My first French Thanksgiving was a nightmare.
My mother, who used to work for Ina Garten and has thematic place card holders for all major events, has always preferred Thanksgiving to any other holiday. But watching her effortlessly pull together a meal that made our dining room table risk buckling in on itself did not in any way prepare me for the challenge of attempting to host this all-American holiday in Paris.
I moved to Paris as an optimistic 20-year-old college junior. In retrospect, my decision to cook and serve the holiday meal was a bit like that ominous moment when the main characters of a disaster movie called, say, Attack of the Killer Jellyfish, pack up a picnic to enjoy on the beach.
"Hey," I said to my American roommate, Emese, in mid-November. "Why don't we host Thanksgiving?"
The Great Sweet Potato Heist
In Paris, starchy white sweet potatoes are just as common as orange, and they're usually displayed in the same basket, which means that in order to find out if the one in your hand is white or orange, you have to surreptitiously scratch at it with your fingernail until you can see the flesh beneath the skin. Needless to say, this process is frowned upon at nice greengrocers, where you're not even supposed to handle the fruit—just tell the greengrocer which day you plan to consume your melon or apple or head of broccoli—and trust his experienced eye. But a nice greengrocer was one of the only places to buy sweet potatoes back then. I needed a plan.
Emese distracted the grocer by asking what, exactly, a Canada apple was—is it from Canada? Are they imported, or is it just a Canadian variety?—while I scratched each and every yam in the display, zealously filling my basket with the orange variety and leaving a pile of lightly scratched white sweet potatoes between the red kuri squash and the blettes.
As the grocer rang us up, I heard him say knowingly to his colleague, "Oh, yes, it's their holiday."
And it was our holiday, as grandiose and oversized as an American holiday should be. There were five pies. My French-born cousin kept nervously asking why the 10 pounds of butter were depleting so rapidly. My Scottish friend just laughed and kept peeling apples.
The Turkey Drumstick Debacle
Ever the optimist, I went looking for a turkey, but everywhere I looked, I was met with shrugs and shakes of the head. "Désolée, mademoiselle. Sorry, but the turkeys won't be here until Christmas."
Because in a country without Thanksgiving, turkey is a Christmas food.
I could not fit a turkey in my Parisian oven anyway, I reasoned, but I could fit the two large turkey drumsticks I found in the butcher case at my local supermarket, so I brought them home and concentrated on what I had deemed more important things: stuffing and pie.
I had invited my haphazard group of expats for 6 p.m. Since it was November in Paris, annual metro strikes kept several away. The Americans were on time; everyone else arrived at 9, which was just as well, because even after ten hours of cooking, I was far from ready to feed anyone anything but three-Euro wine.
I spent so much time on my sides and pies that the turkey drumsticks didn't make it into the oven until 5, which my mother assured me was more than enough as I hyperventilated over the phone (at 30 cents a minute, surely the most expensive panic attack I've ever had). At 7, they were still raw in the center.
I cranked up the oven to 450 and stabbed the drumsticks at 10-minute intervals, only to still see red juices run out, drying the meat to the texture of cotton swabs; the space that I had allotted them on my stand-in Thanksgiving table stood noticeably bare.
Emese told me that no one cared about turkey anyway as long as there were mashed potatoes. My Canadian boyfriend claimed that since there was a bounty of stuffing, no one would notice. Most of my guests were nearing drunk, which was handy, because I was spending an inordinate amount of time trying to get the brown sugar that I had paid an arm and a leg for at one of the city's American stores to do something other than sit on the counter, hard as a rock.
The Brown Sugar Boulder
Brown sugar is nearly impossible to find in Paris. There's something called sucre vergeoise, which is beet sugar sprayed with a caramel coating, but you're not that likely to run into Domino. When I finally found a box and coughed up the six euros for it (yes, that's around $7.50 for a box of sugar), I realized that it had hardened, fusing into one large brick.
I sprinkled my brown sugar boulder with water and microwaved it, so some of it melted, leaving massive craters, and I was able to make small brown sugar pebbles by attacking it (with grace and poise, of course) using a fork. I used the smaller pebbles for the pumpkin pie, so I was left with the larger pebbles—stones, if you will—for the yams. I had some trouble getting it to caramelize the yams as it was supposed to—I was happy enough getting it to melt.
As my guests sat on my floor eating off plates balanced on their knees, with no Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, no football, and no turkey to speak of, it didn't feel like Thanksgiving.
The Butcher, My Savior
In the years that followed, I developed a very specific plan that included color-coded Post-Its on my serving dishes and a two-day oven schedule you could set a German train to. I taught several French palates to appreciate the perfect mix of sweet, sour, and savory that is a properly proportioned bite of turkey, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce. I had even introduced them to the wonders of baked Brie. A Parisian I invited turned up his nose at first, but then I caught him bogarting the serving plate.
But I had a new problem. I moved. And I soon realized just how lucky I had been with my petite but still serviceable first Parisian oven.
My first oven could fit a rotisserie chicken. My first oven could fit a dozen muffins or a dozen cookies on a cookie sheet. But my new oven... my new oven could barely fit a brownie pan. It was a (hardly) glorified toaster oven.
For my first Thanksgiving in my new place, a friend graciously agreed to host, and another friend graciously agreed to transport all of the half-cooked food that I had partially prepared at home in the trunk of his car. Around 8 p.m., I quietly did the dishes and snuck out of the party to collapse into sleep.
After that, it seemed that the Thanksgiving tradition might end. By and large, my American friends had left Paris, and it seemed like a lot of hassle just for me. The fourth Thursday of November came and went with takeout sushi and little excitement.
That weekend, as I wandered around Montmartre, I noticed that on my seventh year in Paris, there were finally turkeys in French butcher shops, with a sign letting us know that "American Christmas" was upon us.
