We planned our Thanksgiving in Paris for Saturday afternoon, so I woke up earlier than usual to pick up the second turkey at the butcher shop.
I’m all about saving time, so I was thrilled when my step-mother sent me a New York Times article that recommended a two turkey method which gives the hostess some freedom during the party. I wanted to make sure that our Thanksgiving meal was FUN for me, and not a day where I’m a slave to the kitchen. So, if that meant two turkeys, I was all for it!
Since the French don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, there are no frozen turkeys at the supermarket in November.
Early in the month, I went to the butcher counter in my local supermarket and specified that I wanted a turkey for an American Thanksgiving. I asked if I could order it there. One attendant looked at me with wide eyes and an excited grin and asked, “You mean like in the movies?” She made a shape with her hands that probably equated to a 30-pound bird. Her joy at the thought was really adorable. I nodded, and said, “Oui, exactement.” She shook her head and explained very kindly that I would have to order my turkeys in advance from a real butcher. The supermarket wouldn’t have any until just before Christmas if at all.
So, I went down the street to a traditional butcher shop with it’s display case packed with duck, sausage, beef, chicken and hams of all sorts, and asked about ordering a turkey.
It seemed like it was no problem at all for them.
The butcher asked me how big I wanted the turkey. I said I didn’t know, and told him it would be for 14 people (our original headcount). He nodded and asked if I wanted it stuffed or with the gizzards. No and yes. And, actually could I have two turkeys, and pick them up on different days? Yes, of course. So, “between 5 and 7 kilos each,” I remember him saying.
I agreed, trusting him implicitly, glad to have this process go so swimmingly.
Traditional Thanksgiving ingredients
While this was my first big Thanksgiving meal that I would serve without a parent to guide me, it was also my first Thanksgiving I would host in France. I had started looking for Thanksgiving food products back in October, just to make sure I would have time to find everything I needed. After discovering I could buy Stovetop stuffing, Ocean Spray cranberry sauce and French’s fried onions with relative ease, I relaxed quite a bit. These are easy and tasty options for a low-stress Thanksgiving, so I felt my big affair might not be to CRAZY an adventure after all.
A few weeks in advance, I spent hours researching Thanksgiving recipes and reading comments, attempting to find the best recipe, or create the best combination of recipes. Someone asked me if I felt pressure to chose difficult and fancy recipes because my parents went to the Culinary Institute of America (one of the best culinary schools in North America).
I wondered about this, but no, their experience taught me to focus on hosting a great party rather than providing an unparalleled culinary experience.
However, I realized I felt a little pressure from having French guests. The French are known for showing off their culinary talents when guests come over, and they seem to always serve absolutely delicious food. How could I serve a mediocre Thanksgiving meal to French people? If it was terrible, they’d never want to have Thanksgiving again! The stakes were high!
What I never anticipated was how challenging it would be to find the necessary tools for cooking the turkey and the pies.
I went to about a dozen different stores, including two professional kitchen suppliers, three stores that exclusively sell kitchen items, and several big box stores to find everything I needed. Eventually I found a large stockpot for the soup, a cheap immersion blender, a single-use aluminum roasting pan, a baster, a serving dish for the green bean casserole, a funnel for the broth, and a little pitcher to use as a second gravy service.
In the end, I was at a real loss for a foldable poultry rack and pie tins. The French don’t serve pie with crusts that are at a 45-degree angle. A French “tarte” has a 90-degree vertical crust, and there is no lip on the pie forms to make pretty crust shapes like we have in the US.
In the back of a narrow and tightly packed low-cost home goods store in the 19th arrondissement, I was able to find a metal baking form with an 80 degree angle and a little lip for the crust. It was entirely too deep (about 3”), but I bought it as a backup in case American pie tins never materialized.
The week before the event, I commented on Instagram about my search for pie tins, and I @-mentioned an American store called Thanksgiving in Paris in my comment. They replied a day later to say they carried three different types of pie tins. I was elated!
