Thanksgiving in France: A Crosscultural History, Unsullied by Facts
- Published on Tuesday, 29 November 2016 00:00
- Written by David Jaggard
Over the Seine and
Through the Bois
If the tall tale recounted below were true, Thanksgiving dinner might look like this today... (Original unsullied photo by Rick Baer.)
Every year on Thanksgiving, I make a big fire in the living room and gather my little nephews and nieces around. “Hey kids,” I say. “I hope someday we’ll have a fireplace. But in the meantime, did I ever tell you about how the first Thanksgiving almost took place in France?”
To which they reply, “Only like a thousand times,” or “Oh yeah, great, the story again.” That’s when I slip the older ones a C-note and the younger ones the adult content code to the cable box, and soon enough they’re all gathered at my feet, eager to hear my tale. “As I was saying,” I continue...
It all started back in 1615, when a hardy band of Pilgrims set forth from the port of Saint Malo in Brittany to sail across the Atlantic. Leaving the comforts of their native France behind, they struck out to start a new life in an unknown land where they could shed the yoke of oppression, be free to worship as they pleased, and get a fresh start in an unexplored New World that held the promise of limitless opportunity for those brave and industrious enough to seize it.
Or at least that's what they told the reporters. But mainly they were motivated by two factors:
1) Tobacco grew wild all over the east coast of America.
2) They were French.
It seemed like a no-brainer.
The crossing was hard. The ship made slow progress and after a few weeks at sea all the provisions were used up except for a few barrels of flour. The voyagers grew weary of eating nothing but flour paste for every meal and began calling their ship the “Boffarine” (literally “Meh – Flour”).
Just when they thought they must be nearing their goal, a fierce storm arose. The tiny three-master was buffeted by waves and wind for hours, causing both the barrels and the passengers to toss their flour, and was finally dashed aground on an uncharted desert isle.
Although they knew that they had been blown way off course, the prospect of repairing the ship and taking off again with nothing but more paste to eat was too depressing, so the Pilgrims decided to found their settlement right where they were. Over the next few weeks, they built log cabins, cleared fields and dug wells.
Soon they had built a sizable village, in which society centered around a handful of people who had become the community’s leaders due to their optimism, good humor and charisma. They included the captain of the ship, but also an actress, a wealthy merchant and his wife and especially the first mate, whose name was Gilles Liganne.
Life fell into a routine, punctuated by amusing misadventures that occurred as though scheduled by some higher power at the rate of one per week. Everything seemed to augur success for the new settlement, although there remained one looming problem: they needed to produce food. They had brought some livestock with them and seeds to plant crops, but, brave and industrious as the castaways might be, they proved to be lousy farmers.
That first year their crops failed, and the settlers nearly didn’t survive the winter. But they managed to subsist on what few coarse edibles they could scavenge from the surrounding forest, which consisted mainly of wild turkey, some oblong yellowish potatoes, small red berries with a tart flavor and a round orange squash that they mashed up and cooked into tarts made with their remaining flour.
Obviously, they needed to improve their agronomic techniques and expand their diets or face the possibility of death by malnutrition. Or tryptophan-induced lethargy.
Fortunately, there was a professor among the group who figured out how to fertilize a strange native grain they had found (which they first called “maize,” but whose name was later changed to “quinoa” because, as the actress said, “It sounds trendier”) by dropping a small fish into the soil along with each seed.
The others thought he was crazy to be putting perfectly good bouillabaisse ingredients in a hole in the ground, but, half-crazed with hunger, they went along with it. And the professor was right: the next crop was abundant.
After the 1617 harvest, the people had enough food to last the winter and then some, so they decided, in the finest French tradition, to give thanks by having a belt-buster blowout of a meal.
They formed a committee, but the planning quickly degenerated into a fierce ideological battle between two factions, one that wanted cornbread stuffing and the other that insisted on plain bread stuffing. Bitter arguments also arose over whether vegetarian options should be available, the seating chart (in order to avoid placing intellectual, liberal-minded Pilgrims next to less-educated conservatives who were constantly saying “thou liveth in ye bubble!”), and who would get to keep the leftovers.
While the others bickered, Liganne got the idea that it would be nice to invite some of the neighbors over to share in their joy and the bounty of the earth. But, as far as they knew, they didn’t have any neighbors.
So Gilles set out to find someone. For the first time since they had been there, he decided to hike all the way around the island to see if by any chance they were wrong when they had deemed it uninhabited.
Just as he reached the beach, a man was coming ashore in a small boat. “How!” Gilles Liganne called out, speaking in what he imagined, based on a dime novel he had found in the captain’s footlocker, was some kind of universal New World language. “Would you like to join us for a staggeringly copious meal?”
“And how!” the man said, in fluent French. “I happen to have a couple of bottles of a half-decent Saint Emilion here that I could contribute.” And he followed the young sailor back to the village.
After dinner, they asked the stranger if he, too, had come to this far-off remote island to seek religious freedom. “Island schmisland!” he replied, or words to that effect. “You’re on the Quiberon Peninsula!”
It was then that the hapless settlers realized that the storm had blown them all the way back to Brittany. Abandoning their houses, fields, wells and dinner, but not their political enmities, they followed their new friend en masse to the nearest town and caught the first high-speed mule train to Paris.
As soon as they arrived, they headed for Maxim’s and ordered the 20-course tasting menu with champagne pairings to celebrate being saved from starvation.
“Whew!” Liganne said as the cognac was being served. “I was getting so sick of turkey, cranberries, sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie. Such bland, uninteresting fare is fit only for people who speak loudly, dress poorly, would call football by another name entirely and cannot pronounce ‘r’ correctly. Give me some good old escargots, truffled foie gras and runny Brie any day.” And the others agreed.
So the French Pilgrims didn’t found the tradition of the Thanksgiving dinner, but, since after their Maxim’s dinner they were all so well-fed, rested and eager to resume their former jobs, they inspired another French tradition: the extra-long vacation.
As word of their saga spread, the Pilgrims became famous. Two Parisian playwrights, brothers named Larry and Curly Lière, wrote a hit comedy focusing on Gilles Liganne and the core group of community leaders, plus a young woman named Marianne, who might or might not have been having an affair with the professor (there was no clear evidence of any such hanky-panky or, as the French say, mouchoir-pouchoir, but it just seemed to make sense).
Thanks to the stage adaptation, the Pilgrims’ renown extended beyond France, and in 1619 a British theatrical producer bought the English-language rights to the franchise and began preparations for a “reality play” in which a similar group would cross the Atlantic and try to survive in the wilderness, competing in challenges for immunity from elimination and witchcraft charges.
He began assembling a cast. The first question on the audition form was, “Do you consider pumpkin to be a decoration, a dessert, or both?”
The next C’est Ironique will appear on December 14.
An album of David Jaggard’s comic compositions is now available for streaming on Spotify and Apple Music, for purchase (whole or track by track) on iTunes and Amazon, and on every other music downloading service in the known universe, under the title “Totally Unrelated.”
Note to readers: David Jaggard’s e-book Quorum of One: Satire 1998-2011 is available from Amazon as well as iTunes, iBookstore, Nook, Reader Store, Kobo, Copia and many other distributors.
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