Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Thanks to Give

The very first time I was not with family of some sort on Thanksgiving, was the year I spent teaching in France.  Friends of mine in the US had friends that live in Nantes, so that is the city and school district I chose for my assistantship - I figured if all else fails, at least I would have friends of friends to fall back on.

But these people became my family while I was in France.  Mijo and Pierre, Christian and Clara and I sort of adopted each other.  We would drink whiskey and talk politics, and share cooking techniques in the kitchen.  It was so amazing to have friends I felt comfortable with while my family was in the US and my fiance was in Sweden.

When November rolled around, I suggested that I make them a Thanksgiving feast.  They love food as much as I do, so of course they were interested.  We made a deal that they would buy the turkey and I would take care of everything else.

So the days leading up to Thanksgiving, I explored the grocery stores looking for all the ingredients for my mom and my grandma's recipes.  In our family, we make a cranberry salad with marshmallows and walnuts, a sausage stuffing, a wilted spinach salad, the traditional green bean casserole, potatoes, and gravy.  Those are the staples.  Other dishes have come and gone, but this is what tastes like Thanksgiving to me.

I also spent those days before the holiday putting together a presentation of sorts to explain what Thanksgiving is about, what it was in the past, and what it has come to be.  That little activity really made me pause and reflect on what it means for me and for my family, and what our traditions mean to us.

On Wednesday, the (gi-freaking-normous) turkey that Clara had ordered from the butcher arrived, and I enlisted her help at the grocery store with the items that I was having a hard time finding.  Fresh cranberries.  Check.  Marshmallows?  In the dessert aisle next to the Harribo gummy candies, of course.  Green beans and fried onions?  Um... let's scrap the casserole this year.  Ground sausage for stuffing?  I can still hear that painful conversation in my head.  "C'est du saucisse, mais sans.... euh ... prepare comme du beuf hache?"  "Ah!  Chair du porc?"  "Peut etre? Fait voir?"  Whipping cream.  Even celery was a chore to find.  And forget the pumpkin pie - we settled for apple.

I was cooking this meal for Mijo, Pierre, their son and my friend Eric, Clara, Christian, their daughter Cecile, her boyfriend Jean-Baptiste, my roomates Tracey (from Ireland) and Rachida (from Germany) and another American assistant (whose name I can't remember because after that day, I decided I really didn't like him at all.  Turns out he was pretty much a jerk.).  Did you count that? 11 people including me.  This was my first attempt at a Thanksgiving feast.  Oh the pressure!

Finally, on Thursday morning  November 19, 2004, with all of my groceries and free access to the sacrosanct chamber that is Clara Bellec's kitchen, I started mixing up my family's recipes.  First the stuffing to put in the bird.  La farce.  By the end of the day, I had everyone calling it "le steufe-ing."   This huge turkey to feed 11 people barely cleared Clara's stove on every side.  My little French friends were running around with their cameras taking photos of the enormous turkey and the steufe-ing in the tiny oven.  

And I was there, in the middle of the bustle, being head chef.  Clara and Mijo were waiting for me to delegate tasks to them, and all of a sudden I was very shy.  Um, could you slice apples?  Clara actually took out some paper to take notes on how I made my pie crust.  I was mortified that it wouldn't turn out.

The cranberry salad was done and in the fridge, the stuffing in the bird, the pies baked and cooling, the salad tossed and waiting on the warm dressing, the potatoes peeled and cut waiting to boil, and it was a few hours until dinner.  We set the table with white linens, and the dinnerware that Clara retrieved from the back of the china cabinet and carefully unwrapped from its felt nest.  The crystal glassware shone with the candles and the flatware gleamed at every place setting.   It was magical, really.  I was so nervous the dinner would be crap on this lovely table.

The guests started arriving, and brought apero with them.  It's customary to have a drink and little hors d'oeuvres before dinner - especially a dinner party.  We poured champagne cocktails and munched on stuffed figs and mini quiches and bacon wrapped scallops and talked about I don't know what, because I was well on my way to inebriation I was so nervous.  Mijo assured me that "Si c'est fait des bons choses, ca doit etre bon" - if it's made from all good things, chances are, it will be good.

Finally, at the table.  Everyone at their place.  At each place, I have set a small paper tent with a photoshop picture of a cornucopia on it that I made at my school.  Before I presented dinner, I had everyone read the interior - a brief history of Thanksgiving (with little tidbits the French would love, like that President Lincoln actually declared it a holiday), and an explanation that now it is a chance to take a day to reflect on and appreciate the blessings in our lives.  And then, an assignment (I am, after all, ever the teacher!).  Each person was to reflect during the meal, and at digestif, we would go around the table and each person would share something for which they wanted to give thanks.

And then!  The meal!  The turkey came out of the oven looking fabulous.  The gravy whipped up quickly, the potatoes mashed quickly with some beurre de sel and fresh pepper.  I got things out of the fridge and handed them to Mijo and Clara to take to the table.

I returned to the dining room and saw the turkey, Christian ready to carve it, the stuffing, the potatoes the cranberry salad, the spinach., I realized that everything was perfect.  I even took off my apron.  And then my sweet friends looked up at me and said "We eat everything together?!" with absolute bewilderment on their faces.  

Tout ensemble!  Load up your plate with a little bit of everything!  Le truc rose (the cranberry salad) was something they couldn't get over.  The kept insisting that it must be dessert since it had marshmallows in it.  But they dutifully ate it "A l'Americaine" like good little guests.

And then came my favorite part.  Granted, I was in a very comfortable booze and food coma by then.  As we sat finishing our espressos and sipping on Poire liqueur, the political discussion died down, and we stopped making fun of my German roomate.  I asked if everyone thought of something to be thankful for, and everyone took a turn making a mini-speech of their blessings.  Many of them brought a tear to the eye.  Eric said he was thankful for such a wonderful mother - Mijo (his mom) cried into her napkin while Pierre couldn't have looked prouder.  Tracey said she was thankful for the experience of Thanksgiving with such wonderful people.  We were all thankful for the happenstance of friendships that brought us together that day.

And then Pierre started singing.  God Bless America.  And everyone joined in.*  It was amazing and surreal.

And that is what I think about every time I make Thanksgiving.  And every year, we go around the table and mention something that we're thankful for.  And everyone gets to share in everyone else's blessings.

That in itself is a blessing to me.

*My French friends all know the words to the song God Bless America from the movie The Deer Hunter


Carla said...

This story brought tears to my eyes. How magical. I hope to have a holiday story like that one day.

Carrie said...

What a great story! Thanks for sharing it!

Jess said...

I spent Thanksgiving in France one year too. Except we didn't celebrate it. I forgot that it was Thanksgiving until my parents called, and then I ate leftover soup with my host family. It sucked a little bit.

Kate P said...

What a wonderful Thanksgiving memory!