Thanksgiving Day, à la Française
by Elaine Sciolino
by Elaine Sciolino
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.
Another couple once invited long-time French friends for a Thanksgiving dinner at the respectable American time of 5 p.m. The guests arrived exhausted from a marathon four-hour French lunch; they were horrified to learn that anyone would schedule dinner at such an ungodly hour.
I have my own turkey tales. Our first year in Paris I ordered a twelve-pound turkey and instead got a twelve-kilo mega-bird that didn’t fit into my dainty French oven. A British friend suggested I hack the bird into pieces. For me, such a mutilation would have symbolized the destruction of our family’s American way of life.
Another year I got no turkey at all, just a copy of a letter of apology from the turkey farmer. It seemed that a violent storm the previous January had destroyed much of his farm and halved his turkey population. “I ask you to forgive me,” he wrote.
The butcher offered me a capon. “It’s tender, fleshy and full of flavor,” he said. “You’ll like it better.”
“I want a turkey,” I replied. “Not a castrated rooster.”
Jean-Marie Boedec, a poultry butcher in the Seventh Arrondissement where a lot of Americans live, has solved the problem of the scrawny French turkey by ordering the biggest ones from Italy. The only challenge is that they are slaughtered in factories and often come with some of their skin missing. He uses skin from the legs of other birds to meticulously sew patches on the missing parts.
For those who are not cooking their own Thanksgiving dinner in Paris, there are always places to eat. Harry’s Bar, for example, which opened on Thanksgiving Day in 1911 (with wines from California) or a communal dinner at The American Church in Paris. The New York-based French Heritage Society is organizing a 200-euro-a-plate fund-raising “dîner de Thanksgiving” at the three-Michelin-star restaurant of the Bristol hotel, with offerings such as pumpkin soup with chestnut made to look like spaghetti and pecan pie flambéed with cognac.
For those who are cooking, there’s the Thanksgiving grocery boutique in the heart of the Marais. Fresh yams, cranberries and pecans; farm-raised turkeys; Libby’s pumpkin; College Inn chicken broth; Pepperidge Farm stuffing mix; Quaker cornmeal, disposable roasting pans; marinade injectors — they are all here. Judith Bluysen, the owner, takes orders of 300 pumpkin and pecan pies, which she bakes herself.
This year, she said, the French seem to be embracing the American holiday. The current issue of the French version of Saveurs features an article entitled “Frenchy Thanksgiving” complete with recipes (the turkey is lacquered with maple syrup).
Ms. Bluysen, who is American, already has been featured on half a dozen French television shows. She did one show with a French woman who claimed to be knowledgeable about all the classic dishes. She put marshmallow fluff in her mashed potatoes, made a pumpkin pie with a Keebler graham cracker crust, served canned cranberry sauce with the dinner and used the fresh cranberries to decorate the table.
“I’ve spent my life trying to help people do a real Thanksgiving, and when things like this happen, I want to retire!” said Ms. Bluysen.
When she opened her shop back in 1990, she settled on the name Thanksgiving after finding an obscure book about American religious sects. The chapter about Amish cooking began, “For us, every meal is a Thanksgiving.” It could have been French.