A French Thanksgiving
Macy’s parade, 10k turkey trots, pumpkin pie and family is what makes Thanksgiving my favorite holiday. It is an American tradition that is truly unique to any United States citizen. Yet, we do not appreciate it until we are far away from a store that sells turkey and the only answers to our, what seem rational, questions are, “I have not heard of this Thanksgiving?”.
For the first time in 32 years, I was in a foreign country, distant from access to turkey, cranberry sauce and American football on Thanksgiving day. It was surreal to wake up the morning of Thursday, November 28th, 2013. I knew I should have the day off, I knew I should be putting on my running shoes for my turkey trot and then rewarding myself to gorge more food than is humanly possible. I understood what day it was however, today was a different type of Thanksgiving, it was a French Thanksgiving, A day the French called, Thursday.
I got ready for school, taking the train to my normal stop and normal location. I figured there would be at least one specialty shop selling cranberry sauce or stuffing. However, my American assumption was extremely tainted. I walked around at lunch with the small hour I had, looking for any sort of pumpkin or cranberry flavor anything. Nothing was to be found. I was still running on the high from my first week as a Parisian but the awareness of Thanksgiving gave me my first taste of homesickness.
I decided if I could not be sitting at a Thanksgiving dinner table drooling over every slice of pumpkin pie cut, then I would make the most of the day. Seeing, snapping a photo and of course posting to Facebook, the best representation of Paris I knew, the Eiffel Tower.
That weekend, I was to visit with my newly adopted French family, Sylvie, Phillipe and Maud. I mentioned as the holiday rose in conversation, told them how much I loved Thanksgiving. They became more aware the importance of this holiday was to me and that it was my first time away from home. I said it would love to introduce them to this special American tradition by cooking them my first “French” Thanksgiving meal. They were thrilled to take part and even invited more friends over to experience this American food journey.
On the morning of Saturday, November 30th, I had nine guests to cook for. I tried to not publicize the fact I had not made a full Thanksgiving meal before for nine people, let along do it in France! As I printed out the recipes of the basic Thanksgiving staples, it was an English and French lesson between all of us. The translations took alone one hour and next was the realization of, “wait, how much is a cup in the metric system?” There are times I don’t like being constantly connected to everyone in the world but when you need an emergency metric conversion, it is not so bad.
I figured it would be easy to find most of the items for a Thanksgiving meal. Again, I was quickly mistaken even after my first search in Paris. We where in Mantes la Jolie, finding meats and vegetables at the local market. The only turkey available were filets and vendors had the look of shock when we asked for cranberries. “You want to buy cranberries now, at this time of year?” We tried not to resort to imported items but the only chance we had would be at the enormous “Target” like store called Auchun. The real size of the store was more like a Costco but the glamour of it was all French. Ice cream sandwiches were replaced with frozen crème brulee, the snack mix with foie gras and an aisle of gourmet cheeses that would put any specialty shop in the US to shame.
We walked up and down the aisles looking for the necessary ingredients but after shopping for hours, the realization that improvising was the only answer came quickly upon us.
The next day I prepared to cook my “French” style Thanksgiving. I put on my “borrowed” French apron, made room for my improvised ingredients and prepared to make the attempt at the metric system. As I began looking at my recipes, firing up the stoves and using measuring utensils, I already knew I was going to have to wing the measurements. I used the most “chef” like abilities I had and put a dash here and a splash there. As arrival time came closer, I already ran into problems with my improvisions. The issue with cooking in France, on a Sunday is, NOTHING is open. If you forget something, you have to go to the one overpriced Middle Eastern convenience store open. As I needed more yams, a desperate run to the convinence store was made, African potatoes arrived in place for candied yams. Red peel and white on the inside, I thought there is no way this could work. However, as I put all the necessary ingredients on, I became pleasantly surprised.
As guests started to arrive to an almost passable Thanksgiving meal, I became nervous that my meal would not be up to Thanksgiving standards. Quickly, did I realize that this is actually the perfect meal to prepare because it could be anything I wanted it to be. For those who had never had a Thanksgiving meal, it could be the beginning of a new standard.
As I prepared to dish out the meal, my portions became a concern. I had not changed my American “super” sized portion view and worried I would not have enough food. As Sylvie, set the table and asked what size bowls I needed. I was brought to reality when she showed the petite bowls that were to hold the stuffing. I laughed to myself thinking about the reminders we get again and again how ridiculous our American portion sizes are. I showed her the size I wanted to serve and her eyes bugged out as in a Looney Tunes cartoon that it might be a bit too much. I then knew I was thankfully well prepared.
