A New Perspective on Thanksgiving

“Do you like Thanksgiving?” a co-worker asked recently, after admitting that she wasn’t too fond of the holiday.

I was taken aback at first. I didn’t think that Thanksgiving needed to be defended. What’s not to like about an excuse to gather together and eat wonderful seasonal one-offs like sweet potato casserole and pecan pie, and, being a conversation set in America - get one (and often two) whole days off?? 

But as I headed home, I reflected and realized that while I’ve always enjoyed Thanksgiving as an opportunity to spend time with my family, I never loved it until I moved to France.

Thanksgiving pre-France was a fun reason to gather with my mom’s family around the table. But it felt like in many ways a precursor to the holiday season. It was the meal to help loosen our belts in preparation for the upcoming month of parties, cookie exchanges, and festivities. After cleaning up from another Thanksgiving meal, we gather in the kitchen, perusing store flyers and plotting our casual (or not-so-casual) Black Friday plans of attack. Even in later years, the tradition of having dinner over the holiday weekend with an extended group of high school friends felt like it qualified more as the start of the Christmas season, not a prolonged Thanksgiving. After all, I allowed myself to finally crank up some Christmas tunes on the drive to the restaurant.

The normal rhythm of autumn, which culminated with a hearty Thanksgiving meal, stopped when I moved to France. It coincided with a sudden and strong love of all things pumpkin, one that drove me inside Starbucks to get the only taste of the season (as I knew it) that I could easily access - in the form of a pumpkin spice latte. My heart ached for cinnamon-laced sweets and football season -- and this is coming from someone who, if you remarked that the Birmingham Blue Jays made it to the Superbowl, wouldn’t question it. The grass is always greener on the other side, absence makes the heart grow fonder - there is definitely truth in all these sayings.

This isn’t to say that autumn in France was devoid of holidays. Two new holidays came on the scene. There was La Toussaint, when the cemeteries brightened up with those paying their respects. Later on in November glasses clinked full of just-released Beaujolais Nouveau, French caves and restaurants excitedly sharing the young wine.  But when Thanksgiving Thursday came around, there was nothing. At least at first.

Not to say that autumn is all bad in Paris!

That first Thanksgiving day felt quite lonely. Thanks to social media, there was a lovely livestream of all my friends’ food triumphs and loaded tables across America. My phone was saturated with flavors and family gatherings, while my physical surroundings reflected business as usual. It was just a plain Thursday in November, full of the same repetitions and responsibilities, no different than any other day of the week. 

With that said, there’s no place to celebrate Thanksgiving like Paris. 

What I’ve learned over three years is that Thanksgiving in Paris goes something like this: It feels wrong to not to celebrate in some way on the actual holiday, so gatherings begin after work on Thursday evening. Michael and I started a tradition together of going to Joe Allen, an American restaurant, for a three-course meal. There’s something to be said for being able to bookend the meal with foie gras and pumpkin pie, to use a piece of perfect French baguette to wipe up the last of the gravy, and to pair it all with a bottle of Cote du Rhone. As the years progressed, we sometimes started off at a friend’s house, booked it over to our dinner reservation, and then caught the tail end of the pot luck dinner at our favorite bar, Red House. Last year a bourbon and peanut butter drink was my second dessert, a decadent nod to the motherland.

Thanksgiving Thursday 2014 at Joe Allen

It’s quite a full evening that we’ve developed to celebrate Thanksgiving. But the beauty of being an expat means that it is perfectly acceptable, and even encouraged, to allow the holiday to linger on for a minimum of a four-day extravaganza. 

That’s why, come the weekend after, Michael and I have hosted a big Thanksgiving dinner chez nous. We coordinate with a friend to cook the turkey, given that our apartment did not have what I assumed was a common appliance for any home, an oven. We ask everyone to bring a dish and beverage, and to keep it à la américaine, push the start time up to 2 or 3 in the afternoon. Too late for lunch and much too early for dinner, it is surely the first of many things to perplex our French friends.

It’s a learning experience for all, perhaps. As I explain to our international guests that the day is a time to foster thankfulness, the question of how the holiday came to be inevitably is called into question. “Well, there were the pilgrims and the Native Americans, and they all got together and shared a meal...” And in that spirit, I look around and see echoes in my own apartment. There are frustrations (that I’ve detailed here) about not being able to find all the American staples easily, or inexpensively. But those aside, ultimately something beautiful happens at the table. There is French tarte tatin, homemade foie gras from Dordogne, Egyptian tabbouleh, Kentucky chess pie, stuffing made using bread from one of the best-rated boulangeries in Paris. American friends bring the the star dish of their family’s Thanksgiving Day spread - a sweet potato pie handed down from father to son and kept top-secret, even from one’s own wife, for example. And our international friends bring their own family recipes to share. If it’s their first Thanksgiving, newcomers might be nervous on what to make, but once they see that we Americans do weird things like top sweet potatoes with marshmallows….and then serve it with DINNER not dessert - they learn that anything goes. It’s a melange of cultures, it’s an adaptation of making things work with what's available (like hand-grating up mimolette cheese instead of just opening a bag of shredded cheddar), it’s a re-creation a holiday with a new set of traditions. And it has made me wonder if this is not unlike what the first Thanksgiving meal was about.

Dessert table, circa 2014 - once again proving my friends can bake!

Dessert table, circa 2014 - once again proving my friends can bake!

Last year's scene in our living room

I love celebrating Thanksgiving in Paris - the international flair, the company, the day-after leftover sandwiches on baguette. This year since we’re back in the US, we’re going to be spending Thursday with family in New Jersey. But come Black Friday, I’m staying away from the malls this year and we’re...heading to Paris! I can’t wait to celebrate with my dear friends in France again.

A lot of our family are upset and think we’re crazy to travel to Paris given the tragedy that the city has faced. I’m still heartbroken over the news, and I’m sure we’re going to find the city still early in its healing from the attacks. But that just makes me more resolute than ever to celebrate the joie de vivre of France. I long to gather with my friends and celebrate friendship and all we have to be thankful for, to be hopeful for the future, and to enjoy another day in the City of Lights ensemble

Do you celebrate Thanksgiving? What are you doing this year - and what are you making??

Finding yourself in Paris for Thanksgiving and not sure how to celebrate? Here are some ideas -

  • Joe Allen Paris - 3-course meal for €50 per person (our traditional Thursday dinner spot)
  • Verjus - one of my favorite Paris restaurants - it looks like you might still be able to get a later reservation for their special Thanksgiving menu on Thursday or join the Friday evening wait list
  • Breakfast in America (Thanksgiving menu only at the BIA 1 location - 17, rue des Ecoles, 5th arrondissement) - 3-course meal for €34.95 euros per person, 6:30pm or 9pm seating
  • Le Saint-Martin - Thursday-Saturday enjoy a Thanksgiving meal at the restaurant or order it to-go, €42 per person
  • Ô Chateau - 3-course meal for €45 per person - wine is the focus of this restaurant/ tasting bar so a wine pairing is of course available for an additional fee
  • American Church in Paris - (on Saturday the 28th) - 2 seatings, the 5pm more kid-friendly, the 8:30pm more formal, €25 per person
  • Red House (our favorite bar) - pot luck meal starting at 8pm, bring a dish to share
  • Make your own meal - and if you're in a pinch for American ingredients, consider heading over to the Thanksgiving store in the Marais or La Grande Épicerie at  Le Bon Marché