“An American Turkey in Paris”
This year, my wife & I will celebrate our first Thanksgiving back in the States (and our very first in Denver.) It is a great relief to be back in The Land Of Convenience where seeking out and cooking a turkey isn’t such a monumental task.
We were in Paris for a three year ex-pat stint as a result of a transfer with Vicky’s job. I worked as an artist out of a home studio and did all of the shopping and cooking. Vicky gladly traded that for dishwashing duties. Our time there was a wonderful experience and we enthusiastically soaked up the French lifestyle and tried our best not to stick out as Americans (a futile endeavor for most of us Yanks.)
Our first Thanksgiving in Paris was a rather sad one. Only a few months earlier we had flown to Paris to begin our search for an apartment. One particular day we were near le Jardin du Luxembourg getting ready to view the next apartment on our list. My wife’s cell phone (based out of New Jersey) kept getting busy signals as we tried to call the listing agent. We soon learned why – it was 3 p.m., Paris time, September 11th – all telephone lines in the US were clogged as the disastrous events were unfolding at that moment. It was very strange to be in a foreign country during that time. We felt so helpless and isolated from friends & family. Any American we ran into in the street felt like close family and we sought comfort in conversation. We were still living in a temporary apartment by the time Thanksgiving rolled along. Our kitchen was way too tiny for the creation of a Thanksgiving feast, so we opted for a restaurant celebration. I saw an ad for “an American Thanksgiving dinner with all of the trimmings” at a nearby American restaurant. We wondered about the place being a bit too conspicuous and a somewhat of a target for Americans as the US was fighting a new war in Afghanistan. We shrugged off the thought and took a taxi to the restaurant. The restaurant was booked solid and there was no way they could accommodate us. And take out in Paris is unheard of….
We had an unmemorable Thanksgiving meal in a brasserie that evening. I decided right then that next year’s holiday would be better thought out and planned.
With more than 30,000 expatriate Americans living and working in Paris, a market for American products and comfort food is automatically created. There are two reliable sources for American culinary essentials in Paris: The Real McCoy and a combination restaurant / retail grocery store named – coincidentally – Thanksgiving. Even Paris’ ultimate gourmet supermarket – la Grande Epicerie – has an American section where homesick ex-pats can find Oreos, marshmallows, peanut butter, pancake mix, maple syrup, corn meal, taco shells, dill pickles, baked beans, macaroni & cheese, root beer, etc.. But The Real McCoy’s and Thanksgiving’s product lines are a little more in depth and both seem to cater more to American holidays. Of the two, I prefer Thanksgiving.
Turkey (la dinde, as the French call it) is a relatively new taste for Parisians. The French, who eat all kinds of strange creatures, once saw eating turkey as barbaric – something equivalent to an American’s idea of eating buzzards. Corn has a similar fate and any sensible Frenchman will tell you that it is only good for feeding animals (though this too is slowly changing – kernels of corn frequently show up in bistro salads….) For Christmas, French families will opt for a roasted goose over a turkey.
Ironically, the French turkeys that I tasted are far superior to American turkeys. The French turkeys are much smaller with a little more flavor. Thanksgiving’s turkeys are all free range and freshly killed. I ordered mine in early October. If you do not pre-order a turkey early, you can forget your turkey dinner on Thanksgiving Day. There are other options – like the afore mentioned American restaurant or any of the many civic and church groups who organize Thanksgiving get-togethers and dinners for American ex-pats. But there is nothing like a home cooked bird and I prefer to do my own. When you purchase your turkey, you are given a number. The day before Thanksgiving, a crowded line forms to pick up turkeys. It resembles a line for a soup kitchen. Numbers are called and the turkeys are handed out accordingly.
Thanksgiving (the store) is on a tiny street in the 4th Arrondissement near the Marais. Parking is terribly difficult in this neighborhood, so when it came time to pick up my turkey, I rode my Vespa and parked on the sidewalk. I took pride in my ability to carry large, heavy loads on the Vespa and carrying a turkey was not an intimidating thought. Paris is a shopper’s dream: just about every business delivers ANYTHING – and at very small (if at all) delivery fees. Unfortunately, Thanksgiving does not deliver.
