Thanksgiving à la Provençal

Thanksgiving à la Provençal
The French do not celebrate Thanksgiving, a distinctly American and Canadian holiday. They also rarely eat whole turkeys, though they gobble the same revolting turkey parts from mass-produced birds that are sold so cheaply and briskly in the States as well, often as substitutes for veal in such memorable dishes as turkey osso buco, blanquette de turkey and turkey à la Prince Orloff. If the French eat whole turkeys at all, it’s during the Christmas holidays. This year was my fourth Thanksgiving in Provence; already I have developed my own traditions, much as I did when I lived in New York. People frequently ask if I find it hard to be here alone, presuming I have a loving and happy extended family back in the States. For too many years, when I lived in the U.S., I approached holidays with heartache and dread. To say the relatives in whose presence I tried to grow were dysfunctional is to be kind.  On more than one occasion half the family departed before we sat down to the meal. My parents and brothers looked forward each year to gleefully plotting which family members they wouldn’t invite to the upcoming family holiday event.  When I still lived in the States, starting in October, magazines, newspapers and broadcast media would feature advice on “how to survive the holidays,” filled with strategies for “surviving” one’s relatives, “surviving” being single (as if that were an affliction), “surviving” being on a diet, eating disordered, newly sober, divorced, or unemployed, a whole host of potential pain to endure so one could chew on a piece of rubbery bird with one’s FAMILY!  In all probability, the original idea behind declaring a celebratory day was not to create a dreaded obligatory event that would somehow have to be “survived.”  Survival implies grave risk to one’s health, well-being and continued existence, sort of along the lines of why (as one version has it) the Pilgrims decided to set the day aside to give thanks in the first place.  But in the nearly 400 years since, the day itself has become what many in America feel they need to give thanks for surviving.    And in those four intervening centuries, we  have also stuffed ourselves with a high-caloric meal of myths.  More than any other holiday, the significance, origin, meaning–even the customs, menu and date–of American Thanksgiving has shifted, been invented and reinvented according to the various social, political, military, economic and historical needs of the time.  If there is anything truly American about this holiday, it’s the creative, inventive and regenerative spirit of the day and the many purposes it has been put to serve.  Like so many others, I too long believed an unhappy family was better than no family and that family defined home.  No matter how trite, the search for home must be within; home is not a place so much as a state of being, a way of feeling about oneself and the world. It’s easy to become trapped into feeling unworthy or incapable of making a comfortable life for oneself, to become convinced good things are for other people, people in couples, people with families, good jobs, money, youth, good health, good looks, whatever. Thanksgiving, appropriately, given its role in America’s history, was the first “family” holiday I reclaimed for my own, long before I moved to Provence. One of my New York traditions was to cook a huge Thanksgiving dinner for the homeless people I knew wouldn’t go to the “public” turkey-day charity dinners. Many of these were transvestite prostitutes who lived in a cardboard-box colony along the rotting Hudson River piers not far from my West Village apartment. Some years I accepted invitations to friends’; others I decided to unplug the phone and savor the solitude and peace of the day, which I often extended into a four-day vacation at home.  Here in Nyons, Lydie has Christmas at her house, actually a feudal chateau, and I have Thanksgiving here. This is already a tradition. My close friend and former New Yorker, Laurie, who is half Cherokee Indian and married to a Frenchman, has an honored place at the table; the other guests are from assorted countries, my only stipulation being that for this holiday English must be the language spoken at the dinner table. Mary and Maurice, other close friends who live in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne half the year and half the year in Nyons, always came wearing aprons, Mary’s labelled “scullery maid” and Maurice’s “maitre d’,” volunteering every year to wash the dishes. There was always much laughter and joking at this excellent “hired couple” I had “working” for me. Last Fall this great tradition was shattered when Maurice suddenly died. This year Mary returned with her scullery maid’s apron and came over early on Thursday to help  get ready. We were both in a giddy festive mood despite the pain of Maurice’s absence and had great fun with the final touches, Mary scraping cat hair off the velvet chaise lounge, making sarcastic comments all the while about the number of cats living in the house (only six!) and me trying to get the gravy made from scratch to my perfectionist satisfaction. I had been cooking and cleaning all week and loving every minute of…
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