THANKSGIVING IN FRANCE: A PREVIEW #5



I'd like to say that our cousins all sat with us on our living room on Thanksgiving Day, drawing colorful turkeys while our dads watched over us, having loosened their ties just a bit, smoking their pipes. The moms, of course, were in the kitchen, chatting away happily among themselves while they prepared the feast. I'd like to paint that picture, but I don't remember Thanksgiving happening like that. I just don't remember Thanksgiving being a thing at all until Cathey made it a thing some years after we were married and ensconced comfortably in our house in Bath, Pennsylvania. That's when we instituted Second Thanksgiving, a full Thanksgiving gathering on the Saturday after traditional Thanksgiving Day.

You see, we worked on Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving kicked off a big holiday season for us, the money was too good to pass up, and we were young and foolish. But good came out of it. After family and friends had their celebrations with various in-laws and out-laws on Thursday, we had them over on Saturday after all of the holiday craziness had been purged from their systems.

Why am I writing about Thanksgiving several weeks early? Well, I always seem to remember to post about our French Thanksgiving well after the event. By then, stuffed with stuffing, I'm done. Put a fork in me. On to Christmas. So I thought that I'd short-circuit the process and post now instead of later. Here's how Thanksgiving works for us in France.

 Of course, the French don't celebrate Thanksgiving. They know about it, calling it the FĂȘte Americaine. But it’s not on their calendar. And that means that whole turkeys may be difficult to find in November. The French prepare whole turkeys for Christmas, so if you want one a month prior, you have to special order unless you're willing to take your chances. Our local butcher is happy to oblige. In mid October, we order a seven-kilo bird for the day before the holiday so that we have time to brine it. That’s the right size for the eight people who can fit around our little table. Unfortunately, birds of that size are not always available. They are coming through heavier and heavier these days. Twelve kilos and more. Why? According to our butcher, because Americans in posh communities like big birds.

We order our bird, buy the bird, brine it, and roast it according to a process taken from one of Cathey's favorite cooking authorities. And it works. The birds are uniformly moist and tasty. Each time. Every time. If you are interested, leave a Comment and I'll pull up the recipe for you.

Fresh cranberries are not regularly available in France. Buy them when you see them and freeze them. Polenta had to replace corn meal for the stuffing for many years, but con meal is now becoming more readily available. Canned pumpkin isn't available at all for pie making but we have learned that you can buy a frozen pumpkin mousse in Picard, a chain of stores that exclusively sells frozen food. Speaking of pies, pecans are expensive and just don't taste the same as Texas pecans. And molasses and Karo syrup have to be imported in the suitcases of family.

Speaking of family, we have created something of an intentional one. We've introduced several folks to an American Thanksgiving - Brits and Irish and Swedes and, of course, French. We hear through the grapevine that who we include and who we exclude is a subject for discussion among our neighbors. Sorry, but our kitchen and dining are too small to invite a horde.


I'm not going to go into the details of Cathey's Thanksgiving dinner menu. Any discussion of that artful presentation requires pictures to fully appreciate it. It's the full monty. Soup to nuts. Literally. And as many as three different pies. Wine, of course. And maybe an aperitif and a digestif.

Leftovers and sandwiches and, in the dead of winter, gumbo made from turkey bone stock.

How do you slow things down enough during such a Thanksgiving dinner to take pictures? You can't take pictures when you are licking your fingers. Maybe next year...




LIVING IN PARADISE: FRANCE IN OCTOBER #4

 

 It's the end of October.  


The sky is blue with puffy white clouds floating by. The temperature approaches 70F during the day, hovers in the high 40s at night. The vines, having just been harvested, are turning color prior to dropping their leaves. Many of those leaves turn yellow before going brown but some blaze bright red. Same with the deciduous trees, mostly yellow but with some autumn colors more familiar to this Northeastern boy.

Yes, it's unusually warm and pleasant. If this is a result of climate change, I'm down with it. I just hope that next summer isn't a killer.

Even given this inviting weather, tourists seeking to prolong summer heat find warmer climates by heading farther south, into Spain. Perhaps taking a ferry or a short hop to northern Africa. Zanzibar is within reach. And many Europeans have spent considerable time in Southeast Asia. 

We remain here in our little rural village in the southwest of France. Quiet descends. Traffic eases. Scarves, sweaters, light jackets, and socks and shoes replace polos, shorts, and sandals. In fact, the easiest way to distinguish the French from the Brits in the region is the insistence of the Brits to continue wearing shorts well after the French have started to protect themselves from the coming gray, wet, cold winter that is inevitably on the way. When the French break out their scarves to 'warm their necks', it's a good idea to follow their example and break out your winter gear.

