Friday, December 4, 2009


One of my biggest regrets from my time spent in Denmark was not celebrating Thanksgiving. While abroad, you become more aware of your own cultural identity. And no holiday is more American than Thanksgiving. Foreigners are fascinated by the concept and the pageantry. The food and customs that seem so familiar to us sound a little alien in Europe. Of course the have turkeys and squash, but it’s difficult to find all the ingredients for the traditional courses.

Beyond the food, the legend we celebrate and the familial nature of the meal defines the day. We learned all about the first Thanksgiving of the Pilgrims in grade school, but more important to the cultural definition of Thanksgiving is that shared experience of wearing construction paper buckle hats and Indian feathers. While community festivals for abundant harvests (like the original Thanksgiving) are common, the way we celebrate today is actually characterized as more of a family affair. But not just the nuclear family, it’s best to seat as many friends and relatives as possible at the ad hoc table settings. Dealing with the inevitable awkwardness and restricted elbow space is all part of the ceremony.

Egged on by Mary Ann’s British colleagues, we endeavored to hold a proper Thanksgiving for twelve people. Of course there is no holiday in France, and everyone still had to go to work Thursday and Friday. That meant that all the preparations would fall to me. Not fully appreciative of all the work required, I happily volunteered.

The first challenge was getting a turkey. A stuffed turkey is sometimes prepared for Christmas celebrations, so they obviously have the farms. But we did not expect to find a frozen Butterball in the hyper-marche. Mary Ann placed an order for a 10 pound bird with the local butcher - a medium sized bird by American standards. Fortunately, we had come in two weeks before the event, they said it would take at least a week to arrive. And when we did finally go to pick up the bird, we only found a paltry six pound poultry. The butcher said he was lucky to find even that. That size certainly would not feed the masses, so we bought two more large legs to supplement; they weighed almost as much as the turkey. The total cost was close to $70.
Just butter and pepper outside. 8 lbs (including stuffing): cook 3 1/2 hrs. @ level 4 (350 degrees F)
When I got home, I opened up the packaging to see how it looked. It seemed to be properly dressed. However, despite the expense, they hadn’t even left us the usable innards. Mary Ann had to make another call to request the liver and gizzards that would be necessary for the stuffing. At least they provided these for free.

The day before the big event I tried to prepare as much as possible. I peeled and sliced the potatoes, prepped the green beans and diced most of the veggies necessary for the stuffing. I wanted to have the cool efficiency displayed on the cooking shows. I also experimented with some new ingredients to make a type of caramel Chex-mix, a staple at our family events. I had to substitute rice flakes for Chex and caramel flotante for corn syrup. I think my recipe came out even better than Mom’s. Finally, that night I also prepared two types of squash, butternut and another French variety. I couldn’t quite figure out the proper seasoning for the French Squash. One of the British guests at dinner described the French species as a result of war rationing; apparently they don’t really like it either.
Mom's Stuffing Recipe:
2-3 sleeves saltine crackers - substitute: Biscottes
Turkey liver
1 onion (medium)
couple sprigs parsley (fresh is best)
1" pat of butter (softened)
1 egg
chicken broth (if you are boiling the gizards, neck, etc.--that's best.)
Fortunately, I was not on the hook for pumpkin pie. Mary Ann’s American colleague, Anna, had a recipe that she had worked out while living in France. The challenge of performing the ingredient substitutions and unit conversions cannot be underestimated. Even setting the oven temperature was a bit of a research project. The dial only reads the numbers one to ten, Somehow, I had to convert that to some actual measurement of temperature and then make the Fahrenheit adjustment. My suggestions is to cook an 8 lb. stuffed bird for three and half hours on number 4.

Of course, cooking the diner would only be half the battle. I also needed to clean house, rearrange furniture and wash the dog. Upon waking up on Thursday, I had a full slate. After sweeping the floor, I started moving tables and cupboards to find some arrangement that would seat enough people in our modest apartment. Fortunately, our landlords allowed us to borrow another table and enough chairs so that everyone could sit together. Moving things away from the wall revealed another task, cleaning off the waist-high cobwebs and washing the base boards. This brought me back to the Cinderella days, preparing for company as Mom issued orders to keep us busy and out of her hair.

As two o’clock approached, I shifted gears to food preparation. We planned to eat at 6:30, so I needed the bird in the oven no later than 3:00, and that meant that the stuffing was next up on the list. Again, I planned two dishes. The first was my Grandmother’s Hungarian recipe which called for judicious use of the turkey liver. My other variety was the more traditional breadcrumb style; I followed the instructions from That’s where I used the gizzards. Somehow I was able to find enough room in the small bird to fit both batches, now I wondered if it would be enough.
Stuffing (traditional),1822,133185-243195,00.html
I had just enough time to run into town for some fresh baked bread before getting the potatoes and beans on the stove. Soon I had all four burners in action while the oven maintained temperature. I prayed that this wouldn’t be the moment we ran out of gas.

The final challenge was the cranberry sauce. Our family tradition is just to by the canned jelly that retains can-shape on the platter. Sadly, the cans were not available. All we could find, and this required pretty substantial internet searching, was a bag of frozen cranberries. Again I deferred to the pros on It came out a little too runny; I should have drained them slightly before adding the sugar. Nothing a little flour couldn’t fix. I even received some compliments.
Cranberry Sauce:
1 bag frozen cranberries
1/4 x water
1/3 x sugar

The guests started arriving while all of my irons were still in the fire, so to speak. Fortunately, Mary Ann had made it home a little bit earlier and was able to greet them. Meanwhile, the landlord had them playing musical cars, reshuffling the parking arrangement in the French way. We waited on one of Mary Ann’s colleagues for quite some time, before realizing that the gate might have closed him out. Mary Ann found him standing in the cold outside just about to turn around and walk back into town. Everyone agreed that it was his fault for not owning a cell phone. Arrival drama is just part of the tradition I explained.


As everyone was seated, I gave the quick Iron Chef description of the family style dishes. One of the translators interpreted in French for our landlords seated at the opposite side of the table. The dishes were passed around, and it might well have been anywhere USA. The stuffing was the first to go, everyone wanted to try both types. We had plenty of turkey; the Europeans preferred the dark meat - good thing, because the white was limited.

It was a little strange to hear French and English being spoken simultaneously, but the conversations were typical. The British sense of humor really livened things. And of course the translators had a lot to say about work. It was good to see Mary Ann’s colleagues again and get to meet their spouses. Between the food and the company, it was a perfectly celebrated Thanksgiving. I think the only things we missed was the afternoon football game. Oh well, we learned the Lions lost again anyway.
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1 comment:

  1. This looks like a great meal. My partner and I are Americans in New Zealand. We just had a big Thanksgiving party, but rain threatened to spoil it!


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