A Life in Paris

Preparing a Thanksgiving in Paris

November 6, 2016
How to Prepare a Thanksgiving Abroad in Paris

Thanksgiving in Paris is just a normal Thursday day at work.

Having never had to construct my own holidays or traditions before in my adult life, I wasn’t prepared for Thanksgiving last year, and it came and went nearly without notice. I remember being sad that I was in Paris and working and nowhere near my parents or dear friends.

Much after the fact, I realized that if I wanted a proper Thanksgiving, I would have to create it for myself. An adulting epiphany at it’s finest…

“This year will be different!”

I declared this to myself in August. And then I tried to imagine exactly HOW that would occur. I’m still working out the details, and I thought I’d share with you my ideas, projections and potential snags before the big day. After Thanksgiving I’ll give you an update on how everything went…

Since it’s a workday here, my first thought was not about the food.

I really wanted to consider the date: should I hold Thanksgiving on a Thursday?

Logistically speaking, if I stick with Thursday the 24th as D-Day, I’ll have work all day on Wednesday and again Thursday morning. With my open schedule Thursday afternoon, I’ll cook up a storm before my guests arrive around 7pm for an 8pm dinner (typical for working Parisians). Dinner will last until 11pm or midnight, and then we’ll all have to get up early on Friday morning – exhausted – and go to work.

Somehow this just doesn’t have that certain “Thanksgiving” ring to it…

Alternatively, I could set the Thanksgiving meal for Saturday.

If I choose Saturday, I can use that Thursday afternoon time to prepare some of the food in a relaxed way, perhaps with a glass of wine! Maybe I’ll even FaceTime my mom and we can prepare Thanksgiving “together” 3,000+ miles away.

This would leave my Wednesday night and Friday relatively stress-free.  Then, I can have the entire morning on Saturday to really get down to business. Oh, and as a bonus, in this scenario my husband could actually help me prepare the meal!  #CoupleGoals 😉

We could also eat at a more reasonable 2pm or 4pm and recover from the meal before bedtime. We might even be able to get up very late the next morning.

Although changing the date of Thanksgiving seems a bit like sacrilege, there are too many reasons to avoid Thursday.   Doesn’t Saturday sound like a delightful day for turkey and stuffing?!

The family is far away.

Well, of course my American family can’t come to France for a weekend, and I don’t really have any American friends in Paris… so this is going to be a one-American Thanksgiving.

There will be three or four couples: My sister-in-law and her boyfriend, and some friends. I’m really not sure how everyone will fit in our tiny apartment, but it with 6 to 8 people, I think it will feel homey and Thanksgiving-like.

But they are all French…

How exactly do you hold Thanksgiving with French people – who have never had a Thanksgiving before?

I tried to think about the merging of the two cultures, and it’s just a little exhausting. Partly because they might not like the traditions, and because them not liking it would make it not-Thanksgiving.

To start off, I’m not sure the French totally understand how important the holiday is. It’s probably best to compare it to a French Christmas dinner.  It’s THAT important: as a gathering time, and a time to honor certain culinary traditions.

So what might they not like?

For starters, we tend to eat our big Thanksgiving meal in less than an hour. The French are known for taking their time to eat, and they encourage slow eating at every chance.

At Christmas last year at my (French) in-laws’ house, we had approximately 8 courses, including two rounds of dessert.  But it took us over 3 hours to eat all of that food.

The key in all of this is the courses.

In France, one dish is provided at a time, and the meals go rather slowly, allowing time to digest the food. For a big family meal like Christmas, here is one possible series of courses: hors d’oeuvres, oysters, smoked salmon, a platter of cut raw vegetables, the main dish with two sides, a cheese plate, the first dessert, and a second dessert.

My family’s tradition does include some snacking before dinner, perhaps on cheese and crackers, or some nuts and olives. But after that, pretty much everything goes on the table at once, save dessert. The whole table is completely covered in food and it’s all hot at the same time.

