It was fall 1966, and Turkey Day was coming. There was an autumnal briskness to the air, the leaves had dropped leaving the skeletal fingers of the horse chestnut trees pointing upward to the grey Parisian sky, and I was a student spending my first Thanksgiving away from home. I was warm and cozy with my French host family, but I craved turkey and all the fixings, and I wanted to do something to show them a real American Thanksgiving.
I’d never cooked the meal before, but I’d watched my mother prepare it, and had been her sous chef for years. How much trouble could it be? I was determined to make this memorable; my sizeable French family was bemused, but happy to be treated to “an American meal.” I wrote home for recipes and began preparing my shopping list.
Turkey, that was simple: le dinde, but the hitch was that they only showed up in French markets around Christmas back then. Oh well, in a pinch, I could stuff a large chicken and play let’s pretend. I could find rutabagas and do my mother’s bacon-flavored puree that has always been my favorite holiday dish. Petits pois would have to substitute for the frozen peas that were an unexplained family tradition. And I knew where I could find pasta and cheddar, so macaroni and cheese were no problem.
But what to do about the cornmeal for the stuffing? And the cranberry sauce — the jellied Ocean Spray of my childhood? Panier on my arm, I was off and running. At last in some shop selling exotic ingredients on the rue Mouffetard, I happened across a dust covered bag of masa harina. Cornmeal problem solved. Cranberries? My English/French dictionary suggested cranberges. It didn’t sound right to me, but what did I know — after all, I was in Paris to learn French, not because I’d mastered it! I persisted with the local epicier to no avail. Finally, I decided to forge ahead and just use confiture de groseilles, a currant jam. I have never been a dessert eater, so i threw in the towel with the sweet potato and mincemeat pies that my mother served up. We’d have to make do with whatever turned up at the local patisserie.
The day arrived and Le Jour de Merci Donnant, as Art Buchwald called it in his annual article in the International Herald Tribune, was a grand success. Okay, so the petits pois were khaki and the mac and cheese was runny. But the chicken was perfectly moist and the rutabaga puree rivaled my Mom’s. Most importantly, the warm conviviality around the table lubricated by the Gallic addition of numerous glasses of red wine erased my homesickness for a few hours.
My French family and I still giggle about my determination and remember the meal fondly after 40 years — I spend my Thanksgivings now in New Orleans, so I’ve never had the opportunity to repeat it. But I bask in the knowledge that it would be a lot simpler now. Americans are more numerous now in Paris and la ville lumiere now boasts a shop where cornmeal, turkeys and cranberries are the norm, not the exception. Its name? Thanksgiving.
20, rue Saint Paul, 75004
33 01 42 77 68 29