That's not to say that you need the kind of winter clothing that is required in our former stomping ground of eastern Pennsylvania. My good winter coats have yet to be worn here as I go into my 8th winter. They hang in a closet, not forgotten but not necessary, either. Jackets that are labeled good for three seasons in the USofA are good for four here. So I wear my good fleece. 

Last winter, we had one hard freeze. Simply not worth it to take the down jacket off the hanger for that one day just for the sake of nostalgia.

We miss the pop-up restaurants on the beaches. Do you know about them? They are stored in containers over the winter - full-service kitchens, tables and chairs, decking, and more. They are assembled in the spring right on the beaches up and down the coast. They serve just about anything that you could ask of a simple, unpretentious French restaurant, which is quite a lot. They are busy, busy, busy all summer. Then, suddenly, as if they were migrating birds, some signal unheard by mere mortals is heard and the restaurants disappear for another year.


Year-round restaurants shorten their hours. Folks who didn't take vacations with their kids in the summer close their businesses for a couple of weeks in preparation for the winter holiday push. All Saints and All Souls Day preparation begins. But the winter holidays are a subject for further discussion. 

It's the end of October and we are living in Paradise.


RANDOM THOUGHTS, SOME FRENCH SOME NOT: VENDANGE, BREXIT, GERMANY, AND MORE #3

 VENDANGES 


The rural south of France is crisscrossed with two-lane blacktops, narrow and with curves that skirt old property lines several times per kilometer. Unlike the USofA, where roads take precedence over property, the French are unlikely to consider condemning a portion of a vineyard just to straighten out the road a bit. Since I like driving on twisty roads, I like driving in France. But not during vendanges, the grape harvest.

Grapes are harvested at any hour of the day or night, depending on the personal preferences of the vigneron, the winemaker. Some go by the phase of the moon or other astrological and/or mythological signs and portents. Some are of the opinion that pure chemistry rules. Whatever the case, for several weeks and at unexpected times of day, you may find yourself on a curvy patch of blacktop behind a slow-moving tractor who has insufficient verge to let you pass…and probably would just as soon let you fend for yourself anyway.

It’s a miracle that the byways of the south of France aren’t littered with the burnt corpses of the cars of impatient French drivers who gambled on the absence of oncoming traffic once too often.

GERMAN ELECTIONS 

The European multiparty system has definite disadvantages. One problem was immediately manifest the night that we sat with German friends to watch election night coverage on German television. All the votes might be counted, but we still don’t know who the winners will be. Although the center-left party received a few more votes than the center-right party of Angela Merkel, both of those major parties come in close to 25%. Since it takes 50% + 1 to govern, it will be necessary for one of the parties to build a coalition.

Let the horse trading begin. 

If it can be said that there was one true winner, I suppose that it would be the Greens. They came in a solid third place, meaning that the party that they choose to align with will probably be able to form a government and name a prime minister to replace Merkel. It should be noted that the Greens in Germany are not just a fringe party. They may have only commanded 15% or so of the vote nationally, but they are the party that will be running Berlin. 

The negotiations could take weeks, months. And so, after all the votes have been counted, the question of who won the election is still an open one.

UPDATE: As we go to press, the three parties of the left have announced a tentative agreement to form a coalition. That was the expected result, certainly. But the devil is in the details. Stay tuned.

BREXIT

On second thought, no. I will not discuss Brexit today. What’s going on in England right now is simply too unnerving to try to tickle apart in a few sentences. It’s as if the USofA had elected someone like Donald Trump as President. Unimaginable with consequences too convoluted to untie contemporaneously. We just have to hope that the next generation of historians can come up with a coherent rationale for WHAT IN GOD’S NAME WERE PEOPLE THINKING!

 

 THANKSGIVING

This week, I will go to our local butcher and order a turkey for our Thanksgiving dinner. It’s necessary to order a month or more in advance because French shops don’t normally keep whole turkeys on hand except for Christmas. Wings? Breasts? Thighs? Yes. Whole turkeys? No.

Why? This is where the Gallic shrug comes in, that Franco-European gesture that signifies that a question has no discernible answer and that the ‘shrugger’ has no interest in pursuing the matter.

We order a turkey for pickup the day before Thanksgiving to give us time to brine it. We ask that the turkey weigh seven kilos - about 15 pounds for the metrically challenged among you. The bird is always delivered on time and is of uniformly excellent quality, but we have received turkeys ranging from five to twelve kilos. That 25 pound bird barely fit in our little European oven. 

Whatever their size as they are being prepared for the Thanksgiving table, our turkeys all suffer the same fate. Leftovers. Sandwiches. Freezer - if there's any meat left. Stock.


A TASTE OF LOCAL CULTURAL EVENTS: COST OF LIVING IN FRANCE #4

In the USofA, we lived in the Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton metropolitan area. The State Theater in Easton brought in class acts like Preservat...