This Thanksgiving was the first time we haven’t been home in the US to celebrate. Celebrating Thanksgiving in France was an educational experience, a little bit sad, and, as it turned out, a lot of work!!
Since we didn’t have family to celebrate with this year, we planned a big Thanksgiving dinner with another American family. It was nice to have others that understood the tradition and to help share some of the cooking-particularly since, stateside, I was always given pie making duty. No one was ever crazy enough to assign me anything more difficult.
What started out as a small(ish) celebration with just two American families, turned into a massive sixteen person extravaganza. In terms of our usual Thanksgiving gathering, sixteen is still small, but we could only fit so many people inside a tiny French apartment.
As it turns out, the French (or those that we know well) are fascinated with the idea of Thanksgiving. What we see as a normal holiday, the French see as an intriguing American tradition. I guess you can’t get more American than celebrating pilgrims, indians, stuffing ourselves with food, watching football and giving thanks for our blessings.
Our table was a crossroads of several different cultures. Our American friends were actually not born in the US. The mom is Nigerian and the dad is British. The three kids were all born in the US. Then you had my family, all born and raised in the USA.
Another family that joined us included a British mom with a French husband. They have twin boys that were born in France. K is in math class with one of the boys, so they have become friends over the past few months. Lucky for us, the entire family is fluent in both French and English. We are fluent in English and eating.
A French Psychology professor, who spoke some English, joined our meal, which was helpful to the other French (Sam) and her 4 year old son that also joined us. Neither spoke English, but K and Lucy still talked with the little boy using their limited French vocabulary. He even brought over his American flag, waving it around as he walked though the apartment. He was adorable and was the center of attention, being the youngest of the kids.
As we had a mix of French and English speaking guests, some translation was necessary. Since Sam and her son don’t speak English, she had to speak slowly to us, then we would respond with our simple French words and phrases. But it worked! The father owns Chez Palmyre restaurant and speaks English, but he was working that night. Obviously, things don’t close down for Thanksgiving here in France.
Some of our French guests were not too keen on trying some of the traditional Thanksgiving dishes. The French/British kids flat out refused to try stuffing and most didn’t want anything to do with the pecan or pumpkin pies. I did eventually convince the psychology professor to try the pumpkin pie. It just took awhile to get across that yes, we do make pies with pumpkin in the US. Luckily, she liked it. Not that I foresee her attempting to make it on her own.
It was strange having the kids at school all day on Thursday and then still get to bed at a decent time for school on Friday. We’re used to the long weekend, so every time I looked at the kids schedule I had to stop and think, why the heck the kids weren’t off school.
Cooking and finding ingredients was a whole other ordeal. Typically, I’d run to the grocery and pick up everything on my list. Actually, I’d start shopping a few weeks in advance, so I could snag my groceries on sale. Here there were many items that I just couldn’t purchase in the store. Some items took a lot of searching around on Google to find an equivalent.
A turkey needs to be preordered, about a week in advance, from the butcher. And there are no $0.59 lb specials either. An 18 lb (8 kg) bird cost 60€! We were lucky enough to have Sam’s restaurant owner husband purchase the turkey, because he gets a significant discount. Here is France, turkey’s are ordered for Christmas but I’m told they are just as expensive.
Canned pumpkin is not an option. I had to purchase pumpkin pieces, bake and puree it myself. THAT was another problem. I was trying to cook in a rental apartment. The kitchen isn’t stocked with most of the gadgets I needed. Back in April, we had my mom bring us a tablespoon and teaspoon set, which has been a lifesaver many times over.
I had to borrow pie pans and was lucky enough to be able to borrow a blender as well. Mashing pumpkin by hand was turning into what looked like stringy carrots instead of puree.
I had an adventure in the grocery stores trying to find evaporated milk. I googled it and came up with lait évaporé. And so began the hunt. I couldn’t find it anywhere! As it turns out, I needed to purchase lait concentré non sucre which is concentrated milk without sugar. Lait concentré with sugar would be like our condensed milk. To make homemade evaporated milk, simply cook down milk on the stovetop. It works but takes FOREVER.
Next up, Karo syrup for my pecan pie. Nope. You can’t get corn syrup here. A simple mixture of 1 cup of sugar and 1/4 cup warm water will make light cornless corn syrup, though. I’m getting all domesticated!
Brown sugar is also not a thing here in France. To get brown sugar in France, look for cassonade, vergeouse or sucre de canne complet which is found in natural food stores. Cassonade and vergeouse are brown granulated cane sugar. I think the closest thing to brown sugar is sucre de canne complet. I found it in the bio section of the local grocery store. It’s not as damp as American brown sugar, but it’s not as granulated as all the other sugars sold here. The substitution worked out well in my pecan pie. I still think brown sugar is best, but the sucre de canne complet worked well enough.
Rolls. That was a whole other ball game. In the land of baguettes, getting soft rolls isn’t as easy as you might think. Normally, I would get my premade dough balls and throw them in the oven. Oh not in France. I had to make my own dough. For the first time ever! I made Parker House Rolls, but they turned out way more dense and not at all light and fluffy. The taste was good but the texture was off. I think the problem was the dough just didn’t rise the way it was supposed to. I almost cried a few times during the cooking marathon, but there was more laughing over my difficulties than tears.
Even with all the bumps in the road, celebrating Thanksgiving in France was fun and exciting. I loved getting to share American culture with our French friends and watching the kids interact and speak with French nationals.
I missed my family terribly, that was the little bit sad part, but it’s a Thanksgiving we will all remember for a lifetime.
Where have you celebrated Thanksgiving outside of the US?
You might also like to see how the French trick or treat in Nice