Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Thanks, Man. I mean it.

I was really unfair in running down Thanksgiving not even a month ago when I was trying to express how much we miss American Halloween. But now that it is on its way, I realize that I really love Thanksgiving. Unlike holidays that can get a little too fraught or commercial, or that make me feel bad about not being particularly religious, Thanksgiving is right up there with Halloween in the pantheon of holiday excellence.

One of the many unexpected benefits of this year away from home is that we are learning about why we love what we left behind in America. Southern France is a truly excellent place to truly live, and we are reveling in all the things I celebrated so happily in my previous post. But we are also coming to more deeply appreciate the things we can’t have here so easily: our friends, our dog, our block, our takeout, our Annie’s Mac and Cheese. Add to that Thanksgiving, which we will approximate this year, but not actually replicate. For the food-oriented reader, menu details follow.

But first I have a non-France related Lengthy Muse about why I love Thanksgiving so much.

First, Thanksgiving lasts just the right length of time. It starts on Thursday morning with the first celery sticks, and ends on Thursday night with one last turkey-and-stuffing-on-white-bread-with-mayo sandwich before you toddle on off to bed. Following one self-contained day of eating and happiness, if you are extremely lucky, you might even get the long weekend off afterwards. Those three days tend to feel even luckier in that they are free of holiday responsibilities, and generally even of holiday parties and events.

(Of course, talk about lucky, I started by taking the July 4 weekend off, then just kept going.)

Second: Thanksgiving is about as un-commercial as you can get. There is no such thing as designer pumpkin pie filling. (Don’t get any funny ideas, Martha Stewart; or, if you do, I want a cut of the profits.) You don’t see paper turkeys piling up in stores just after Fourth of July, or ads reminding you in panicked tones that you have only 86 days to purchase your cans of cranberry jelly. A big corporation may have to set aside some cash to sponsor a large helium balloon in the shape of Tigger for the Macy’s parade, but your average American doesn’t have anything in particular that he or she must buy. Sure, it’s a fairly expensive dinner for Grandma to make, but when you divide the cost out by all the people she is feeding with her cheerful slave labor, it’s a lot cheaper than getting everybody Chinese takeout.

Third: for those of us lucky enough to have families with Grandmas attached, it’s also a holiday that is all about family. It’s a great day for reinforcing those familiar and soothing old gender roles: none of that pesky feminism mars Thanksgiving day, as the girls pretend to enjoy bustling about making pies and doing dishes, and the men pretend to enjoy theatrically cutting the meat and watching the television. There may be some relatively minor conflicts over whether or not there will be new side dishes (In this corner, the Purists, champions of the candied yams; in this corner the Avant-Garde, bearing the Nouveau-Oaxacan chorizo-stuffed peppers.) But generally, everyone comes and goes without a lot of in-depth discussion that might get an otherwise happy Tolstoyan family into some awful Dostoevskian debacle.

Fourth: Tradition. At my family’ Thanksgiving, our own traditions were inherited from two sets of Grandparents’ houses, then evolved only very slowly over the years. First, we eat olives and tell off-color jokes, jokes for which Aunt Mary actively prepares for several months in advance; then Dad says a grace with lots of Thees and Thous in it, and we eat Aunt Bonnie’s oyster stuffing; and then, as a finale, everyone recovers from all that active socializing by taking a nap somewhere in the house – often on the living room’s wall-to-wall carpet. (As much as we love one another, we’re the kind of people who get a little overwhelmed in crowds; the nap really helps.) Always, between dinner and pie, we all remember how much we love and miss Grandma June, and the weepers in the crowd have to go find a Kleenex or three.

At Bill’s family’s Thanksgiving, there are fewer jokes, but a lot more chaos, inflicted by the six to ten children in attendance. Instead of grace, we have toasts where everybody clinks everybody’s glass and looks everybody in the eye. Speaking of toasts, there is also a lot more wine consumed than at my house (Prosecco with hors d’oeuvres, and Beaujolais Nouveau later on.) No oyster stuffing, but always tiny creamed onions and really excellent kinds of cheese. I really like the yummy wine, but I kind of miss the naps.

But on balance, it’s just as great as Thanksgiving at my house, without having to be better or worse. The turkeys are cooked slightly differently in the two houses, but both houses insist that their way is the best. And I agree. They really are.

