I have a strong attachment to Thanksgiving and all that it stands for. Wherever I've lived in the world -– Japan, Paris, Seattle, Arles, Avignon-—I've managed to put one together. In Japan finding a turkey was near impossible -– so I purchased two large chickens. It cost a fortune – all those exotic ingredients -— but I reveled in recreating it alone for the first time in my life, for those I wished to say thank you to. I managed it in the home and kitchen of my host family, and added just three people to the four already in the house: my boss, my best friend/office mate, and the man who had introduced me to my host family. And there, amongst those dearest to me in that strange country, many of whom had traveled far and wide, I heard what I’d hear again and again in the future; my, but I didn’t know American food could be so good!
From my first winter in France in 1995 – the year of two months of transit strikes in Paris – I tried to offer Thanksgiving yearly. That first year, I was in Arles with Erick, and he invited numerous friends who’d met me over the summer to join us. Nearly everything was a hit, except the pumpkin pie -- my mother's recipe have you! Erick had declared, “c’est pas bon,”after one bite and not a soul took another piece. Ah well, pumpkin pie is an excellent and nourishing breakfast, and so it was for me for the rest of the week.
Returning to Paris I had no worry of putting on extra poundage through eating all my own left-overs of stuffing, corn pudding and pie. In the city of lights I walked absolutely everywhere for the during that two month strike. Add in my sixth story walk-up and I think I've rarely had such great legs in my life since.
As my family celebrated Thanksgiving, and later my Seattle friends, it's a time when everyone cooks, everyone feasts, and everyone helps clean. No one goes home (or to sleep) till the dishes are done. We've never been a football-watching crowd, so this truly included everyone from the oldest to the youngest, male, female, you name it.
But abroad, that just doesn't work. It is the rare French guest who helps with the dishes. In France when you entertain you do the “totale," meaning from start to end, the hostess copes with everything. Guests bring flowers, chocolate, wine, cheese or pottery (should that be their specialty), and go home, happy and well nourished. The potluck (now known as auberge espagnole had yet to really catch on when I first moved here. And, being the owners of a large and well-equipped kitchen, noted for our expertise in the cooking arena … well, it just evolved into a rather large event where I did the maximum if not all the work. Most years, it was pure joy to invite the various artisans, vintners, farmers, philosophers, archeologists and more to my table. I wanted to thank them for helping me, and us, make our business so rich with the warm welcome they offered to me and my guests as I tour Provence and visit them -- often! The irony was not lost on a soul that they were invited to the Provençal chef’s house, and his American wife was doing all the cooking!
From 15-20, from 20 – 28, from 28 to 35 … it just kept expanding. From our dinner table that sat 12 to the b&b table that sat 20, and then to the addition of a long make-shift table of boards, with very wobbly home-made benches alongside. Kids crawled under the table to access their seats – and a few adults as well!
There was the year I wanted to do it Southern style, harking back to my father’s Kentucky roots, and add bourbon to the sweet potatoes, cranberries and pecan pie. Rather than go out and purchase me expensive imported bourbon at the store, Erick got to work distilling wine to pure alcohol in the kitchen. Out came the pressure cooker, some rubber tubing, a copper coil, and voila, I had my alcohol. Granted it wasn’t aged in toasted casks, but, it was pretty thrilling to have your own house alchemist make you pure alcohol on the gas cooktop.
There were years when my American au pairs contributed their favorite family dishes – baked beans, potato salad, green salad with dried cranberries and cherries.... There were years when a Dutch friend came to help out a couple days before the event with grinding the corn through the vegetable mill to prepare the corn pudding base. There were years when my father came and did his special sausage, apple and prune stuffing recipe.
Each year’s feast required an explanation and proper introduction to this strange American tradition. I would tell my version of the arrival of the Pilgrims, their meeting with the Indians, what it meant to learn to survive in the New World, to begin to tame it, to know it … Then I’d tell them what all the dishes were : corn pudding, turkey, apple and sausage stuffing, sweet potatoes, squash, mashed potatoes, corn bread, biscuits, cranberries, and of course, the pies. All these foods of the Americas (excepting the apples). All these amazing food stuffs brought back to Europe from the New World. I added to my old favorites special new recipes for mince meat pie from the New York Times, oyster cornbread stuffing from a book of Indian recipes, Indian pudding.
With such a list of traditional favorites I couldn't delegate, nor entrust the dishes to any one else. I became a bit of a control freak. And the fact that I’d calmed down over how Erick carved a turkey (unlike my WASP dad, he most definitely did not slice the white meat, but removed the entire breast and then cut it in chunks) was already a big deal.
In the last two years much has changed. My home is smaller, my budget minimal, and my energy much taken up by kids, rebuilding the business, job searching, etc., I managed a variation on a pot luck T-day last year at the winery. It was lovely, but required nonetheless grand orchestration. This year, perhaps I'll be with a friend who has an American husband? Perhaps I'll just make a couple special dishes for me and the boys? I don't know. But I'm ok with it. I'm grateful already for my friends, for my world, for good health, for happy and healthy children, for getting along better with Erick, for putting many a project in motion. I will give thanks, even if I don't roll away from the dinner table in doing so!