The simple concept of putting all the food on the table at once is truly bizarre to the French, and they might not like that it is all out there to be eaten at once.

I wonder how will it be when I unveil to my French guests that it’s ALL on the table.

And, the other thing about having all the food on the table at once is that it’s only hot for a short period of time.

When I tell them, “Take as much of it as you like!” what I will really mean is, “Heap your plates full of this stuff because it’s only hot now!”

Which also means you have to eat it as quickly as possible.

To hell with digestion! It’s the American way!

This clearly goes against the French custom of leisurely enjoying one’s food. But, at Thanksgiving in the US, sometimes it seems as though there’s a competition to see who can stuff their faces more than the next person.

This idea has no possible relevance in France. In fact, my husband was visibly horrified when I explained my Thanksgiving plan to him.

So, will my French guests understand that their mission is to eat as much as possible? What if they chose not to?

…Actually, wait.

That could be awesome: more leftovers for me!!!

Which brings me to the menu.

As I described Thanksgiving meals to one of my English students, she exclaimed, “But all those foods sound so heavy!” It had never occurred to me before, but she’s right. Stuffing, biscuits, brown gravy, mashed potatoes, yams, creamed corn, acorn squash, pumpkin pie… All of these dishes are really starchy, “heavy” foods.

As you can see from the sample Christmas menu I listed above, there are a lot of “light” foods on the menu, from oysters to the platter of raw vegetables. Their idea of a big meal includes a sense of balance in the choice of foods served.

I really haven’t figured out what will be on the menu, but I know my husband and I will have to put our heads together to figure out how to serve a meal to our French guests without sacrificing the traditions that this holiday has instilled in it.

Shopping for an American Thanksgiving in Paris.

As you may have guessed, your average French grocery store does not sell turkey or StoveTop stuffing or Libby’s pumpkin mix or French’s fried onions.

What’s an American girl to do?!

On the other side of Paris, next to the Eiffel Tower in the 7th, 15th and 16th arrondissements, there is a ridiculous number of Americans. There are at least a few reasons for that: that’s where you can find the American Library of Paris, the American University of Paris, the American Church, the American Cathedral, the Mona Bismarck American Center, the Avenue of New York, one of the three models of the Statue of Liberty, the Avenue de New York, the Avenue du President Kennedy, and (as I discovered on Google Maps) a public square dedicated to the United States.

Grocery stores in this area cater to the Americans so much, they even sell pumpkins as decoration in the weeks leading up to Halloween. This was a total surprise to me, since none of the grocery stores in my neighborhood had any pumpkins for decorating: only cut up pumpkins and gourds for cooking.

And, as it turns out, the neighborhood is also home to one of the four American food stores in Paris: the McCoy Café.  I happened to be close by for a pumpkin-inspired gathering of American women at the Mona Bismarck Center, so I stopped by the absolutely tiny shop to see what they had.

Thanksgiving in Paris - American food store McCoy Cafe

I was amazed.

Hellman’s mayonaise, Bisquick, Pop-tarts, Welche’s grape jelly, Betty Crocker frosting, Jell-O, six brands of peanut butter (but not Skippy, for some reason), at least twelve different barbecue sauces, everything Aunt Jemima, Tobasco sauce… It was a veritable mecca for American packaged food products.

McCoy Cafe American Food Store in Paris Thanksgiving

AND they had everything you’d need for Thanksgiving.

Of course the prices were absolutely outrageous. I’m sure I paid double what I would have paid in the US, but I was soooo happy to see these products, I didn’t care.

Thanks to the McCoy Cafe, I’m all set for a menu that includes pumpkin pie, stuffing, cranberry sauce and green bean casserole.

It’s a good start, and if I add nothing more than a turkey, it will certainly still feel like Thanksgiving.

There are still so many unanswered questions.

