It’s November 27th, 2003. The fourth Thursday of the month. I’m living in Paris and will be for the next five years. And I am freaking out right now and drinking Champagne like it’s Coca-Cola.
In fact I’m drinking American Champagne from California that I have had shipped over. It’s J Champagne from Healdsburg – special stuff. At this rate I’m the only one who’s going to find it special.
This is my first American feast that I am hosting for a large group of ex-pats. My husband is travelling and will be home any minute from Germany. For the first time in our marriage I get to cook Thanksgiving dinner without begrudgingly turning it over to one of our families. We all want turkey more than anything in the world because it symbolizes America. Where once this holiday was just an excuse to get stuffed and wasted and pass out on the couch, now it has meaning: We Are Americans & We Must Eat Turkey & Have Pumpkin Pie or Die!
Seriously, lives depend on it. And specifically mine because the thought of letting down a hungry pack of ex-pats salivating at the bit for some good ol’ fashioned American grub is like telling French peasants to eat cake or brioche or whatever Marie Antoinette said to get her head cut off.
And, I’m attending Le Cordon Bleu so the bar is high and so is the talk around town – if you know what I mean? Expats gossip shamelessly.
Now that I have a French food vocabulary from my prestigious Le Cordon Bleu education I can tell the butcher what I would like and I can actually read his sign outside asking Les Americains to order their dinde (turkey) early this year. I live in the 17th arroindissment about three blocks from L’Arc de Triumph and Les Champ-Élysées and there are many American dignitaries and political people in this area. Shop keepers have caught on to zheez crahzy Americain ‘oliday, ‘ow do you say eet? Tanx-gee-veeng?!?
The French hardly eat turkey. A year later when I start cooking at Guy Savoy, I serve it weekly for family meal. Family meal mostly consists of offal and butcher cuts that are cheap: lamb brains, boudin noir, tongue, etc. so one can see where dinde falls in the French meat hierarchy.
Just to be safe, I order my turkey three weeks in advance.
The week beforehand is spent running around Paris in search of American products. In the Marais, the orthodox Jewish and gay quartier (where else can you get the most amazing falafel ever, then drink champagne under the rainbow flag, then shop in cutting edge designer stores? Love it!) I find the Thanksgiving store. Yes, it is really named the Thanksgiving Store, and it is a total ripoff. But when you’re in the eye of the storm, price is no object.
A bag of pecans for 6 euros? Great. I’ll take 4 please. The euros is trading 1:2 or there abouts at this time. I think $48 is a steal for 4 bags of nuts. I pick up Libby’s pumpkin pack, condensed milk, Marshmello cream just because they have it, cranberry jelly, and Peppridge Farm bread crumbs for stuffing mix. Oh, and a pie pan because pumpkin tart is not the same as pumpkin pie. In just the same way that pumpkin cheesecake will never truly sub out pumpkin pie. It just doesn’t cut it. No matter what, it just doesn’t.
I make my way back on le Metro to my rather conservative quartier and climb the five split level flights of stairs to my gorgeous bourgeois apartment. The days of driving to and from a supermarket and shlepping groceries easily across the threshold to my kitchen counter as opposed to up a 16th century skyscraper are long gone but my calves are looking good and I’m beginning to understand how French women stay toned.
Finally turkey day is here! I am psyched! I have my pecans, my pumpkin pack, my cranberry jelly (yuck but whatevs I can’t find the fresh berries), my pie pan, various winter veggies, and all I need now is to pick up my turkey. But before I can saunter down my two hundred stair steps, I get a call from a classmate:
“Amy, some one said that you have pecans. Do you? Do you have extra? Can I buy some from you? I just need enough for one pie…”
Seriously, I’m like a drug dealer now.
“Yeah, I got some. I can give you one bag.” I say recluctantly because pecan pie can be finicky to make and I really like it and only eat it on Tanx-geev-eeng.
“I’ll pay you double, I just have these ex-pats coming over for dinner and…”
“Yeah, don’t worry, I got you covered.”
“I promise I’ll get you back.”
We make the exchange at my apartment within the hour and I can see her expression of desire mixed with jealousy as she glances over my assortment of American canned products and various American wines. And make no mistsake about it, Thanksgiving in Paris is big business and all the ex-pat stores sell out of the Americana foods quickly. I have also set the table with American linens from Williams-Sonoma and this adds to her contained resentment. Feeling guilty in my pilgrim decadence I fork over another bag of pecans.
When I do Thanksgiving, I do thankgiving. I don’t care what country I’m in and I have spent one third of my life living outside America. I’ve lived in London, Ireland, India and now Paris and I know darn well Thanksgiving is one of the hardest holidays to not celebrate. Christmas or Hannukka you can do just about anywhere – even India – but not Thanksgiving. I brought these linens with me when I first arrived in Paris and the wine too and my good old out of print edition of Joy of Cooking for authentic holiday recipes.