As the table was set perfectly French, I presented my meal with a full explanation of the history of my favorite American tradition. The intregment in everyone’s eyes made me proud to be representing this holiday. We passed around the plates as at any Thanksgiving and my plate was not only full of delicious food but also compliments. The food had turned out much better than I had expected and all the improvisions were a success. Of course, the one comment I expected to hear was, “there’s more?”.
Though I am happy to bring this tradition to France. However, I was not stunned with the realization that more is not always better. The items on a Thanksgiving meal, the stuffing, potatoes, pie, are now representations of our necessity for proof that we are can have as much as want, whenever we want. A sign of a good meal to us, is whether you have unbuckled your last belt buckle and have your stomach pressing on your pants to cause temporary indents on your skin. Though today, I saw that it is not necessary to overindulge or “super size”. The proof of a good meal is not a bulging waistline but the grin on a loved one’s face who appreciates your efforts.
At the end of the meal, I felt a sense of accomplishment. This table of wonderful French men and women could now speak well of this American holiday and its flavor.
I am not sure where I will be next Thanksgiving but I know I will never forget my “French” Thanksgiving. Perhaps, this is the start of a new tradition, new recipes, new unity as our founding fathers did. That America was founded on two world’s coming together and I was a pilgrim who brought them together this holiday. However, no matter what type of Thanksgiving it is, I know that size doesn’t matter.
If you would like to cook your own French Thanksgiving, here are the recipes. The measurements of course, are to your own judgement.
A “French” Thanksgiving
Candied African Sweet Potatoes
African Sweet Potatoes
Cut sweet potatoes in to lengthwise thirds. Boil sweet potatoes in a few inches of boiling water and cover. Cook until tender, about 20 to 30 minutes, drain and cool.
In a large sauteepan over medium heat, place butter, brown sugar, white sugar, nutmeg and vanilla extract. Melt together until mixed and place boiled sweet potatoes in pan.
Continually pour mixture over potatoes until potatoes are golden brown.
Cranberry, Apple Stuffing
Baked Bread Crumbs
Chopped Apple, Red or Granny Smith
In a large skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the apples, celery, leeks and cook until softened. Add the rosemary, dried cranberries, thyme and parsley. Cook about 10 minutes until apples are soft.
Heat breadcrumbs and place into skillet, mixing with apple mixture. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Moisten with vegetable stock.
Apple, Cranberry Stuffed Turkey Filets
9 medium turkey filets
Preheat oven to 200c
Mix olive oil with rosemary, thyme, salt and pepper in a flat pan. Take turkey filets and place in pan, marinade for about 20 minutes.
Place on separate pan and place one large spoonful of Cranberry, Apple Stuffing in center. Roll filet with stuffing in center and wrap with cooking string. Repeat with each filet. Rub each filet with more olive oil mix after rolling.
Place each filet in baking pan and put in oven for 30 minutes. Cook until golden on the outside.
French Cranberry Sauce
Simmer cranberries in saucepan on low heat. Add orange juice, white sugar and brandy. Bring to boil and let cool. Place in refrigator in a small bowl before serving.
French Pumpkin Pie
One small Boiled Pumpkin
2 Large Eggs
1 Pate Fueillete, ( Pie Crust)
Preheat oven to 200c . Whisk pumpkin, dried milk, eggs, spices and salt in medium bowl until smooth. Pour into crust. Bake 15 minutes.
Reduce oven tempature to and continue baking for 35 to 40 minutes or until knife comes out clean. Serve with whipped cream.
French Apple Pie
Granny Smith Apples, sliced and peeled
1 Pate Fueillete
Melt butter in a sauce pan. Stir in flour to create paste. Add white sugar, brown sugar, and water, then bring to boil. Reduce tempature and simmer for 5 minutes.
Fill pie crust with apples, not overfilled. Cover with lattice crust across. Gently pour the sugar and butter mixture over the crust.
Bake for 15 minutes at 220c. Reduce the tempature to 175c and continue baking for 35 to 40 minutes.
American Garlic Mashed Potatoes
Baking Potatoes, peeled and cubed
Sautee garlic with olive oil in medium saucepan over medium heat. Cook until golden brown.
Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Add potatoes and cook until tender. Drain and move to a large mixing bowl.
Place roasted garlic, milk, Parmesan cheese and butter into the bowl with the potatoes. Season with salt and pepper. Beat with electric mixer till smooth with some chunks.
Garlic Green Beans
Green Beans, boiled and drained
Salt and Pepper
In a large skillet over medium heat, melt butter with olive oil. Add garlic, cook until lightly brown and stir as needed. Stir in green beans, season with salt and pepper. Cook beans until tender, remove from heat and add pour in bowl. Add parmesan cheese to melt on top.
Serve with Red Wine