Where am I going to buy a turkey? Do I have to order it in advance? Should I go back across town to the 7th arrondissement to find a store that caters to Americans? Should I simply try the butcher down the street? Is my baking pan big enough? Do I need other equipment that I don’t have?

And above all else: will it taste the same as the turkeys in the US?  I have no idea.

I have no clue how I’m going to cook all the food in our little oven with the basic kitchen tools we have.

Also: is it reasonable to ask French guests to contribute?

In my circles in the US, it’s totally reasonable to ask guests to bring a dish, but this is a really crazy concept for the French. I’ll talk about it more in an upcoming blog post, but suffice it to say that French dinner guests will bring dessert or wine, but NEVER – absolutely never – any other parts of the meal.

Since I’m already going to ask a lot of my guests as they play along with my wild American Thanksgiving traditions, I’m not sure I can really push contributions on them as well.

At least not this year…!

It really feels like I’m doing mental gymnastics thinking about this American Thanksgiving in Paris. Selfishly, I’d like to be as loyal as possible to my family traditions so that I can give myself the FEELING of Thanksgiving that I have missed so much.

And what is this meal even for, except to provide me with the tradition that I miss so much?

That’s actually the whole entire point.

I’ve chosen to tediously scour Paris for the right ingredients, spend two days cooking, and the following day cleaning and ultimately host a huge meal for a bunch of Frenchies who don’t understand the concept in the first place: all for the sole purpose of creating a specific feeling in MY heart.

Gosh, I sound so self-centered.

And yet…

As I write this I can’t help but think about past Thanksgivings, and the feelings I had. And, while turkey and gravy are always present, it was never the food that was the sole source of  warm feelings. It was primarily the people.

The worst Thanksgiving I had was the one spent with two quiet and brooding men. It didn’t feel like a holiday in the least, and they planned a very simple meal for a very late 8pm. I was miserable.

The best experiences have been while surrounded by 10 or 15 multi-generational family members and family friends. That’s when my heart soars and I am feel warm and super cozy.

When I was studying abroad as a 20 year-old, my American boyfriend brought me to some strange industrial building where a bunch of young French artists (who I didn’t know) were squatting and hosting a multicultural Thanksgiving. I had a really wonderful time.

In retrospect I have NO idea if they even had turkey. It wasn’t about the food, though.

It was about having a party, a gathering of warm happy souls, and sharing some moments together.

That’s what I really want this year. I want a slow and joyful meal with good people, eating and relaxing together, and simply sharing moments.

Whatever cultural differences there may be regarding big important family meals, the most important thing is that everyone has a great experience.

Time for some adulting

Now that I’m far away from my parents and all of the parent-type people I knew in the US, it’s time for me to set my own path. I was taught wonderful family traditions and I intend to keep them alive.

Although all the traditions of my family’s Thanksgiving are important, I’d like this holiday to be a pleasant and happy experience for my husband. One he’d like to repeat every year for the rest of our lives.

Now we need to create our own Thanksgiving that suits both of our cultures.

Maybe we’ll add a side-dish that is specifically French, or maybe I’ll alter recipes to be just a wee bit more fancy than I’m used to.

And just maybe I’ll introduce courses to the meal. (I’m mentally aghast at the thought: how unAmerican!)

No matter what: there will be an American Thanksgiving in Paris this year in a charming little apartment with a view into a courtyard, and the room will be hot, and the friends will have smiles, and we will eat and eat and eat.

 

BA - map marker

What holiday traditions did you keep up when you became an adult?  Did you make big changes to the way things were done in your childhood home?