I walk my classmate out the door and make a dash for the butcher shoppe and my turkey. My butcher pulls out a bird wrapped in paper and my mouth drops. You call this is a turkey?
C’est quoi, monsieur? Mon dinde? (What’s that, my turkey?)
Buh qui cherie, tu es Americain non? (Yes dear, you’re American no?)
Qui, mais il est trop petit! Les dinde Americain sont gros! (Yes, but it is too small! The American turkeys are big!)
The butcher laughs and tells me how he has heard about these huge American birds. He reminds me that I wouldn’t be able to fit a bird that size in my oven. Most French ovens are small because most French kitchens are tiny. Yet French men and women cook up miraculous meals without the gargantuan kitchens we find so necessary in the States.
Deflated, I take my bird home. How is this tiny poor thing going to feed everybody? I should have bought two. I didn’t even ask what size the bird was because I was just happy to be able to get one and no one asked me – for that matter – what size I wanted or how many people I was cooking for!
It is 2P.M and guests are arriving in 2 hours. We have planned an early dinner just like in the States. The eating and drinking will go on all night without a doubt. I have pecan and pumpkin pies cooling on the counter, yams cooking on the stove top, brussel sprouts ready to roast, turkey stock reducing for extra turkey gravy, bird roasting, stuffing waiting to be baked after bird because there’s no room in the oven, potatoes boiling, carrots simmering in tarragon butter, heater going strong because it’s freezing cold outside…
…and the electricty dies.
It just cuts out. I flip back on the circuits and they flip back off. I pop open a bottle of J Champagne and start drinking. Liquid courage. What am I going to do? I call my French girlfriend Marine who will be joining us for dinner. “Amy, c’est normal, you have too many burners on, you cannot use all that electricity in a Parisian kitchen. Can you cook the turkey at your neighbor’s house?”
I knock on my neighbor’s door and they are mysteriously silent even though I can see lights on. Perhaps they have a six sense about this Holiday? And then the inspiration dawns on me: take the turkey back to the butcher and see if he will stick it on his enormous floor to ceiling rotisserie.
My butcher is confused at first when I try to explain what I want him to do. He thinks I am trying to return the turkey after I have already started to cook it. My French fails to transcend language and culture boundaries. So I do what any self respecting American would: I motion for him to follow me to the rotisserie and I mime bird on skewer turning around and around. The butcher laughs. I knew those years of acting school would pay off somehow.
He puts it on the skewer and asks if I want farce inside the bird. This is stuffing. I tell him no thank you but register the idea for next year. I’m not a big fan of the French version of stuffing, it’s too dense with too many unidentifiable mixed meats, like ham and sausage. And it tends to come out of the bird like an unbreakable football. I think this is because Americans normally toast the breadcrumbs first or dry them out and they don’t.
I run back through the snow that is now falling heavily but soft and silent and sprint up to my apartment. My breath is cold and steams the air as I leap stairs two at a time. My apartment is still blistering hot and I tear off my hat, gloves, and jacket that are now wet from snowflakes melting.
Et voilà, my electricity decides it wants to come back on and stay on once I flip the switches. I pop the stuffing in the oven, and then brussel sprouts, mash the potatoes, candy the yams, reduce the turkey stock. But wait! What will I do about the gravy? Zoot Alors (shit!)! That’s my favorite part! You can’t have turkey without gravy!
Guests arrive, the remainder of the champagne is poured, and I pop open oysters on the half shell for hors d’oeuvres and pass smoked salmon & caviar on blinis. Putting my wet winter gear back on I race – a little tipsy – down the stairs and up the street to my butcher.
Wow, my turkey is sexy. Especially compared with the small little poulets next to it. It’s perfectly cooked and glistening a warm reddish chestnut brown color that only turkey’s can when roasted. He packages it for me, and sends me home with two huge jars of jus.
How did he know I would need that so badly for my gravy? And why even bother with the gravy when there is rich salty jus from the forty birds he’s been rotissering. I love, love, love that drain tray that catches all the good stuff.
I race back with my bird, this time taking the stairs more cautiously with my precious cargo underarm, and serve up the most amazing turkey I’ve ever had. Forget the brine, or the deep fryer, or the barbecue; turkey on the rotisserie is succulent with crispy skin and breast meat that doesn’t taste like sawdust.
And size does matter. The smaller the better. Next year I will order two turkeys.
In my family we have a tradition that before we feast upon the foods we take hands and say one thing we are thankful for. I am still relatively new to Paris and not missing home just yet, but I am grateful for my family and friends and especially for my butcher. My ex-pat friends who have been living in Paris, some for over ten years, choke up during their turn to share what they are grateful for. When you are living far from home, the thoughts of what it means to be American come flooding back unexpectedly with a wave of patriotism not previously unearthed.
We dig in, drink heartily, pig out on pie, and retire to the living room for after diner drinks, music, laughter, and dancing.
Next year my butcher places a sign outside his shop reminding Americans to order turkeys early and advertising that he will rotisserie the birds for a small extra charge. Yes, some things I am very thankful for.