My husband and I took a stroll across the Seine into the Marais to buy two and to pick up another can of cranberry sauce and another box of Stove Top.
Sure enough, they had all the Thanksgiving food an American might need AND they also had all of the necessary kitchen supplies as well! They are definitely the go-to source for hosting a Thanksgiving in Paris. I should have gone there right from the start!
I picked up a gravy fat separator, a foldable poultry rack, two glass pie forms, and all the additional ingredients we would need. My husband eyed the root beer but somehow he held back from buying it. All of the prices for cooking supplies were totally reasonable, whereas the prices of the imported food products were as expensive as those at the McCoy Café (American food shop) in the 7th.
Advanced food prep
My teaching schedule just so happened to be empty on the day of Thanksgiving, so while everyone in France was busy working their normal workday, I was busy in the kitchen preparing the first turkey, making fresh broth for the soup and for the gravy, and baking two pumpkin pies.
The first turkey came out beautifully, with crisp skin and juicy meat. I tried a few small pieces as I carved it to store in a serving dish ready for Saturday. My recipe was admittedly overly complicated, however it turned out absolutely delicious. The flavor was incredible.
It was such a relief too, because I had merged several recipes together (from Martha Stewart, Alton Brown and Bon Appétit magazine) and didn’t really know if the flavors would come together. I tried the same thing with the gravy, combining several recipes, but unfortunately my Frankenstein gravy recipe was a total flop! Ooops! Live and learn!
Another culinary experiment I attempted that day was to try to add decorative leaf forms on the crusts of the pies. However, because I had used a pre-made crust, the dough wasn’t the right consistency and my leaves looked like strange blobs when the pies came out of the oven! Other than the puffy ivy leaves, the pies turned out beautifully and smelled amazing. It was so hard to not dig in immediately!
Turkey day (Saturday)
I had planned to replicate the same recipe with the second turkey: same time sitting in salt, same preparation, same cooking time, same everything. I had already prepared the butter herb rub and the vegetables that would cook in the pan.
To ensure I didn’t stress and that I enjoyed the event, almost everything was planned down to the minute and written down on a handy list. An experienced party planner, I had even prepared exactly which napkins, plates and silverware would be needed at different moments of the meal.
Knowing that this could get complicated, I had pre-wrapped forks and knives with napkins for easy distribution during the meal.
I was determined to have a Thanksgiving party I could enjoy!
Everything was in place
The Saturday morning of our big meal, the refrigerator was totally packed with the two pies, a serving dish piled high with the carved first turkey, the big pot of butternut squash soup and a green bean casserole I had prepared the night before. All I had to do the morning of the party was prepare the second turkey, pop the casserole in the oven, open some cans of cranberry sauce and boil the water for the stuffing. Simple enough!
With everything on schedule, the turkey would come out of the oven at the moment the guests were supposed to arrive, and I would be free to enjoy their presence. Boy did it feel good to know that in spite of Thanksgiving traditionally being a hectic moment for the cook, I was bucking that trend with my meticulous advanced planning. I felt so proud of myself for this minor miracle.
The second turkey
So there I was early Saturday morning with my unwashed hair piled up on top of my head, heading to pick up the second turkey. I was in a great mood, excited to celebrate Thanksgiving for the first time with my husband, and for the first time in Paris. It was a pleasure to see the butcher and the friendly cashier. I was floating in the clouds.
My glee took a nosedive when I saw the price was €30 more expensive than the first turkey. This bird was nearly twice the size of the first.
I was in shock. “How big is this turkey?!” I wondered to myself. I had ordered enough turkey for 14 and our final guest list only had 10. Even for 14, this seemed like entirely too much turkey.
I had a brief conversation with the butcher about my surprise that this turkey was so much bigger than the first, but there was nothing to do but take this huge bird back home and cook it!
While the price was a shocker, what most upset me was the big difference in the sizes of the two turkeys.
Everything about my cooking arrangements was based on the idea that the second turkey would be exactly the same size as the first turkey!
