Preparing a traditional Thanksgiving dinner in France really made me miss the Land of the Butterball. Turkeys in the United States are like TV dinners. Pick one out at the grocery store. Toss it in the oven. Watch for the plastic meat thermometer to pop up. Et voila, you're celebrating Thanksgiving.
Now, if you really want to re-create the Pilgrim thing, you should do it in France. There, it was my experience, you had to do everything to that turkey except chase it down and kill it to get it anywhere near your table.
My French Thanksgiving adventure started one November day during my sophomore year of college when I asked the family I lived with in Aix-en-Provence if I could make a dinner to celebrate Thanksgiving with them. My school had assigned me to a really great family. My French "parents," Madame and Monsieur Anastay, were easygoing and open. For instance, they hadn't shied from defining a favorite expression of Monsieur's when I made the mistake of asking them what it meant. (This despite the fact that decency prevents me from reproducing the expression here, even in a foreign language.)
They were both cooks at the local hospital and made delicious meals every night, followed by cheeses, dessert, fruit, coffee and Cointreau. Why I didn't just keep my mouth shut and go on eating their fabulous cooking, Thanksgiving Day or not, I do not know. In any case, the Anastays told me to go ahead with my turkey dinner, and they insisted on providing dessert.
We decided to invite their extended family. I was 19 that year and had never made a Thanksgiving dinner before. It was too late to write home for advice, and calling was pretty expensive. So I got some recipes out of an American cookbook at my school library. Unfortunately, few of them were for typical Thanksgiving foods, and so I had a recipe for dinner rolls, for instance, but nothing for turkey stuffing.
In the ingredients area, I was in big trouble, too. Nobody seemed to have heard of cranberries; I couldn't even find a French word for them. Sweet potatoes? Well, you know how the French have this amazing cuisine that has been the basis of gourmet cooking the world over? The downside of that is you describe a potato that is not white to even the humblest peasant farmer at a French market, and you're a savage. I wish I had a photo album of all their frowns and looks of disgust.
I got somewhat the same response when I went looking for a butcher who sold turkey. They all had the same question: "You eat turkey?" "Yes, Monsieur, except on the nights that we have squirrel," I wanted to answer. I remember the butcher I found who agreed to order me a turkey. He had this clothesline thing stretched across the front of the store. Hung on it by their feet were dead bunnies, with their fur on. I should have taken that as an omen.
When I went to pick up that turkey on the day before Thanksgiving, the butcher handed me a bird that looked like it had just been brought in from the woods. How I longed for the form-fit plastic wrapper that American turkeys wear. This thing still had the head on and the feet, and it was just handed to me like, hey, here's your carcass. When I asked the butcher to wrap it up in white paper, he looked at me as though he was surprised I didn't want to walk through the streets of Aix showing off my dead bird. I think he was trying to punish me for wanting to eat turkey in the first place.
Heading back to the Anastays' house, I dragged myself up the hill, knowing that when I got there, I would have to "dress" the turkey. Actually, it was more like undress, amputate, decapitate and reach into the body cavity to pull out the internal organs, which instead of being packed in a little paper sack were still all attached to the inside of the bird. I had recruited the two Americans who were living with Madame Anastay's mother to help me cook, but once I started sawing away on the turkey, they disappeared into the next room.
I hesitated a second before the evisceration. Then I thought of my Polish grandmother, who used to buy live chickens on Federal Hill in Providence, R.I., and cook them for dinner the same night. I hoped I had a little of her determination. So I pretended I was in a horror movie, I got a deranged look on my face, let out a loud, very fake-sounding scream and pulled out the turkey's insides. I am pleased to report that after a little washing, the entrails looked much like what you get in a handy paper giblets bag.
The rest of the cooking went relatively well. I remember the dinner rolls were a little dense, and the "cranberries" were really a kind of blueberry. I just had to keep reminding myself that the Anastays didn't know what to expect anyhow. They were good sports who were willing to experience the culinary barbarism of the New World. I could have served them acorns.
The Anastay family especially liked the American tradition of heaping your plate with meat, stuffing, potatoes, vegetables and "cranberry" sauce all at one time. They found it really gauche and really funny. They laughed like children as they filled their plates to the overflow stage, and then they all managed to gorge themselves like true Americans. After the main course, they inexplicably found themselves wanting to sprawl out in front of an American football game in La-Z-Boys, but we decided to eat some French pastries and drink champagne instead.