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.
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!”
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 Bar; Ralph’s; Coffee 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.
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.)
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.