You Might Also Like

5 Comments

  • Reply Ellen McBride November 6, 2016 at 9:43 pm

    Ah! Thanksgiving! Yes, it is a wonderful tradition and, as you most eloquently stated, it really is not ALL about the food. It is a cherished traditional holiday that includes special foods shared with friends and family. While growing up, it always included football, recognition of the fall harvest, something about the Pilgrims of 1621, and being grateful. Since in America the holiday is a day off from work and we usually have the next three days off, too, it makes sense to have Thanksgiving meal on a Thursday. If I had to work, I would choose to hold the traditional holiday meal on a Saturday.
    The main thing for me is the warm feeling of being together and enjoying each other’s company while eating yummy food. I remember times when, as an adult, the holiday did not come off as planned . The traditional food was there, but the good feelings did not attend! Then, there were other Thanksgiving events that were filled with joy and laugher, as well as delightful food.
    The French meal-style of leisurely consuming eight small courses sounds very appealing. I wonder if I could create a wonderfully traditional Thanksgiving meal that mirrored the three hour meal. That seems like the best of both cultures, so long as good friends and family were participating!
    Enjoy the warmth of the season!

  • Reply Anna International November 7, 2016 at 4:30 pm

    This is so wonderful! I am so glad you are keeping your lovely feast day alive in your new home. I’m a Brit, but when I was living in Florence and attending a European university, my American friends asked me to host a little Thanksgiving party for them so they didn’t miss out. Great idea – I’d never done a Thanksgiving meal before, but we were only like 10 people and my apartment was big. Then each one suggested the other friends they’d like invited, and before you knew it, I had 49 people coming over for Thanksgiving dinner!!
    Since in Italy they don’t really do whole roast turkeys, I had to go to a butcher and order 4 specially, and then organise three friends with big ovens to cook one each for me on the day and bring it over. Other friends brought chairs and tables, others brought side dishes. The hardest thing was finding pecans, which they really don’t eat in Italy! I eventually found a guy in the Mercato Centrale who called them ‘Noci Americani’ (American nuts) and said he only stocked them for the visiting American students! My two giant pecan pies were extortionately expensive to make, but a real success!
    And all my worries about whether it would ‘work’ totally disappeared on the night – people from Spain, the UK, Ireland, Germany, Poland, Brazil, France, Italy, Azerbaijan, and others, all came together and got into the spirit of Thanksgiving, and it will endure as one of my favourite meals and evenings ever. I hope that yours will be the same, almost certain it will be! x

  • Reply Richard Alexander November 13, 2016 at 8:42 pm

    I really enjoyed reading this! The expat community in Clermont-Ferrand has long sponsored an annual Thanksgiving celebration, always on the Sunday following the American holiday with a lot of help from Christ Church. The best part of the event, for us, is that it is one of the rare times of the year when all the expatriates — American, British, Chinese, and others — get together with many of our French neighbors to share this particularly American expression. In the early years, we had to work with our French chefs to get the recipes “right” (and to get the turkey cut in a way that doesn’t look too alien!) — but the menu is authentic, and some of our best memories revolve around these events. Good for you for making it happen on your own terms!

  • Reply Girl Gone Gallic November 14, 2016 at 5:34 pm

    Can’t wait to hear how it all goes! I have also pondered have to have a real Thanksgiving in France, and you are right – it’s about the people and not the food. I’m sure it will be lovely 🙂

  • Reply Phoebe | Lou Messugo November 15, 2016 at 8:05 am

    This is the eternal conundrum of a multicultural couple/family, how to retain traditions, share them, adapt them and create new ones. The answer is always compromise, as in nearly every situation in a mixed couple. But this is your celebration and I think you should do it how YOU want and not how you think your French friends will like it. Explain to them how Americans do it and I’m sure they’ll be intrigued and delighted to share your tradition (even if they don’t want to eat like that every day!) The British Christmas dinner is similar to the US Thanksgiving one (turkey, cranberry sauce, potatoes etc all at the same time) and my Frenchie husband now prefers British Christmas traditions to French. It all takes time to find your own way to celebrate, but whatever you do I’m sure your French friends will love it. (Or they shouldn’t be your friends!!) I love forward to hearing how it turns out. Thanks for linking to #AlllAboutFrance

  • Leave a Reply