It was one of those unexpected 90-degree days in June in Paris—the kind that turns the Champs-Élysees into a boulevard in Marseilles, with the jeunes filles flaunting their Mediterranean finery—and there we were, girding for Thanksgiving dinner.
Ah, Thanksgiving. It is the uniquely American holiday, linked to our very beginnings as a people and burrowed deeply into our national culture. Heirloom family recipes. Eating too much. Watching Uncle Fred drink too much and tell the same stories year after year. Football games. And the obligatory walk afterward, to shake down the sweet potatoes and the second helping of stuffing. Wherever we go, we do our best to rekindle the memories.
I’ve spent some nutty Thanksgivings in various parts of the world myself. I’ve eaten C rations. Once, in East Africa, I celebrated the holiday by roasting a bird called a greater bustard (bustards are gallinaceous creatures, just like turkeys). But I’d never, ever, had Thanksgiving in high summer before.
The idea was to preview a French interpretation of the holiday meal so that it could be photographed and reported on for the November 2000 issue of SAVEUR. My wife, Betsey, and a couple of old buddies from Saigon days, Morley Safer of CBS News and Jonathan Randal, former senior foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, had agreed to take part.
The dinner was to be served midmorning at Version Sud, near the Arc de Triomphe—one of four bistros owned by the celebrated Parisian chef Guy Savoy. My orders were to report at 8 a.m., well before the rest of the gang, in sufficiently good shape for asking cogent questions about the meal of Monsieur Savoy and Gilles Chesneau, who was to cook our feast that day. I made it, a little the worse for the wear. Savoy greeted me with a glass of white wine and a hard cheese, salers, given to him by a client; chablis, I can testify, makes an ideal breakfast wine.
Turkey was probably introduced into France in the mid-16th century and was served at the wedding banquet of Charles IX and Elizabeth of Hapsburg in 1570. Today, under the names dinde, dindon, and dindonneau—designating female, male, and young turkeys, respectively—it appears from time to time on French menus, but it is no more a restaurant mainstay in France than kidneys are in America.
And Thanksgiving, that quintessential all-American holiday, has never figured importantly on the French calendar—a fact that inspired Art Buchwald’s most famous column, written in his salad days at the International Herald Tribune, in which he sought to explain “Le Jour de Merci Donnant” to the French, complete with a description of the Pilgrims’ voyage on board the “Fleur de Mai”, with the redoubtable “Kilometres Deboutish” as one of their leaders.
Why, then, should Guy Savoy actually celebrate the day? Why should the chef of a two-star restaurant (worth three, in my view), known for his nonpareil artichoke soup and super-succulent veal chops, mess around with something like this? Well, for one thing, he spent time in America in the early 1980s, running a restaurant in Greenwich, Connecticut. (He still gets to New York occasionally and counts himself a devotee of Nobu, Peter Luger, and the Mercer Kitchen.) Besides, Savoy told me, he thought the French needed more holidays to celebrate. “In the old days,” he said, “we had only the Fourteenth of July—our national day—and Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, plus the religious holidays, of course.” “I don’t know,” remarked Safer, ever the provocateur. “When I was working here, it seemed as if there was a holiday or a greve [strike] every other day.”
In any event, since 1995, Savoy has served an annual Thanksgiving dinner at his bistros (as well as a Valentine’s Day truffle dinner at his formal restaurant). Offered only on Thanksgiving evening, it costs just 200 francs (less than 30 dollars) and sells out quickly. The crowd, he reports, is evenly split between French and American clients. “The French used to wear blinders,” he said, “but they’ve taken them off. Today we long for the foreign. That’s why today you can eat around the world in Paris without getting on a plane. As for the Americans, they like the foie gras and the mussels because they’re exotic, something they’re not used to.”
We had been told that we didn’t actually have to eat our midmorning Thanksgiving dinner; just taste it athletically enough for photographic purposes. But we are mannerly people, after all, who wouldn’t have wanted to hurt the chef’s feelings by sending full plates back to the kitchen. Besides, all of us are gluttons, and the food was free, if somewhat unseasonal. So we sat down to dinner at 10:30 a.m. in a back room with appropriately pumpkin- colored walls. Bread flavored with cumin and parmigiano came first, followed by a soup of mussels and fresh pumpkin—”the exact color of the chair in that van Gogh in Amsterdam,” observed Safer, his mood clearly improving. The main course, roast turkey stuffed with a light foie gras-larded mousse of bresse chicken, had the cooks in the group marveling at its moistness. We explained to chef Chesneau that millions of Americans were doomed to chew and smile their way every fall through birds as dry as pemmican. His secret, he said, was to rub the turkey with fistfuls of butter, put it into a cold oven, and raise the temperature gradually, basting the bird with every increase. When it was done, the chef said, he poured out all the fat and deglazed the pan with white chicken stock. We would have told him that he was a genius, but our mouths were full.
With the turkey came pureed sweet potatoes with bacon strips (about one potato to every gallon of double cream, I estimated), parsleyed carrots, and slim green beans. Norman Rockwell would have approved. Then there was a small green salad, dressed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar that had been reduced on the side of the stove, and a slightly warmed reblochon. Finally, a tart—two-thirds pumpkin and one-third apple. Perfect, especially with a glass of sweet muscat de rivesaltes. “That’s not your mother’s apple pie,” Betsey observed. “The chef has managed to tame the hateful pumpkin, not once but twice in a single meal.”
Jon Randal—who has lived in Paris for 40 years off and on and is as much Frenchman as American—gave his seal of approval to the experience as well. “Not only was it a good meal,” he said, “but we got to tell a few lies, and the room was air-conditioned, too.”