Fifth: I love Thanksgiving because it is the one time in the year that Americans can go around with impunity expressing how grateful they are for their remarkable good fortune. It’s a pretty damn fat and happy country, America is, and by all rights everyone in the United States with a decent income and health insurance should probably be walking around on our knees with gratitude all year long. As it is, we rarely talk about our good fortune unselfconsciously.

There’s something self-righteous about being too overtly grateful. If you’re too damn thankful, you can risk coming off like one of those religious zealots loudly thanking their own personal lord and savior for their apparently deserved good fortune. This to me sounds as though the loud praying person is implying that He divvies out His Favors most generously to His Deserving Favorites, something I simply cannot allow myself to believe of any Supreme Being worth His salt.

Or a thankful tone might just sound tacky and braggy. “I am so grateful,” the tacky, braggy person might intone, “for my wonderful family and my beautiful warm house and the food on my table and the fact that my pants fit me so nicely.” This kind of nonsense probably sounds even worse when knitted into a blog. Yet this same sentence, uttered in the last week of November, sounds just fine, and culturally acceptable.

Worse than sounding self-righteous or braggy, being loudly thankful may mean that you just sound dumb (in that way that critical people often believe that being so darn grouchy makes them smarter than other people.)

Parisians, I have read, apparently take this to an entirely new level, also believing that complaining itself is evidence of how smart you are. I had lots of acquaintances in gradual school also firmly rooted in this system of belief, but maybe they learned it from reading too much French critical theory, or in their semester abroad at the Sorbonne. In this universe, a holiday like Thanksgiving would be not only stupid, but potentially so stupid as to be downright American.

Which it is, and which is the sixth and last reason I like it. Thanksgiving is all ours. Even Canada (that bunch of copycats) had the good sense to move their Thanksgiving a few weeks earlier, so as not to be in the way. The classic Thanksgiving menu is full of things that you can get easily in America, and only with difficulty elsewhere.

My new friends, Judith and Frederick, have actually made a Parisian livelihood out of this fact, feeding sad and lonely ex-patriots our comfort/fetish foods. At their store, (named, of course, Thanksgiving), they order pie filling and cranberries by the case, and serve as one of the most reliable sources for stuffable turkey in the Parisian metropolitan area. If for some reason you find yourself in Paris bereft of the proper supplies for a good old fashioned American TG, go there. (It’s also great for H&H bagels, Kraft Mac and Cheese, pop-tarts, and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups for the other 364 days a year. Plus really great catering, and weekend brunch.)

In fact, today’s post is inspired by Judith. A few weeks ago, she sent out an email asking for her friends’ Thanksgiving Plans to be posted on the store’s website. Which got me not only thinking about the menu, but also writing about why I am so happy Thanksgiving is on its way, and that we will likely celebrate it twice.

This week, on Saturday, our family will be celebrating Thanksgiving. It’s pretty strange to have Thanksgiving on a Saturday, but this was the time that Grandma and Grandpa could get away, and be in a beautiful house in Southern France with all their grandkids. After Grandma and Grandpa head home, real Thanksgiving will be a school day. I’m thinking that we’ll do a slightly more subdued version that night, possibly with a smoked turkey leg from the market.

But Saturday is the re-scheduled main eating event. To decide what to serve, I consulted the cookbook that I bought in Paris at the English bookstore just down the street from Thanksgiving: The Joy of Cooking. Because, as I revealed earlier, I have never actually cooked a holiday meal in my own house. I have been in a grandmother-heavy environment my entire life, (as opposed to a heavy-grandmother environment -- they have all been in great shape.) So while I sometimes peel the potatoes, or make a little salad or a pie or something, I have always lived too far away and been too self-involvedly busy doing other things to be of much use. So I will need a good guidebook to remind me not to leave out some of the crucial items that make people so aware of their good fortune.

So, to answer Judith’s question, what will we eat this year? Well, for starters, not Turkey. I know, sacrilege, a word I’m not sure I can even spell properly (Paris Jessica? You got me on the assist, girl?)

Instead, we will eat a goose, raised by Aups Jessica and Gerard, guarded by their sheepdog Alba, and fattened over many happy months in the Provençal sun on the top of a mountain overlooking the Gorges du Verdun. This goose is so free range that it actually chased and hissed at us when visited the farm. It has been years since I have eaten something that threatened me first.

