An American Thanksgiving in Lyon
Thanksgiving , that quintessential American holiday, leaves the French bemused. As November rolled around each year I started getting quizzical looks and hesitant questions, even from those who asked the same questions last year: “Tell me again, what exactly is your Thanksgiving?” And I’m immediately sent back to grammar school and the Pilgrim play we put on every year for our parents, complete with tall black paper hats, Indian feathers snipped carefully out of yellow, red and green construction paper, and fat brown cardboard turkeys equipped with colorful tail feathers sticking out the back. I always wanted to be a Pilgrim, but usually ended up an Indian. They always seemed to be the good-guy-only-for-today; it took me years to understand that it worked both ways.
Trying to explain why the European newcomers invited the original homeowners to dinner tested my rudimentary French to the outer limits; defending (or not) subsequent United States policy regarding Native Americans was totally beyond me—for reasons above and beyond language.
Trying to find the ingredients for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner was more successful. I simply mentioned to Chantal, my friend and neighbor, that I didn’t know where to find a turkey and she took on the whole project as a mission. Wanting to show off France’s best for her American friends’ big holiday, she found a shop at Les Halles in Lyon that sells poultry from the Bresse and ordered a Bressan turkey for me to go pick up the day before Thanksgiving. Poultry from the Bresse region of central France is considered the very best of France, and is treated as such by the powers-that-be. Bresse poultry is raised with strict rules governing everything in the birds’ lives from the moment they hatch until the butcher hands over the wrapped parcel. They’re given exactly so much space per bird to stretch their wings in, exactly this food for this many weeks and then that food for that many weeks…
Perhaps fortunately, Chantal couldn’t go with me that day; had she been there, I’d have been doing my American Thanksgiving turkey the traditional French way: plucking it and chopping off all the parts that we spoiled American city-dwellers prefer to forget exist on something we’re about to eat, like the head and feet. As it was, I only managed to avoid that fate by fast footwork and fancy elementary-French-work—and that mysterious something by which all the French immediately ascertain that I’m American. I had simply to walk into a shop, and the proprietor would say, “Good morning.” Determined to be “French,” I’d start off with “Bonjour” and end with a rueful smile when asked “What would you like?”
I wandered around Les Halles that Wednesday, totally enchanted by all the marvelous food in one stall after another. Trailing my green granny-cart behind me, it was all I could do to make myself pass by cheeses and pastries to die for, exotic fish like sea urchins that people must actually eat, fabulous Burgundy and Beaujolais wine for two or five dollars a bottle, flowers and nuts and spices and olives… I had to force myself to concentrate on turkey. Locating the shop by the poultry hanging in the display case and the magic word, Bresse, I waited till Madame had presented the customer ahead of me with a neatly wrapped and tied package. She then looked me over head to toe, said “Good morning,” and disappeared into a refrigerator at the back of the shop. When she reappeared, it was with a large mound of black feathers surrounding an otherwise decidedly naked turkey—so cold-looking I swear it had goose-bumps! Madame held this treasure out for me to ooh and ahh over, knowing that it was for the American Thanksgiving and so pleased that it would be her turkey that would grace our table. Trying not to flinch, I smiled bravely and told her it was a “trÈs bien” turkey.
Now, I’m relatively hardened to the realities of French food-shopping and had seen dead poultry of all varieties in shop windows, head turned discretely to the side and feet tucked politely underneath, but it’s another thing entirely to be actually presented with the article. This bird came with head—beak, eyes and feathers included—and feet still attached, and Madame clearly intended that I would be the one to disengage all these accouterments. As I shook my head and said, “Non non—vous!”, her face fell and my stature as cook slipped several notches. When I added “Pas de tete!” Madame whacked off the head, and looked back at me hoping that that would be enough to satisfy, but I wasn’t settling for half a job. “Pas des pieds,” I said, using another phrase I considered survival-French, and one-by-one the feet went too. Madame then went to work on the tuft of feathers still decorating a few of the parts. After singeing off the last of those, she opened both ends of the bird, stuck in her hand, and pulled out…well, we’ll just allow a shudder to describe what emerged. The problem was that she then put some of it back! I wasn’t sure what it all was, but I knew that I’d have a plastic bag handy as I worked on it. When I opened the package the next day, I found that she had snuck in one blue foot complete with metal tag, proving that it was indeed a Bresse turkey—no one was going to be able to suggest that Madame had provided a lesser bird!
By the end of that day, I had in my refrigerator, one Bresse turkey—sans head, one foot and most of its feathers—sweet potatoes and white potatoes that I’d found at one of the stalls in Les Halles, and even a sack of cranberries that one of the stallholders brought in for the Americans in Lyon at Thanksgiving. We still had some cream cheese for my husband’s favorite salad, I had fresh broccoli in lieu of the frozen variety I was used to using, and marvelous French wine to celebrate not only the event but the location. A baguette, without which no meal in France is ever eaten, completed the menu, and with sleeves rolled up and a can-do attitude, I attacked the turkey. Sans cleaver, thank heaven.
Dinner turned out well, always a surprise considering that my sister was blessed with all of the family cooking genes, and our French friends were suitably impressed with the bountiful American Thanksgiving repas. Until dessert, that is. After all the dinner dishes were cleared, pumpkin pies were offered and greeted with expressions of anticipatory delight, and earned rave reviews when the last smidgeon of whipped cream was lapped up. Then Chantal asked for the recipe—and, trying to explain that she probably couldn’t get the same ingredients in Lyon, I showed her the can of pumpkin. She took one horrified look and said, “Pamela! You can get real pumpkin!” My French simply didn’t stand up to the task of explaining that canned pumpkin is as traditional as turkey, fresh pumpkin tastes different, I wouldn’t know how to use fresh anyway, I wouldn’t even think of going to all that work when canned is available, my sister has all the cooking genes anyway…but I’ve noticed since then that Chantal has a suspicious gleam in her eye whenever they come up for dinner. She tends to look around for cans. I hide them.