Suddenly my whole schedule was off and my excitement for the meal simmered down into a frosty panic.
(This is, in retrospect, absolutely hilarious to me. What a charade!)
Upon leaving the shop, I started recalculating the timing.
I would have to eliminate about an hour of “sit out to get to room temperature and to soak in the salt” time. Then I would have to increase the cooking time to compensate for the turkey being so ridiculously huge. If I worked quickly and got the turkey in the oven sooner than planned, maybe I could still have it out before the guests arrived.
I arrived home and set to work stuffing it with my prepared herb branches and cut vegetables. Then, I started to put the herb butter under the skin in an attempt to get the turkey in the oven as soon as possible. The herb butter part of the recipe is time consuming and really gross. I have no idea how much this technique contributed to the delicious flavor of the first turkey, but I didn’t want to risk losing any flavor, so I finished this disgusting task as quickly as I could. Finally, the turkey was fully prepared on the rack and covered in the cheesecloth dripping white wine and butter into the disposable roasting pan.
When I picked it up to move it to the oven, the pan bent from the sheer weight of the turkey.
As I pushed the pan in and closed the door I could hear the wine butter mixture dripping to the bottom of the oven and see steam and smoke fill the oven. The poultry rack had pierced a hole in the bottom of the pan and as I closed the oven door, I could see the drips sizzling on the hot metal and smell a hint of burnt butter.
I turned my back to the oven and held my head with my hands. I couldn’t think, and just wanted to believe that nothing was wrong.
“Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” Another delay! The whole schedule of my day was completely destroyed all because the turkey was so big!
At this moment my husband came out of the bedroom rubbing his eyes in a sleepy haze, and asked what was wrong. I just shook my head with an angry stare at the ceiling. Somehow I managed to let out, “the pan broke” in my silent fury.
My husband, wanting to help, offered to go and buy a new pan. However I knew that even if he ran the entire trip to the Marais and back, it would delay the roasting at least another 30-40 minutes. The size of the bird had already set my schedule off course; I couldn’t accept another big delay.
I came to and focused on what needed to be done: we absolutely had to secure the bottom of the pan. I asked my husband removed the roasting pan from the oven, and he set it on the counter.
Working quickly, I moved the turkey and rack to a serving dish, removed the vegetables into a big bowl, and began rinsing out the pan. Meanwhile, we turned the oven off so my husband could clean the burnt butter from the bottom.
I bent the pan back to its original shape and folded the edges of two long pieces of tin foil together to form a sealed large sheet. First I wrapped the pan lengthwise, then for extra security, I sealed another two pieces and wrapped the pan in the opposite direction.
For one final layer of protection, we placed the newly lined roasting pan on the solid metal oven shelf. Perhaps we were safe from further messes of burnt butter and wine. My husband pushed the turkey back in the lukewarm oven just barely on my original timetable.
There was no way it would finish cooking before my guests arrived.
I would definitely be basting it long after the beginning of our cocktail hour. So much for relaxing on Thanksgiving!
Nonetheless, I breathed a sigh of relief. The turkey was finally in the oven, and it was Thanksgiving! Possibly my favorite holiday, my excitement for the event started to come back and I began focusing on the other last minute preparations needed to receive our company.
When the French attend an American Thanksgiving
About 10 days before the event, I had emailed all of my French guests with a really long explanation *in French* of what Thanksgiving is and what it entails. I had received a question about bringing gifts, and another comment that “it’s just a big family meal”. Thanksgiving is not “just” anything and I wanted to set the record straight!
I started by explaining who the guests would be and that we’d speak in French rather than English – necessary since a few guests spoke only very basic English.
Since French meals are often served differently than American meals, I included a couple of paragraphs about this including a special note to announce that there would be no cheese plate before dessert – a very typically French part of any formal meal. I also made sure to explain that a Thanksgiving meal lasts an entire afternoon, and even gave them a rough time estimate for dessert so that they could plan their day accordingly. Nobody wants their guests to leave early, so I thought it best to over communicate about these important details.