And then I remembered a story.
My mother lived in Paris in the early '80s, in an apartment not unlike mine, shared with her best girlfriend. She, too, had decided to make Thanksgiving for everyone, only she misjudged the size of her oven and bought a whole turkey before realizing it wouldn't fit.
In a moment of genius, she ran down the block and begged the local baker, with his giant oven big enough to turn out hundreds of baguettes a day, to let her roast her Thanksgiving turkey there.
I had a new plan for a post-Thanksgiving Thanksgiving. I'd become friendly with my local butcher. He was rotund and had a round, jolly face and was missing some teeth. He called me the informal French tu, insisted that I refer to him as Franck. He texted me from the market with news of the newest deliveries.
"Between batches of cream puffs and the evening's baguettes, the baker let us use his high-powered convection oven for "the quail," with Franck heading over every hour or so with an enormous ladle to baste it."
Franck's shop was right next door to a bakery, and while he found my request quite amusing, he and his friend the baker were happy to oblige me and roast the 10-kilo beast that Franck affectionately referred to as "the quail." Between batches of cream puffs and the evening's baguettes, the baker let us use his high-powered convection oven for "the quail," with Franck heading over every hour or so with an enormous ladle to baste it.
I served the turkey with a shaved Brussels sprout and fried goat cheese salad, a very un-American-sized bowl of mashed potatoes, a savory pumpkin tart, and pumpkin pie.
There were only two guests—my French boyfriend and myself—and as we dug in, I very gently started introducing him to some of the traditions that I had forgotten myself through all of the years of mess and stress.
"What are you thankful for?" I asked.
"What do you mean?"
"That's what this is about. This holiday," I said. "It's not religious. It's not our national holiday. It's a day for giving thanks, for telling each other why we're grateful for all the things we have."
"Oh," he said. "I thought it was when the Americans invited the Indians to a dinner party but asked them to bring all the food."
Do It Yourself
After seven years of trial and error, I'm an expert on hosting Thanksgiving in Paris. My first piece of advice: feel free to deviate from tradition. Even my mother, when visiting one Thanksgiving with my siblings, once opted for shawarma for the big day. Don't feel that you need to make your Parisian Thanksgiving exactly like ones back home.
Where to Find Ingredients
In the past decade, it's gotten quite a bit easier to find American ingredients in Paris. You'll find all of the basics in most grocery stores: potatoes, vegetables, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, and even some decent pie crusts in the refrigerated aisle if you don't want to make your own. And you'll find jarred cranberry sauce and slightly questionable maple syrup in bigger supermarkets like Monoprix.
A lot of "specialized" ingredients can actually be found at organic stores like Naturalia and Biocoop. Items like molasses, cornmeal, and cranberries, which have recently become popular in France, are hiding there, and if you can't find brown sugar, you can mix a bit of molasses into standard white sugar.
Because French flour is a bit finer than you might be used to, opt for type 65 flour, which is close to American all-purpose and which you'll also find in organic stores.
If you order in advance from a butcher, you should be able to get a Thanksgiving turkey fairly easily nowadays. These turkeys are likely to be quite lean compared to American butterballs, so keep that in mind when cooking (and use a thermometer.)
And When You Can't...
If you can't find a turkey via a butcher, you can always order one from one of the American stores in Paris; the Thanksgiving store, in particular, sells American-style turkeys, so no worries about deviating from your grandma's time-honored recipe. Regardless of what its name may have you believe, this store is open all year long and is a favorite amongst American expats for essentials like grits and funfetti cake mix. Be aware that prices will be far steeper than at the local Piggly Wiggly.
These stores will also carry cranberries, brown sugar, canned pumpkin, molasses, corn syrup, pecans, chicken stock (only bouillon cubes in France!), white marshmallows (they tend to be pink elsewhere for some reason), and Jiffy cornbread mix.
How to Cook Your Turkey
If you don't have a close butcher friend who has volunteered to help out with your turkey roasting, you might still be in luck. Most butchers cook rotisserie chickens for sale (and there's nothing wrong with switching to poulet), but many butchers will also cook large cuts of meat for you for an additional fee. Try asking the butcher you order your turkey from if he offers this service.
If not, you can purchase your turkey ready-cooked from The Real McCoy, another American grocery in Paris, for 10 euro per kilo plus a 20 euro supplement.
If you're dead-set on cooking your turkey at home, you might be able to swing it. If you have a wall oven, it will probably fit a 6-kilo turkey. If you have a smaller oven, you'll need a smaller turkey, or you'll want to cook the turkey in parts, separating the breast and the legs.
How to Deal With Your Tiny Parisian Oven
Cooking a Thanksgiving meal involves juggling no matter how large your oven, but if it's Parisian sized, you likely won't be able to get anything into it while your turkey is cooking.
There are a few ways to manage anyway: make everything you can on the stovetop, including sweet potatoes and any green veggie you choose to serve. Make your pies the day before, or buy them ready-made: the Thanksgiving store and the Real McCoy sell pumpkin and pecan pies for 28 euros. (I can personally vouch for the pumpkin pies from Thanksgiving, which are fantastic). Make cornbread the day before or the morning of too, and don't worry about making your own dinner rolls—embrace the baguette.
Where to Make a Reservation
If this all sounds more daunting than fun, consider a reservation at one of the restaurants serving Thanksgiving in Paris:
- Try Thanksgiving dinner all weekend at Joe Allen.
- Breakfast in America drops their typical diner menu for a traditional Thanksgiving meal in honor of the big day.
- The American Church in Paris offers a community-organized potluck Thanksgiving dinner.
- If you can't have Thanksgiving without football, Canadian bar The Moose offers Thanksgiving staples complete with streamed football straight from the States.