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It isn’t that easy. And it isn’t that cheap.
Sooner or later Americans living in France decide they’d like to invite some French acquaintances for a real, American-style Thanksgiving meal.
Very quickly they are likely to discover that it isn’t that easy — or cheap. Having just lived this year through this perilous exercise, let me explain how it works — or doesn’t work as the case may be. Next year you’ll be prepared.
Let’s start with the question of the turkey. Never think for a minute that in France you just go out to the store and buy one.
The French eat a lot of turkey for Christmas. But most of the turkey suppliers (many of whom are not even in France, but in eastern Europe) time their feeding and fattening-up schedules to have their birds ready for sale only near the end of December, not the end of November.
They are thinking Christmas, not Thanksgiving.
In Paris, a certain number of butchers plan ahead for some November turkey sales to American expatriates because they know that large numbers of Americans live permanently or temporarily in the French capital.
Paris is, after all, headquarters for an American embassy, various international organizations with American representatives and a large number of American firms or organizations with operations in France.
That’s why, when my French wife and I used to live in Paris and invite French friends with Thanksgiving experience from their various sojourns in the United States to share the holiday with us, we had no problems.
It’s something else in the French provinces. We live in Normandy now and learned the hard way this year that considerable advance planning is required for Thanksgiving outside the capital.
When we invited four of our French neighbors, all unfamiliar with the American ritual, to come and share Thanksgiving with us, we suddenly found ourselves with the turkey problem on our hands.
The one butcher in the nearest town tried mightily to help us. He called three different wholesale suppliers. None, however, could provide him a turkey before the Christmas season.
While we were in his shop a fourth supplier walked in and, on request, called back to his headquarters. No luck there either. The meat of a turkey provided now, he said, simply wouldn’t be tender or juicy enough for Thanksgiving consumption.
After further unsuccessful trips to every butcher within a 10-mile radius of our home we finally found one —— by telephone —— some 20 miles away —— who promised to provide us a turkey for the day
We were lucky. He had been through this exercise before because his village is near the house and gardens of famed French impressionist painter, Claude Monet —— a tourist site that draws around half a million visitors —— vast numbers of them Americans —— to the area each year.
To his credit, he delivered as promised. To our dismay, the cost for a specially ordered nine-pound bird was 68 Euros or roughly 88 dollars at the day’s exchange rate. That was well more than double what we used to pay in Paris.
When we got over our shock, however, we still had facing us the questions of sweet potatoes, corn-on-the-cob, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. Not exactly every day fare in France. (Not for the pilgrim fathers either, according to historians. But that’s another story.)
Well, we thought, optimistically —— although we are far out in the country we still have three super-markets within a 15-minute drive. Certainly we could solve our problems there. Not exactly.
One did, indeed, have some corn-on-the-cob. Of course, we’re not talking here about fresh corn still enveloped in its leaves. The French consider that strictly food for animals. These were nicely cut, evenly sized, spotlessly clean corn cobs all packaged, pre-cooked and ready for re-heating as a sort of exotic foreign delicacy. But we were in no mood to be fussy.
All the supermarkets had pumpkins of one size or another. But they were available as decoration, not pie material. Potatoes were on hand in all shapes and sizes, but no sweet potatoes. We settled for ones we could bake with the turkey.
Although American cranberry juice in bottles has found its place in French supermarkets within the last year or so, regular cranberries are still a rarity. It took another 20-mile drive to find some frozen ones in a specialized frozen foods store. They’d been specially imported from Sweden.
Then we were lucky again. One of our neighbors offered to contribute a home-made apple pie. Great! Dessert problem solved but, to stay with tradition, my wife insisted we at least lay on a pumpkin soup.
Small difficulty. The local stores didn’t have just one brand of pumpkin soup. They had six different ones each linked to another kind of companion vegetable.
My wife does not like easy solutions such as simply choosing one. So, only one thing to do —— go through six pre-Thanksgiving nights of tasting each variation. The winner: a combination of pumpkin and chestnut soup which we spiced up with a bit of muscat.
Maybe you can get by Thanksgiving in America without wine to drink. After all, the pilgrims did. But for French guests, it is another story.
Happily we remembered a store only 15 miles away that stocked a dazzling array of products from French vineyards, but also —— as a curiosity —— a few bottles of Gallo red California wine. Not only that, it was good enough to win compliments from our French neighbors.
We were getting there. Now just one thing needed to be added —— the televised American football game. Happily, in our basement we retrieved an old video-tape recording of a San Francisco 49ers game given to us by our son, a rabid 49ers fan.
Now the one remaining difference from a typical American Thanksgiving was the men’s gallant decision at the end of the meal not to send the women to the kitchen to do the dishes while we watched the game on the living room television set.
Actually there were two differences. After 10 minutes or so the women asked, and the men agreed, gallantly again, to turn it off.
This Franco-American business can only go so far. Even on Thanksgiving.