What is Thanksgiving?
Nothing brings the question into focus quite as profoundly as being in Paris to celebrate.
I’ve been quite intentional this year about wanting “to reset” my holidays: digging deep for fundamental principles in order to extract surprising truths.
For most Americans, Thanksgiving is a family holiday. A time to gather with folks we’re grateful to know and love. And for many the characteristics of the ritual are clearly prescribed: a meal of Turkey/Sweet Potato/Cranberry + your own family favorite, football, going around the table recording for everyone’s judgment what you’re thankful for, preparing to stand in line to help our largest corporations stay in the black, not going to work. . .
I’ve always preferred, however, the narrative that Thanksgiving is a memorial to the Pilgrims’ first harvest. Their time in the foreign wilderness of North America had been exceedingly difficult. They’d struggled and adapted, but nevertheless, persisted. A native population was there too, and while the extent to which they enabled the Pilgrim’s success is debatable, their presence in our forefathers’ daily lives is not.
In this way, in my mind, it’s not the turkey itself that’s important, but the struggle to prepare it. And it’s not about having our most intimate family at the table, but making room and opportunity to include our extended family, whether by birth or choice.
And so, with all this in mind, I set out to disrupt Thanksgiving.
I wanted to be displaced in a foreign land.
I wanted a meal of great ritual and celebration
I wanted to embrace struggle, to include others, and to see/do/be something new and more.
And so, I came to Paris.
Though not the most exotic or frankly even foreign of foreign lands (at least in my mind), it is a place where food is celebrated and I like to eat. I also like to imagine that the struggle to navigate the French food landscape of boucherie, boulangerie, fromagerie, and supermarché coupled with the native population’s accommodation of my linguistic limitations would mirror the preparations of that first North American fête.
Also, on board for this disruption: a friend who’s never been to Europe. For her this truly is a new experience in a new land. A land she tells me she initially thought she’d just tick off her list but now finds herself saying, “Next time I’m here.” Rounding out our trio, a Frenchman who’d never celebrated Thanksgiving and frankly hadn’t really even heard of it. He was just thankful for a meal with long lost friends.
Our canvas was blank; we could create virtually any kind of experience we wished: our only limitations were our imaginations and the capacity of the European oven.
First stop: Le boucherie. We went to at least three. A whole turkey was out of the question, so chicken or quail? Escallope de dinde? Veal? It was in the third shop we spotted an impressive cuisse de dinde, a turkey’s leg and thigh, forming a satisfying centerpiece to our repast. . . C’est ça!
We bought patate doux and asperges, camembert for a cheese course, and a baguette to help it all along. The only cranberries we could find were dried. . . not sure what we’d do with those. . . also celery to replicate a version of a traditional family starter, “ants on a log.”
Back at chez nous, as I prepped the turkey, J. stuffed the celery with chevre and topped with dried cranberries forming a new thing rooted in the memory of the old: buche de fourmis. And, R. made buckwheat crepes, because. . . pourquois pas?
Our meal was simpler and smaller than the cliché, but all the elements were there: turkey and sweet potatoes and cranberries; struggle and adventure and invitation.
We spoke of how grateful and surprised we were to be together; of traditions and of dreams. We didn’t watch football, but streamed President Macron speaking to an assembly of French mayors. And, we didn’t play Qwirkle, but La Traderidera: a game R. had taught me and I had taught J.
What is Thanksgiving?