Turkey Tips & Thanksgiving Memories from Americans in Paris

Turkey Tips & Thanksgiving Memories from Americans in Paris

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Thanksgiving meal
Thanksgiving vintage postcard/ public domain

The fourth Thursday in November is just another Thursday in Paris. But to Americans in Paris, of course, it is Thanksgiving, and most of them find a way to celebrate it anyway.

I decided to check in with a few of my American friends in Paris to see what they’re doing this Thanksgiving; what special Thanksgiving-in-Paris memories they might like to share, and to gather tips that might be helpful for other Americans in Paris at this time of year.

Not surprisingly, passionate as most Americans are about Thanksgiving, I got wonderfully lively responses. Here are some highlights:

Talking Turkey: The Meal

It used to be hard to find turkey in Paris. Karen Fawcett, a founder and former publisher of Bonjour Paris, remembers, “My mother brought a Butterball turkey into the country for me—from Washington!–when I first lived in France. At that time turkeys were not common, they were tiny, and they cost a fortune.  But this was 1989, before French farmers started marketing turkey as the ‘other white meat.’”  Asked how her mother got that bird through customs, her answer is succinct. “It was a long time ago. And she charmed them.” Gary Lee Kraut, a travel and culture journalist, tour creator and editor of France Revisited, also remembers a friend bringing a frozen turkey from the U.S. in her suitcase, years ago. “I don’t know if that would be possible anymore,” he says.

Thanksgiving Turkey
Thanksgiving Turkey by Ruocaled/Flickr

Gerry and Joanne Dryansky are the authors of Coqilles, Calva and Crème: A Love Affair with Real French Food. But their traditional Thanksgiving dinner is as American as, well, apple pie. “The fare is classic: stuffed farm turkey, candied sweet potates, etc. with everything done from scratch by Joanne. Everything!” Gerry says. The Dryanskys make a sauce from airelles rather than cranberries “because you couldn’t get cranberries easily in France for years, and airelles are actually much more tasty.”  Their butcher, Patrick, at La Boucherie de la Tour Eiffel, has a source for farm birds. “It’s a problem getting them big enough for a crowd, but he gets it done,“ Gerry says.

David Downie, tour guide and author of A Passion for Paris: Romanticism and Romance in the City of Light, as well as many other books about Paris, and his wife, photographer Alison Harris, celebrate Thanksgiving with friends, either in Paris or Burgundy. “We get a range-raised turkey from a farmer or from our butcher in Paris, who is used to dealing with Americans. You can find pretty much everything else needed, including cranberries, in any decent Paris market,” he says. “We have no trouble finding ingredients on the Rue St-Antoine.”

Adrian Leeds, French property consultant, author of the Parler Paris Nouvellettre (among others), and a popular host on HGTV’s House Hunters International, has been in Paris for 21 years. For many of those years she hosted a Thanksgiving dinner for friends and family in her Paris apartment. The last few years she’s spent Thanksgiving at an American friend’s home in Provence, but she was happy to share her tips for Thanksgiving in Paris. “French free-range turkeys are large in size, but lighter in weight than American turkeys,” she says. “The meat is leaner, darker, juicier and cooks in HALF the time, I swear! Perhaps because the meat isn’t as dense, although this is just a guess.”

According to Adrian, sweet potatoes are relatively easy to find, “and least expensive if you look in the markets catering to West Africans, for example, the one on rue Dejean in the 18th arrondissement, at Metro Château Rouge.” The “fixin’s” (cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie filling, etc.) can be found through MyLittleAmerica.com or MyAmericanMarket.com. And if you’d rather leave all the cooking and clean-up to the restaurants, she recommends Joe Allen or Breakfast in America. “But you’d have to reserve soon!”

Ocean Spray Cranberry Sauce
Ocean Spray Cranberry Sauce

Editor’s Note: A number of Paris restaurants serve Thanksgiving feasts: Philippe Excoffier, who was the chef at the American embassy for many years; Harry’s New York BarRalph’sCoffee Club; and Hotel de Sers. The American Church in Paris also organizes a Thanksgiving meal. And Fauchon, the gourmet emporium, has created a decadent feast– including a beautiful orange-pumpkin dessert called le Mister Chou– for delivery between the 19th and 25th of November.

As for the calendar, does Thanksgiving have to celebrated on Thursday? “Whenever I’m in the U.S. with family we have Thanksgivings, plural, with three or four different full-blown Thanksgiving dinners or full-blown leftovers,” says Gary Lee Kraut. “It’s a tradition that I continue in Paris, particularly since Thursday is a workday here: so Friday, Saturday, and even Sunday are acceptable days of Thanksgiving.” This year he’ll be giving a D-Day tour in Normandy on Thanksgiving day to a British-American family, followed by a delicious Norman meal that evening. He’s hosting a Thanksgiving dinner on Friday, and is invited to another one on Saturday. “And there are sure to be leftovers to share for Sunday,” he says.

Fauchon Thanksgiving turkey
Thanksgiving turkey, courtesy of Fauchon

The Guests

As at home, the best Thanksgiving meals offer not only an abundance of food and wine, but an abundance of people. When in France, naturally some of those guests would include Frenchmen and women. Or, it could be the reverse. “For years I was the token American at a Thanksgiving dinner organized by a Frenchwoman who’d grown fond of the holiday,” says Gary Lee Kraut. “Now, good company counts far more than passport, but it’s nice to have at least one other American at the table.”

