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 it. I’d scoured the markets for fresh local ingredients: pumpkin squash, celery root, potatoes; wild mushrooms, onions, chestnuts, walnuts, celery (which in France is sold by the stalk), crème fraîche, garlic, roquefort sausage and fresh herbs from my garden for the stuffing made with pain levain from the boulangerie around the corner. Tuesday I set the table complete with Martha Stewart turkey place cards downloaded from the Internet and the exquisite antique brown hand-tinted turkey transferware dinner plates Lydie had given me as a gift before she left for the States. The fresh flowers–anemones and ranunculus, which are now in season–I would buy Thursday morning at the market. Monday evening I’d spent polishing the silverware which now glistened on the heavy dark tapestry tablecloth with its medieval troubadors on horseback surrounded by lush flowers and trees and exotic birds. I placed some almond-tree cuttings heavy with pods, pine cones and pyracantha I’d gathered on the table as well. Then I firmly closed the dining-room door, the temptation of an elegantly set table being an irresistible allure for the cats, who spent the next two days lurking outside in the hopes they could sneak in.
Early Wednesday morning, Emily, my Westie, and I went for a brisk walk along the river. It was bitter cold and there were small patches of ice along the river’s edge. Then I came home and started to cook. Much of the meal could be prepared ahead. My friend Renée, who’s Dutch, was bringing pumpkin pies for dessert, everyone was bringing wine and all I would need to cook Thursday were the turkey, stuffing and gravy. I began with the pumpkin soup, baking the pumpkin whole in the oven and then scraping out the flesh. I chopped sweet onions and garlic, sautéed them in butter, added chicken broth, white wine, cream and coconut milk and tossed in curry, a pinch of cayenne and pepper and salt, then whooshed it all in the food processor, correcting the seasoning as I went. While I cooked, there were seven pairs of eyes watching my every move. Jane was supervising from her throne on top of the refrigerator; Mr. Robbie Jackson was ensconced on top of the throw pillows in the easy chair; Emily was at my feet; the others came and went, checking for tidbits I might have unknowingly dropped on the floor. I prepared the potatoes and celeriac for a puree; made coleslaw with carrots, Savoy cabbage, dill, watercress and scallions, and prepared sweet potatoes. The cranberry sauce is always a problem; there is no such thing in France. There are cranberry-type berries, nasty little things, called airelles that are sometimes sold in what purports to be a sauce, but unless you like jam on your turkey I wouldn’t recommend it. Whenever friends visit from the States, they know to come armed with cans of Ocean Spray. This year I hit the jackpot as someone had given Lydie a bag of fresh-frozen Ocean Spray cranberries which had been sitting in my freezer since Christmas. I made my own cranberry sauce from scratch using sugar, an orange and Grand Marnier. It was splendid. While I worked, happily chopping, sautéing, mashing and snipping, I listened to Podcasts of the “Leonard Lopate Show” from NPR on my cute little pink toy, otherwise known in France an an “eee-pod.” Though they may not have realized it, Gena Rowlands, Bob Herbert, W.S. Merwin, Derek Walcott, Tony Judt, John Updike and Dame Judi Dench were honored guests in my Provençal kitchen. Less than five years ago, the concept of my ever having my own kitchen in Provence would have been entirely absurd, out of the question. At other points, the possibility I might live to be 20, then 25, 30 and 35 was equally unlikely, and yet, here I am. I have so much for which to be thankful.
I had invited a British woman who has lived here many years and considers herself to be a liberal, open-minded person. I had thought she was a good friend. We also shared many political beliefs, mainly an intense loathing of the Bush Administration and the damage it is doing at home and abroad. When I invited her for Thanksgiving, she told me, no, she wouldn’t be coming. She couldn’t morally take part in anything American, in something that might be perceived as celebrating the U.S. You know, said she, Americans are a terrible people, absolutely the worst; though, she added, of course, I was different; I wasn’t truly American. Really?
At first, I tried to argue, challenge, debate and explain. And then, I realized, what’s the point? Prejudice, bigotry and racism are what they are. She was no different. Contrary to her beliefs, racism is not only applicable when the color of one’s skin isn’t white and one’s economic riches are nil. I thought of my friends in America, the individual people I know, love and respect. A terrible people?
If anything, Thanksgiving is a time to give thanks, to be grateful for what we have that is good, to bless what we love and to forget, at least for one day, all that’s painful, divisive and sad. Yes, Nyons is far from New York in more ways than one. But what happened last Thursday here in my home, with friends at my table, made everyone feel, especially those who’d never been there, almost American and certainly close to its people. Quite frankly, for most of us, beyond those moments, what better is there?