One funny thing about being an American living in France is that there’s no right way to celebrate American holidays, if you even remember them at all. Thanksgiving isn’t marked on your French fridge calendar. The day is of course not férié, so people go off to work as usual. There are no shortages on cream cheese or marshmallows because of a last-minute mad dash to the grocery store. You already know not to expect to find cranberries, whole turkeys, or canned pumpkin purée. There is no social pressure to celebrate the occasion, no pumpkin-spiced wave that hits you in the streets or the grocery store. Stores switch from skulls and skeletons straight to Santa without a pause for the turkeys and gourds so essential to any American’s experience of late November. Even among my anglophone expat pals, only a few are American. All told, it is easy to think nothing of it and let the day go by.
As we approached the end of November this year, I was remembering all the Thanksgiving days I’ve observed or neglected since I moved to France five years ago. The first year featured a glum dinner of mediocre pizza. The next held a vegan feast which, absent of butter and cream, made me feel farther from home than ever.
In 2018, Thanksgiving fell a few days before my wedding. We celebrated with a French-flavored traditional feast at my in-laws’. They had driven all over the countryside looking for a turkey, puzzling several farmers who wondered why these people absolutely needed a bird for a specific day in November.
The year after that, we were living in an Airbnb in Lyon with an infant and also preparing to move, so we did nothing. Last year we happened to be in the US in October, so we celebrated early with my family, complete with several pies and a beautiful table. When Thanksgiving Day rolled around, we were back in France and stuck at home during another nationwide lockdown. I attempted a few classic dishes and we ate them in front of “Christmas Vacation.”
This year was the first time I’ve hosted Thanksgiving with guests. We invited new friends, a French couple from church, for a meal Sunday afternoon. We were a small group, but the day was cozy and convivial. I’m glad we celebrated. There’s a lot to be thankful for.
I spent Saturday morning at the market with Silas, buying all my produce. The rest of the day I chopped vegetables, made pie crust, marinated the chicken, et cetera, while listening to Christmas music.
I kept thinking what a privilege it was, this work of creating tradition. I get to choose what will come to my family’s mind when they think about Thanksgiving; what will taste like home to them.
The meal lacked some of the mainstays (turkey! pumpkin!) but included enough familiar flavors to taste like Thanksgiving to my American palate.
On the menu: Green bean casserole made with fresh mushrooms, cream, and a few handfuls of crunchy onions I found at Lidl. Clara’s beloved “corn cake.” (“More, more?” she pleaded throughout the meal). A quick cranberry sauce made with some berries I once found at Grand Frais and had in the freezer for such an occasion. A Palestinian-style roast chicken rubbed with warming spices and stuffed with rice, walnuts, and raisins. La purée (mashed potatoes) brought by Claire. A brussels sprouts slaw with pops of cranberries and crunchy pumpkin seeds. A pecan pie made without corn syrup (it can be done!). A cold-weather sangria with pomegranate arils, cidre doux, and cinnamon sticks.
The table setting was simple, far from the elaborate perfection of magazine-spread Thanksgiving. I don’t own fancy dishes or napkin holders or a ceramic gravy boat. But I’m pretty sure no one cared. One of my guiding principles for the homemaking life: do the best you can with what you have. Thinking this way really frees me up to show hospitality now instead of waiting for some mythical perfect time in the future. Life is messy. Better a day celebrated humbly and imperfectly than not at all.