Written in a moment of courage, I also explained how Thanksgiving is often a collaborative meal and I invited my guests to contribute. This was the most difficult part of the message to write, since this is very far from the French norms. It is customary for guests here to bring wine, champagne or dessert, but not side dishes or hors d’œuvres, which is what I was asking for.
I gave suggestions about what they could bring and explained that the one American guest had already agreed to bring several items. I hoped a little peer pressure would bend the French will towards the American way…
Lastly I gave a brief summary of what Thanksgiving is all about and the importance of the event in American culture.
The responses to my email were all very positive and everyone heartily agreed to bring an element or two of the meal. It felt like the collaborative affair I’m used to back in the US, and raised my hopes of having a “real” Thanksgiving in Paris.
Let the party begin!
The American and her French husband and French friend arrived first. We set up her crock-pot filled with mashed potatoes on the counter, next to her homemade dinner rolls. And we put her blueberry pie in the bedroom next to my two pumpkin pies on the dresser-turned-dessert-table.
Soon, other guests started to arrive, and we set out a number of cocktail hour munchies. We offered everyone champagne and wine, and the party started off quite nicely with lots of simple snacks.
The guests hadn’t met before, so I had everyone put on nametags.
It seemed silly, but because I had never met some of the spouses before, my Swiss-cheese-brain loved seeing everyone’s names so easily!
Throughout the cooking of the turkey, I found it challenging to baste it every 30 minutes with the butter wine mixture, because I was very distracted with so many things happening at once: turkey basting, welcoming guests, serving drinks, laying out the food that arrived, checking the gravy recipe, … and repeat.
I apologized to my guests for focusing on the stove so much and for having my back to them. And in my very silly and playful way, I told them about all the craziness of my morning with the enormous turkey. Everyone was forgiving and pleasant about it all, which was a nice relief.
As for me, in spite of being busy at the stove, I was quite happy to have everyone there to celebrate.
It was a real Thanksgiving!
Finishing up the cooking
Once I thought the turkey was nearly done, I tested the inner thigh with my instant thermometer. To be sure, the turkey needed another 20 minutes to be cooked to juicy perfection. I shut the oven and went back to attending to my guests, preparing the stuffing, heating up the soup and making gravy.
Unfortunately multitasking while hosting a party is not one of my strengths and I forgot to set a timer to remind me to take the turkey out of the oven.
At some point, I realized my mistake and opened the oven to see that the thermometer was STILL in the turkey! And it was broken! The plastic top was severely cracked and had bulged from the heat.
The turkey itself was definitely done cooking and was probably even overcooked!
I felt so deflated. Not only would we have entirely too much turkey, it was probably dry! What a disappointment!
(Again, in retrospect, this makes me laugh: who would believe the story could get worse?!)
I silently threw out the thermometer, and quietly asked my husband to move the turkey – oven shelf and all – over to the cutting board that sat like a shelf over the sink. I wouldn’t carve it yet because there was still so much to do to get the show on the road!
Still attempting to have the meal served at 2pm, I ladled some gravy into the serving dish filled with the pre-cooked first turkey, covered it with aluminum foil and pushed it onto the bottom of the oven, with the green bean casserole on the shelf with the corn bread. This time I set a timer!
I also finished up the stuffing and suggested to my guests that we start the meal!
Starting the feast
The first course was a roasted butternut squash soup. I served it in small disposable bowls I bought just for the occasion. (The waste hurt a little, but between not even having 10 bowls and not having a dishwasher, it seemed like the only option.)
The butternut squash soup recipe that I used was a recipe that I created based on about 8-10 recipes I found online. It turned out incredible. Everyone complimented us on the flavor and my husband in particular adored it. I’ve made it again since and it was just as good.
For the main course, everything was laid out buffet style. With 10 people around the table there was barely enough room for everyone’s plates, their drinks, the cranberry sauce and the gravy.