Since Jess and Gerard know we’ve never cooked a goose before, they kindly agreed to kill it on Thursday, then pluck it and dry the skin and stuff it full of chestnuts and truffles so that we can just stick it in the oven and then enjoy. We toyed briefly with the idea of asking them to stuff the goose with rabbit, particularly once we enjoyed some yummy bunny burgers at their house a few weeks ago. But truffles are nothing to sneeze at, unless you’re allergic.

We have planned to anchor the goose with a combination of French treats and American side-dishes, in their most recognizable forms. The menu I am imagining feels a lot like that “something old, something new, something borrowed…” phrase for wedding days. But rather than just one of each, there will be lots of things new, old, or borrowed. And likely nothing at all that is blue. Unless I get Roquefort.

The most obvious “new” things are the newly-killed goose, stuffed with chestnuts, and the truffles. We’ll also have great cheeses (old to France, new to us), including fresh chevre, St. Nectaire, and Epoisse. (Bill’s family back home: I am sure that you will eat your hearts out on this score.) We will employ our new little French radish trick, dipping them in salted butter. If we can get our hands on it, we will have wild boar sausage, along with our new favorite white wine, Clara Lua from Chateau Miraval.

Usually at my parents’ house we get black olives in a can to eat in advance of the meal, and those of us under 45 years old stick them on our fingers just like we did when June was the presiding Grandma. (OK, it’s possible that I am the only one who actually does that.) There are no canned olives here, but I am quite sure we can improvise from the local supplies. So put olives in both columns: old, but new as well.

Sitting beside that new goose, we will have lots of things borrowed. I will borrow my cousin Carol’s trick for mashed potatoes, and put in lots of sour cream, although this year I will use crème fraiche (you’d have to teach me the difference, anyway.) We have the sweetness of Edwards farm maple syrup to give the roasted squash a taste of home. I will borrow Linda’s way of making dressing for the big green salad, and Mom’s and Gaela’s apple pie recipe, this time with Lavender honey from the Var. I will make the green beans like Aimé always did, with slivered almonds.

And what is old? How about the stuff that is as old as that Cape Cod Thanksgiving itself: pumpkin and cranberry. Of course, by that I mean pumpkin pie filling and cranberry jelly, both from cans. These cans are, however, coming to us via the French mail system, so maybe they will get here and maybe they won’t. So perhaps for old I will have to mix up some eggnog from the Joy of Cooking recipe, and think wistfully of the days when I could just drive down to a Stewart’s to pick up a quart.

I’m also hoping, since I am now suddenly the woman in charge of a holiday meal, to get a little of that old fashioned dishwashing help from some of the other women and girls in the house. I’m happy -- unabashedly thankful even -- to have the time for once to cook the bird and roll out pie crust and mush up root vegetables. I’m nearly 40, as I keep repeating, and it’s time for me to show it, with some cheerful slave labor and recourse to old gender roles, a new goose, some borrowed recipes, and runny blue cheese.

I have the menu planned, and a list of what I will need to buy at which market, and when, over the next few days. The demise of the goose has been scheduled. The beans we’ll get in Nice, and the sausages and honey and apples and radishes at the local market on Saturday. I will figure out the right order in which to cook it all, and I’ll probably use both ovens and all six burners – four gas and two electric. There will be some disaster or another with one or more of the things I will cook, and we’ll get lots of dishes dirty.

At the start of our meal, we’ll combine the two family traditions by first holding hands to say what we are thankful for (no thees or thous, but lots of gratitude) and then clinking our glasses, even the kids.

If all goes well, once the pigging out is done, and the tablecloth covered with pie crumbs, I’m going to leave the washing up to someone else, and curl up on one of the sofas. I will celebrate my great good fortune as an American in the south of France by lying down in the sun that I am sure will be shining through the windows, to take a good old fashioned Thanksgiving nap.


  1. Sacrilege--check! ;) We're getting our turkey (and cranberries and pumpkin) from Judith and Frederick; thanks so much for the assist on that one! And hosting roundabout 13 or 14 people (ourselves included), as we attempt to avoid the sad-and-lonely-expat model...I hope to include thankfuls in the meal, an idea for which I am grateful to the four of you. Enjoy yours tomorrow! xoxo

  2. Goose stuffed with truffles and chestnuts!? That sounds amazing! Please please take pictures of that bird pre and post sliced!