It all would have been very simple if we'd been in Paris, where even peanut butter and cornflakes were available. But we were in provence, in a village called Villecroze - an American family hoping to celebrate an American Thanksgiving.
True, it was the Provence of Cezanne, of old stone buildings, red-tiled roofs, and that peculiar amber light on aged poplars. It is also the Provence where, on market days, it is possible to see a small boy grab a live chicken by the head and whip its body round and round in an arc until its neck is rung.
This was lesson No. 1. Americans, used to buying sealed-in-cellophane chickens with three breasts and three drumsticks and no wings at all, find that in France the journey from barnyard to table is considerably shortened. Things tend to look more like what they once were.
As Thanksgiving approached we were trying hard to be comfortable with reality in eating. I had made friends with the butcher, M. MOuton (yes, that's Mr. Sheep), a friendly and ambitious young man. M. Mouton had caught on early to the fact that Americans eat a lot of meat. When the other ladies of the village said, "I'll take a slice of that salami," we said, "I'll take a kilo."
When I asked for an out-of-season turkey for "unfete americaine " he looked perplexed. It would be difficult, he said. In France, turkeys were not eaten until Christmas Eve, but he would try. He had this friend . . . Yes, he thought he could do it.
That settled, we moved on. How many people would I be serving? he asked. This was lesson No. 2. To get American portions you take the number of people you really are serving and multiply by 2.5. Since we would be four for Thanksgiving dinner, I said, "There will be 10 of us." We found that if we failed to practice this small deceit it was nearly impossible to get any butcher in France to sell us enough meat to make a meal. M. Mouton and I agreed that four kilos, about nine pounds, would suffice. Puny by American standards, nine pounds of anything in a French butcher shop looks gigantic. How would I prepare the turkey, M. Mouton asked. I replied that I would make a stuffing for it. (Actually I said I would make a "stuffed" for it - I was not yet in full command of the language.) No, not with sausage. no, not with chestnuts. With bread and onions. "Bizarre," he said.
As the day approached, we tried to get into the spirit. No pilgrim hats or construction paper turkeys would come home from school with our two children, and we wouldn't be going over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house, and the sun in the blazing blue sky was strong enough to give a good burn. But we were determined.
The children were already bitter about having missed Halloween. (There isn't any Halloween in France, either.) They operated on the theory that a kid has a finite number of Halloweens coming to him, and if he misses one he's in the debit column forever.
So we perservered. We went to the alimentation , tiny one-room grocery store operated by M. and Mme. Boeuf. (Yes, this village had a butcher named Sheep and a grocer named Beef.) In this darkened cubicle were all manner of wonderful cheeses, baskets of fat garlic heads, oranges from Spain and Israel, tiny artichokes and eggplants, pasta in exotic shapes, canned goods and wine.
M. and Mme. Boeuf accorded us special privileges out of the kindness of their hearts. They turned the lights on when we came in, then turned them off again when we left. French eyes were apparently adjusted to the darkness. They gave us cardboard boxes to carry our groceries in whenever we forgot our basket.
Most of all, they never, ever, smirked as we mangled their language. M. Boeuf had once patiently sliced piece after piece of ham because my husband had mistaken "Say when" for "Do you want a box?" and had replied "Okay." As the pile grew larger and larger, our daughter, who had a somewhat more acute grasp of the situation, stepped in with "Ca suffit! "
This particular day we were searching for some sage to add to the Thanksgiving stuffing. M. Boeuf rattled around for a while in his dusty collection of spice jars, pushing aside one after the other. "Nom, ca c'est du poivre. Poivre, poivre, poivre, poivre. Nom, pas de sauge." All he had was pepper. With that, Mme. Boeuf disappeared into their home, which was attached to the store, and emerged a few minutes later with several branches of dried sage from her private collection. They were wrapped in white paper like a bouquet. She explained, very gently, that it grows wild on all the hillsides, and she hoped that we would enjoy our fete .
That was another lesson: If it's an herb it probably grows somewhere within half an acre of where we were living. Fragrant things thrive in the dry heat of the south of France. We already knew about the thyme; on walks, we trampled it with our shoes and then reveled in its perfume for hours after we got back to the house. Later we found laurel (bay), rosemary, fennel and sage.
We gathered our goodies at the alimentation , including some pain de mie (which can be translated as "crumby bread") for the stuffing, and because we were in France, some cheese for after the salad. And of course we had to stop in at the boulangerie for a couple of M. Sacco's loaves of bread.
There remained a few problems. One was what to do about the pumpkin pie. We could adjust to the crust made with butter instead of the more usual vegetable shortening, and the pie could do without molasses, but the cream for the topping was a more difficult problem. Creme fraiche was available, the same stuff that is now appearing in fancy U.S. grocery stores at gold-brick prices, and which Julia Child insists is not sour. Well, it sure (See FRANCE, E3, Col. 1> tastes sour on pumpkin pie. I found out too late for the pumpkin pie (but in time for strawberry season) that you could buy creme Chantilly - sweet cream already whipped - in some of the potisseries in larger towns.
Thanksgiving Day arrived. Visions of real, old-fashioned American Thanksgiving danced in our heads: the steamy kitchens, the nip in the air, kids home from school, stores closed, football on the tube. Guess what. On Thanksgiving Day in France, people go about their business as if nothing was happening!
So our schedule was: Make the stuffing, go to M. Mouton's to pick up the turkey and have a late dinner after the kids got home from school at 5:30.
I arrived at M. Mouton's just in time for the pre-lunch crush when every housewife in the village lines up to observe what everybody else is buying. I waited as all the aged widows bought their one chop or their thin slice of jambon cru . When it was finally my turn, M. Mouton glowed.
He disappeared into the back room and came out with a package held lovingly in his arms like a baby. "Madame," he said. "Votre dinde." He flung back the wrappings to reveal what can only be described as a dead body. It was clearly a turkey, a turkey whose head was not only still attached but also tied close to the body in lifelike position. It was wearing an intricately carved blanket of fat tied to its back with string. It's feet, all but the talons, were tied up in yellow splendor.
At least it doesn't have feathers, I thought. I thanked M. Mouton in all the Dick-and-Jane French words I could muster, and hurried home.
The turkey made our children cry. We referred to it as "him." All day he sat on the kitchen table string at us. I won't go into the grotesque details of how his head twisted in the oven.
But somehow, after the turkey, who was after all delicious, after the stuffing, the salad, the cheese, the pumpkin pie with aberrant crust and the sour cream, and especially after a liter of wine, it all seemed okay. We had pulled it off. It had been a struggle, but our little family band had preserved its island of Americana against great odds.