Approaching Thanksgiving with the prospect of family coming to visit in Aix-en-Provence, including young grand-daughters, was, I admit, a delight. It was also overlaid with memories of another Thanksgiving spent in France, in Paris, a half-a-lifetime ago.
I had been young, a student, and living as a pensioner with a ferocious retired professor of cuisine who was relentless in her drive to teach young barbarians to understand the basics of French cooking, and the requisite use of utensils to properly eat it. She was also, in my view, an unabashed zealot in her anti-Americanism, based primarily on her opinion that all that was wrong with America (plenty) stemmed from our primitive if not laughable preferences in food.
In my naivete, I decided the way to correct these obviously erroneous assumptions was to produce the ultimate delicious American feast and to invite French and American friends to enjoy it. With good will, pumpkin pie, and the pièce de résistance, a perfectly roasted, stuffed turkey, what could go wrong? I leave it to you to imagine what did (beginning with the fact that the French did not at that time really eat turkey, and finding one that was at least partially plucked was step one on the road to disaster).
Now decades later, the kids were coming and we contemplated what to do about Thanksgiving dinner. Echoing my long-ago experience, I began by investigating where to find our seasonal fowl. Although various turkey parts were available in various markets, I couldn’t seem to find one completely assembled. This was because, a friend finally informed me, you can’t buy one of those until Christmas. But never mind: Even if a turkey had been magically available, my oven was too small to cook it.
What, then, to do with the family coming for Thanksgiving? The only logical alternative took shape in the best Francophile corners of my mind: Book tickets on the fast train (TGV) and go to Paris.
Whizzing north from Aix, the girls were wide-eyed and inquisitive about what we were going to do—and particularly what we were going to eat.
They’d quickly embraced the French food they’d encountered so far. Justine was quite enthusiastic about pain au chocolat, while Bridget favored palmiers, and neither could have too many bowls of hot chocolate with steaming milk in the morning. Crêpes, baguettes, potage St.-Germain, golden Provençal apples and dark muscat grapes, all thumbs up. And that doesn’t even get to the artisanal treats we found in pastry shops.
Bridget did have one lingering concern, however. “We don’t have to eat snails, do we?” She asked her ritual question again on the train, and I thought of Madame, who had terrorized me all those decades ago in her fashionable 7th arrondissement apartment as she demonstrated how to correctly hold a snail. And I laughed.
Within hours we were comfortably settled on the most delightfully touristy conveyance I could find, a bateau mouche. The adults were happily sipping champagne and eating paté, while the girls ate a fine chicken in cream sauce, and watched, dazzled as we passed the Eiffel Tower, bridges over the Seine, and wondrous palatial buildings all blazing in lights. And after a sampler of tarts, a taxi ride, a hot bath and a night in a hotel, worries about snails—and what to do about a turkey—were easily forgotten.
The next day, they played in the Roman Arena, fortuitously full of lycéens in Roman dress who were making a video for school, and wandered the ancient streets with shops full of color and wonder.
Paris in full regalia, what could be a better holiday?
All the same, once back in Aix, we stuffed and roasted a large chicken, cooked potatoes and green beans and remembered all we have to be grateful for by clinking glasses filled with fine Provençal rosé (and grape juice). Instead of pumpkin pie, we finished the feast with a platter of irresistible goodies the girls chose from a patisserie in town.
Where is it written that Thanksgiving requires turkey, anyway?