As you pick up your turkey, there are usually additional, must-have, last minute items: canned cranberry sauce, canned pumpkin, pie crusts (they already sold out of the regular kind, so I made a pumpkin pie with graham cracker crust), allspice, nutmeg, cloves (I couldn’t find these elsewhere and later learned the French name – ), stuffing (the cornbread version always sold out quickly), pie tins, lacing twine and a needle, and then a few of those things that have nothing to do with your Thanksgiving dinner but since you are in the neighborhood and you won’t be back for a while – better get them now. Oh yeah, did I mention the baked ham I ordered? “What are you doing with all of this food?” my wife later asked. “Simple,” I told her, “Thanksgiving is all about leftover sandwiches and I want to make sure we have plenty of leftovers.” “But it’s just the two of us,” she pleaded.
I walked out of Thanksgiving with several huge bags. I carefully packed the storage box on the back of the Vespa. I placed a few inside my backpack. The remaining bags sat at my feet on the running boards and one – the ham – hung from a small hook in front of the seat between my legs. I sped off down la rue de Rivoli towards our apartment in the 7th.
I was doing fine until the ham rolled off into rush hour traffic as I leaned into a turn around la Place de la Concorde. It took several circles back around until I found it in a dry spot of a gutter – unharmed. I made it home and got funny looks from French passerby. Only Americans carry armfuls of grocery bags – the French have a natural talent for managing all of their groceries in one small bag. Americans also take the trip home for granted: driving your grocery bag-filled automobile into your garage and walking a few steps into your kitchen is truly a luxury. Hauling all of those bags up five flights of stairs is not fun. Yes, this is another great reason for having them delivered !
I’ve cooked turkeys on numerous occasions in the past but I always feel a need to consult a cookbook when doing so at Thanksgiving or Christmas. I guess I feel that it is an important fete and I cannot afford any mistakes. But on this first Thanksgiving in Paris, I encountered a small problem: My English cookbooks spoke in terms of ounces, pounds and degrees Fahrenheit while my measuring instruments were in grams and kilograms and my oven was marked in degrees Celsius. Thanksgiving includes metric conversions and complete cooking instructions with each turkey.
Before I left the States, I purchased a terrific Calphalon turkey roasting pan with a rack from Williams-Sonoma. I was excited to try it out for the first time. Now I encountered another problem: the roasting pan was way too big for my little European oven. I was lucky to find something suitable to put the bird in. I got the turkey underway and soon the apartment as well as the entire building filled up with the wonderful smell of roasted turkey. I wondered if any of my French neighbors were repulsed by my barbaric bird….How could they?
Vicky & I sat down that evening for our Thanksgiving dinner. Turkey, dressing, giblet gravy (infused with a little Cognac), mashed potatoes, green beans (Cocos – what my Southern heritage tells me are the French version of Pole beans and which I have yet to find in Denver), squash casserole, cranberry sauce (OK, unexciting canned cranberry sauce) and pumpkin pie (not bad for canned !) We matched it all with a superb Clos Vougeot. There’s nothing better with turkey than a really good red Burgundy!
The meal was wonderful. From our dining room window we watched the tour boats cast their strange double-imaged shadows on buildings along the Seine. The Parisian sky had its typical indigo tint and the night air was quite pleasant for late November. It was surreal celebrating Thanksgiving in Paris. Yet we were thankful for what we had, thankful for being in Paris, and thankful for being American. I certainly would have been extra thankful had I turned on the TV and found an [American] football game…
There was so much food left over that putting it all in the European refrigerator was like packing a suitcase. I estimated we had a week’s worth of turkey sandwiches (definitely NOT a problem for me) not to mention all of the other stuff. And YES! sliced bread DOES exist in France!
That following weekend we traveled to the Loire Valley to tour some of the incredible castles. We were standing outside of Chambord as hunger struck. Next to a small bridge under a tree, we broke out turkey sandwiches, a little cheese and a bottle of Chinon. A group of Japanese tourists walked by and stopped to take pictures of us. They were within earshot, so I quietly mumbled to my wife: “I think they think we’re a French couple and we’re having this romantic little French picnic. They’re going to go back home and show the picture to all of their friends and family and say, ‘this is how the French take their meals’. Little do they know that we’re two Americans reliving our Thanksgiving feast !”