I asked my sources for some of the most memorable remarks their French guests had made over the years. “The French think of American food as high-caloric, low-skill, rustic fare, with a heavy hand on the sugar, whether in dessert or not, and a Thanksgiving meal only confirms that,” says Gary Lee Kraut. “Two comments I’ve frequently heard: ‘This is like Christmas without the presents, n’est ce pas?’ and ‘What kind of wine do you serve with it?’” David Downie remembers one elegant Frenchwoman recoiling visibly at the sight of melted marshmallows on the baked yams. “Mon Dieu,” she said. “What are those?! Is that required eating?” And Karen Fawcett remembers one of her guests remarking, “Thank God you serve a lot of champagne.” (“It was a sincere comment,” she adds.)

Fauchon's Mister chou dessert for Thanksgiving
Fauchon’s Mister chou dessert for Thanksgiving/ courtesy of Fauchon

The Drama

Thanksgiving wouldn’t quite be Thanksgiving without some kind of drama, would it? David Downie remembers being invited to a Thanksgiving meal where a prominent writer was an honored guest. The problem was, the honored guest didn’t show up until 10 pm, and the party of 20 very hungry other guests were made to wait for him to show up “and swan around” before dinner was served. And a few years ago Karen Fawcett wrote in Bonjour Paris about the first Thanksgiving dinner she hosted in Paris, when she was determined that “defeat would not be mine,” but fate seemed to have other things in mind. You can read the whole amusing account here. Still, with the perspective gained in 20 years, she remembers that dinner as “a roaring success. In fact, it was the best Thanksgiving we ever had, as 20 people were stuffed into our dining area, which usually seats eight.”

And so, there you have it: food, guests, drama. What else is there?

Oh, yes, gratitude. That’s really what it’s all about isn’t it? And so, whatever you do, wherever you are, don’t forget to be grateful. That’s really the best thing about Thanksgiving.

Photo credits: Thanksgiving Turkey by Ruocaled/Flickr; Thanksgiving turkey by icoNYCa/Flickr

Thanksgiving turkey
Thanksgiving turkey by icoNYCa/Flickr
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Janet Hulstrand is a freelance writer, editor and teacher who divides her time between France and the U.S. She is the author of "Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You," and she writes frequently on France for a variety of publications, including her blog, Writing from the Heart, Reading for the Road. She teaches “Paris: A Literary Adventure” for the education abroad program of Queens College of the City University of New York; classes at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C.; and Writing from the Heart workshop/retreats in Essoyes, a beautiful little village in the Champagne region (l’Aube).

6 COMMENTS

  1. Janet, great article! I couldn’t help but recall the lovely meal prepared for our group in Essoyes in 2010 when our hosts threw a farewell dinner for us in the ‘Thanksgiving’ style–using guinea hens instead of turkeys–but wonderful in both taste and sentiment. However the French see our tradition of the Thanksgiving meal, it has become synonymous with American-style celebration. Cheers to you! Happy Thanksgiving.

  2. I like your article. May I contribute as a French who has lived in the US ans still celebrate every year ?
    To be honest I have never been a fan of turkey meat ; for years I have ordered at the American school of Paris in St Cloud Garches (fund raiser) as Parisian butchers don’t offer most of the time turkeys in November and they are too small to feed the crowd.
    I prefer to substitute guinea fowls. Tastier. Of course I buy several, I can propose more legs as French like dark meat. (I always have a mix of French and international guests).
    Last year i presented guinea fowls with whiskey, orange and black currant sauce, very much appreciated. Of course with all the “potirons” trimmings (rather than citrouille), mash potatoes, corn bread, Apple pie and more. And last, we celebrate on Saturday for lunch.

    I am so happy it is Thanksgiving time again… Love it ! Enjoy yours !!

    • In the 50’s there used to be a chain of food shops called “Pam Pam” (I think that’s correct) and as Jr. Year Abroad students, my roommate and I went for “Thanksgiving Dinner”. Not bad, and soothed the sort of homesickness one might feel on that day!

  3. Thanks for your kind words, Renee, and thanks to you too, Martin! As it turns out I will be celebrating in France this year with a mixed group of French/American friends. Your suggestions about guinea hens/fowl are going to be very helpful in planning our meal, I think! Many thanks to both of you, and wishing you the happiest of Thanksgivings! 🙂

  4. Dear Janet, thanks for your “thanks” All of these kind emails were “before”… But We still need to celebrate, exchange friendship and cultures, love and life, even more now ! (see David Lebovitz post about feeling the urge to bake a Pecan pie)
    This year my Thanksgiving is all about “orange color and Potiron” start with Pumpkin bread and foie gras ( we’re in France), pumpkin soup and Lobster on toast with campari and orange sauce.
    Then Guinea fowls served with Sweet potato purée and mashed potato ( yes not fully orange…), Corn bread, and some roasted pumpkin with grapes and sage ( recipe from Village Tearoom in New Paltz, NY).
    Dessert will be pumpkin ice cream, with mini pumpkin pies and orange macarons filled some with pumpkin marmalade, others with Orange preserve.
    Will be only 8 with Canadians, French, Americans. We plan to share Love and celebrate Life.

  5. In all the years I fed in Paris it was crucial to have a Tday. Almost all the people at my tiny apt were French, I didn’t know Americans. ( purposely, I wanted to really only speak french so I felt that Americans would dilute that.) Anyway, I would at some point go to London to Harrods to buy cranberry sauce in cans, you know the jelly one with the rings…Turkey was thru a french friend who knew a farmer outside of Paris who had a couple of Turkeys every year. Sweet potatoes were bought thru an African market, and marshmallows were brought over by some American friend at some point who was visiting Paris ( who also brought me my Hellmans mayonnaise the only American food I couldn’t live with out).. Every year I got much grief for the marshmallows on top of the sweet potatoes, not a french way at all… but it was the one thing I was clear on, an American tradition. !! I did incorporate some french food, we didn’t have chestnut stuffing when I was at home, but I loved that so en voila! And haricots were more french. The wine was french, and the deserts were contributed so no pumpkin pie or apple,,, but delicious.Great memories!

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