The sides served were green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, stuffing (also known as dressing), big dinner rolls, cornbread, and roasted Brussels sprouts. At about this point, those who had started with champagne switched to red wine.
To my greatest surprise and frustration, the second gigantic turkey just sat there and looked pretty for the entire meal.
We never even touched the second turkey! Even after everyone got seconds there were still at least 3 servings left from the first turkey. I know our guest list had diminished by 4 people, but that could not account for all the turkey we had leftover.
So much for trusting the butcher with portion control. I couldn’t believe he had essentially doubled the amount needed. Later my husband told me, “Well, French butchers are notorious for selling you more than you actually need!” Oh really? I learned that lesson the hard way!
(Unfortunately that wasn’t the end of the turkey drama.)
After the main course, we took a break from eating in order to chat and make hand turkeys, something American children are apt to do in school the week of Thanksgiving. The American guest had suggested it and had scoured Paris for feathers and googlie eyes we could add for pizazz.
The French were totally willing to play along with our silly project, but were a bit bewildered at first about what the task was exactly. On the one hand, none of us could remember what a turkey looked like and on the other hand, these French adults had never made a hand turkey before.
One person asked what turkeys look like, and someone said that when making and turkeys, it is cheating to look at a photo of a real turkey for inspiration. So, in an effort to help, I searched Google for “hand turkey” and showed everyone the ugliest one I could find. I hoped to reduce performance anxiety by setting the expectations very low!
That set everyone off on a path toward playful art-making. We joked and took photos of our masterpieces.
Thanksgiving isn’t “real” or even finished unless there is pumpkin pie served with loads of whipped cream.
In my family, I am known for eating more whipped cream than pie, and I was determined to keep this important tradition in France. I still do not know if there are spray cans of whipped cream in the grocery store in France: I’ve never looked. While planning the meal, I knew right from the start that I wanted to serve freshly whipped cream for this Thanksgiving.
Since I had never made freshly whipped cream in my life, my intention had been to attempt this noisy feat before guests arrived. But the turkey fiasco had laid all my best intentions to waste. Right before serving the pies, I retreated to the bathroom with my hand mixer, a lot of cream, my chilled metal bowl and the secret ingredient: maple syrup!
However, after five minutes of whipping, the cream never started to thicken. I went back to the living room to check my recipe online, but I was doing everything right. Back to the bathroom to whip some more. Cream had splattered tiny white dots on the sink and the mirror, and on me, but still it would not thicken. After another 10 minutes my husband came to check on me and we decided to cut the cream in half and only whip one part of it at a time. Five more minutes and success! We had beautifully thick whipped cream with a hint of maple syrup.
In addition to my two pumpkin pies and the blueberry pie, a guest had brought a pumpkin sponge cake. Served with the whipped cream, and a coffee or tea, this dessert spread was just the right ending to a fantastic Thanksgiving feast!
At the end of the meal our guests generously offered to clean up the kitchen, which was very welcome! I didn’t expect that at all, and felt so grateful for their offer.
I just needed to move that second turkey off the sink to clear the area. With one careful move, I lifted the solid metal oven shelf and turned toward the other counter to place it out of the way.
But the liquid pouring onto my feet stopped me dead in my tracks.
In a rather emotional squeal I asked where it was coming from.
The turkey juices had leaked out of the roasting pan and had been safely sitting in the shallow oven shelf until I unknowingly tipped the contents all over my feet and the kitchen floor.
I was so embarrassed to have both made (another) ridiculous mess and delayed my helpers in achieving their generous mission to clean the dishes.
Romain set to work immediately cleaning the floor as I set the turkey down and tried to clean myself off and help him with the floor as well.
The second turkey had left its final mark on us that evening.
The party ended with my incredibly generous guests cleaning and drying nearly every dirty dish in the house. Our kitchen looked fabulous, our bellies were full, and my heart was brimming to burst with all the love and enjoyment of hosting!
And now, looking back, how fortunate to have bought that second turkey! What would my first Thanksgiving be without an absurd story to laugh at and tell in years to come?!