, the recipe that Squanto taught the Pilgrims, there’s one thing that you will be glad to know: every French supermarket carries aerosol whipped cream.
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Reader Danny Finley writes: "I was totally prepared to point and snicker at David's typo in regard to the date of Christmas in France. Until I did the math. October 86 is indeed Christmas Day. Thanks again for a lovely (as usual) C'est Ironique read."
Reader Jacqueline writes: "I have had a very happy Thanksgiving with a turkey i ordered a few days in advance cooked by my local rotisserie guy. He even made a lovely stuffing."
Reader Norman Ball writes: "Wonderful. Enjoyed it, particularly the trials and tribulations of getting specialty goods such as a baster. But where do you find Pyrex (or other borosilicate glass) measuring cups? When we go to Paris we bring one or two."
Reader Stephan writes: "I have a friend who moved to Australia and wanted to introduce an authentic Thanksgiving meal to his new friends. They loved it until the pumpkin pie arrived. They begrudgingly ate it but came to like it more than your Parisian friends. I am baking a pumpkin pie for the dinner I am going to but, quelle surprise, I am also making 12 servings of chocolat/framboise pots de crème. I'm telling my friends that it is just like what the Pilgrims made."
Reader Millie Ornett writes: "They have the real orange patates douces in the suburban food markets in Nanterre and Rueil-Malmaison. They also have fresh Anaheim-type chiles and jalapenos in the Nanterre market. We have them steamed quite often."
Reader Kevin Kretsch writes: "Wow. Talk about pessimism. Orange-fleshed sweet potatoes are far more common than the white-fleshed variety and available, almost all year round, in practically every Paris supermarket I've ever been to. What the French call "courge muscade" is the ideal pumpkin species for pies, and it is very common in French supermarkets. In fact Libby's use their own proprietary variety of this species for their tinned pumpkin. Cut into pieces and bake skin-side down for 1 1/2 hrs @ 180°C. Remove the skin, mash the flesh and thoroughly drain the excess water (which will be a lot). Count on 2kg to produce enough pumpkin puree for one 9" pie. FWIW, the Halloween variety is too stringy for baking and thus not used in pies, though if you insist on aerosol whipped cream for your pie, I'll insist you keep it away from my courge muscade! Cranberries are the only really difficult thing to procure but not impossible. Lingonberry makes a tasty alternative and is much easier to find."
Reader Thirza Vallois writes: "On several occasions I was invited to Thanksgiving evening dinners in American homes, both in Paris and London. All were special occasions, beyond the truly fantastically home cooked meals. I was once in Arizona over Thanksgiving, and discovered that in the US the meal takes place at late lunch time. What I also discovered, at least in that part of Arizona, was that by mid-afternoon, lines and lines of cars were headed to nearby shopping malls to start their Christmas shopping. The Christmas decorations were already out with a bang as well... Same in London, and now in some places in Paris too. They can barely wait for Armistice/Remembrance Day to be over."
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