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An American Thanksgiving in Paris

Turkey Day in the City of Light
When the recent vintage is resting in barrel and the leaves on the vines and on the trees start turning that brilliant orange-gold, and the sun seems brighter and colder at the same time....it signals my most favorite time of year.  Holiday season.  This usually begins right on the heels of Halloween and rolls merrily into Thanksgiving, the last holiday I can enjoy without the pressure of commercialism breathing down my neck.  Christmas, of course is a part of this trifecta of holiday goodness, but there's something calming, warm and pure that comes with Thanksgiving.  All you have to do is cook, eat a ton (hopefully at several different locations during one day), and pass out while watching the Thursday evening football game.  On the sofa, wrapped in a warm throw in front of the fire, steaming mug of mulled wine in hand.  And this is my favorite memory of holidays in sunny California!

So this year, I am lucky enough to experience this holiday season in a true continental climate - in the north-central region of France.  And while many things about this time of the year are exactly what I love about the end of the year - vintage put to bed in barrel, leaves on the Plane trees lining the boulevards turning brilliant colors of orange and gold before drifting into the wet pavé streets, the chilly sun poking it's head out for perhaps a few hours a day before retreating, fire-roasted chestnuts and corn cobs offered up for a few Euros on every other street corner, brasseries offering vin à chaud..... there is no reference, of course, to the splendidly fall-esque holidays of Halloween and Thanksgiving.  It is, in fact, Noel, that is celebrated with relish at this time of year.

Determined to have some familiar flavors of the season this fourth Thursday in November, and to feel that I had properly engaged in l'automne, I set out to find exactly how I could enjoy a little bit of Thanksgiving in Paris.

A little bit of home on the Right Bank of the Seine
Luckily, with all of the American expats now living in Paris, this was not a hard task.  The American Church of Paris had listings of several restaurants in the city that were offering Thanksgiving meals for fixe prix, many offering them into the weekend seeing as Parisians did not take Thursday or Friday off to celebrate. (No such thing as Black Friday here!  Whew!)  There was, however, a very clever little market in the little village of Saint Paul in the Marais, called Thanksgiving.  As the name suggests, they offered all things American-made (for twice the price in America, of course, and in Euros).  And they had all the necessary objects you would need to put together a full Thanksgiving meal for 20 hungry Parisians.

I popped in around 6 pm the day before Thanksgiving.  BIG mistake.  The store was approximately 30 square meters, 15 of which were crammed with Pop Tarts, Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix, Froot Loops, Mission Tortillas, and now there was Stouffer's Stove Top Stuffing, French's Fried Onions, Libby's Pumpkin Pie Filling, Jiffy Cornbread Muffin Mix, Kraft Marshmallows all vying for space. And about 30 patrons.  The shop had fully roasted and stuffed birds to go; fresh birds to prepare at home; homemade pumpkin and apple pies, and apparently killer cranberry sauce that was gone by the time I arrived.

Where to go for PopTarts, Goldfish Crackers and Marshmallow Fluff in Paris  
But, seeing as I was just cooking for two (myself and one who would be arriving home later in the evening from work), I selected just the essentials from the shelves which included the pumpkin pie filling, cornbread muffin mix, cranberries and a few sweet potatoes.  The rest would be prepared with French ingredients.  As for the turkey element, we had a package of cutlets from the grocer that were already in the fridge, which would fill in nicely for a 20lb bird.

The turkey cutlets were breaded in French flour, salt and pepper, and pan-fried in about two tablespoons of beurre doux.  A dressing of butter, olive oil, shallot, fresh sage, cranberry chutney and red wine topped them off.  The sweet potatoes were mashed with quite a bit of beurre doux and crème entière and topped with cubes of Saint Agur fromage bleu and flat parsley.  Instead of the Green Bean Casserole that had been ever-present at the Thanksgiving table for as long as I could remember, I opted for the traditional French haricot verts, sautéed with fresh roasted chestnuts (purchased from a street vendor, roasted, along the Champs Elysées), beurre (of course), and lardon, or the French version of bacon bits.  A fantastic touch to almost any meal....

And of course, there were the classic cornbread muffins-from-a-box from Jiffy, homemade cranberry sauce (which I love to let simmer way down with a touch of red wine and dashes of orange zest, fresh cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and ginger). And of course, the pumpkin pie, or in this case, pumpkin tarte.  On top of all this American fantastic-ness, I found a website that was streaming live the Green Bay/Detroit game.  Total score!

Work in Progress
All was looking pretty good to go, and I was quite impressed that I was able to put the meal together sourcing some unfamiliar items in unfamiliar places, making the conversions from the US measurements to metric measurements, all the while preparing it all in French bachelor's kitchen without all the proper tools (like realizing there's no can opener as you prepare to open the pumpkin pie filling), and a heat induction stove top and convection oven (how do I even turn it on?!?).  But I had figured it all out, and was happily putting the final touches on the decor (chilled glasses for the Canard-Duchene Champagne, tea lights lining the counter, fleur des lys patterned cocktail napkins), when I realized that maybe I hadn't figured out the oven yet.  One hour later, the pumpkin pie still hadn't set.  The crust had baked properly, as did the cornbread muffins.  But the middle was still mush.  I set the timer for another 15 minutes at 200° C and finished whipping up the crème Chantilly.

15 minutes pass, and all is ready to be devoured.  I am starving by now, and all the wondrous flavors that have marked this holiday for me over the years are performing a dance for my senses, and I try everything one more time to make sure the flavors are in fact accurate.  All the Thanksgiving dishes I love are here, with none of the things that I often push to the side of my plate (sorry mom, still not a Green Bean Casserole fan).   The pie is still not done.  We agree to let it bake a little longer.

Et voila! Le finale.

After the turkey, potatoes, haricot verts, cornbread and cranberry have satisfied, the pie by now is out of the oven and cooling.  It still looks dismally flat and not very appetizing.  But we douse it in crème and try it anyway.  It's very strange.  Like pure pumpkin, with just a hint of sweetness.  It's edible, but not very good.  But happy with how the rest of the meal turned out, I let it go and just appreciated the fact that I could, in my own small way, celebrate my second-favorite holiday of the year in relative style in Paris.  Now that I have dutifully celebrated autumn, I am ready to embrace Noel, French-style, in the countryside, with friends and family, lots of French wine and traditional pastries, and hopefully, lots of snow!

And the next morning, while pulling the jus d'orange from the fridge, I look puzzled at the three eggs remaining on the shelf.  But there weren't supposed to be any eggs left after I made the tarte, I thought to myself............ So perhaps my baking skills are not as bad as I thought, and the convection oven could possibly turn out a good pie or tarte.  I just have to remember to put the eggs in the mix.

A prochaine fois!

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