Thanksgiving à la Provençal had the right ingredients
By Patricia Fieldsteel
NYONS, FRANCE. Thanksgiving arrived here last week on the Rue Balzac. I had placed my order for a large fresh turkey a month ago with Caty, the poultry and egg lady at the Thursday Nyons market. Her turkeys are by far the best. Since the French do not eat whole turkeys (except in some regions at Christmas), they are not readily available and are pricier than the finest aged filet mignon or Porterhouse steak in the U.S.
Turkeys are thought to have been introduced into France in the mid-1500s. Some sources credit the Jesuits with having become enamored of these gallinaceous fowl during their 1518 trip to Mexico with Cortez, bringing some back to Spain on their return and later introducing them into France. Alexandre Dumas in his 1870 Le Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine insists the birds were brought back from India in 1432 and were called poulet dInde, hence the French dinde. Some cheap wits, he writes, have got into the habit of calling turkeys Jesuits. Turkeys have just as much right to resent this name calling as the Jesuits would if they were called turkeys.
Thursday morning, I arrived early at the market. Most of my food shopping and a lot of the cooking had been done the day before, but there were fresh flowers to buy girolles for the stuffing and, of course, the turkey to be picked up. I had a day of chopping, basting and sautéing ahead.
As always, there was a line at Catys stand in the Place Buffaven. I positioned myself and prepared for a long wait. The crowd was unusually lively; there was a certain excited buzz to the conversation. Apparently someone had ordered an enormous turkey the likes of which had never been seen in Nyons. Said turkey was prominently on display, slaughtered, minus its feathers, wrapped loosely in plastic but with everything else, head and feet included, intact. Each customer felt obligated to deliver a commentary after careful examination; a few even gave the poor bird a poke. Based on anecdotal evidence conducted during an informal and unscientific survey, female customers tended to refer to the oversized fowl as a dindon (male turkey), while men predominantly called it a dinde (female turkey).
Fortunately I had brought a cart, as whatever its former gender, the turkey was too heavy to carry. Since I do not cook food with a facial expression, I shlepped the turkey up to the château so my former Jane St. neighbor Lydie could remove its head, feet and more revolting innards not usable for stock or stuffing. Lydie was not around, so Wayne, her husband, offered to perform the task, supervised by several of their cats, anxious to help out should maybe the whole raw turkey drop to the floor.
Once back home, I preoccupied myself with my much-loved annual ritual of dressing the turkey. First I prepared the slow-simmering stock, which would be the base of the Madeira gravy. Next I clarified butter mixed with Madeira and garlic cloves in which to soak the cheesecloth I would drape over the turkey while it cooked. Then the stuffing: I chopped and cubed bread from the corner boulangerie, sautéed mushrooms, shallots, celery, garlic and onions, opened a jar of chestnuts, browned local homemade sausage, cut herbs from the garden and beat several of Catys fresh-laid eggs, adding a few pots of yogurt and mixing it all with my hands in a large yellow-ware bowl that had belonged to my grandmother. I packed the stuffing inside the turkey and under the skin for flavor and wrapped it with the butter-drenched cloth. The canned cranberry sauce, not available in France, had been brought over as a house gift by my friends, Alice and Elliot, whod visited from New York in May.
The guests arrived at 7 p.m. We were eight adults, two preteens, three Americans. My friend Laurie, a half-Cherokee former New Yorker married to a Frenchman, came with her daughter, Mareva, who was too young to remember the last time she celebrated Thanksgiving. They brought wine from their superb vineyard, Domaine de Deurre. Jo and Steve, who are English and live in nearby Mollans-sur-Ouvèze, arrived with more wine and Jos homemade chutney for what would be their first Thanksgiving. Wayne and Lydie walked down from the château bearing Champagne, four dusty bottles of 1997 Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru Clos Saint-Jean and an apple pie baked by Lydie. La famille O de la V were the last to arrive, all the way from the Rue Pontias two blocks to the north. Nick, a Scotsman, was dressed in full regalia kilt of his familys tartan, jacket, dress sporran (waist purse), sgian dubh (black knife) tucked into his knit stockings and regulation ghillie brogues (shoes). He was splendid. (Laurie and Mareva were sorry they hadnt had time to don some Cherokee trappings. Next year!) Marco, whos 12, and Annie, whos French and appropriately elegant, carried a gift of wine and a beautiful green earthenware candle holder made by Annie, a potter and painter. It was to be their first Thanksgiving as well. Obligatory Provençal trois bises (three kisses) exchanged by all, we went upstairs to the library for smoked salmon and Champagne. I gave out the little souvenir booklets of Thanksgiving legend and lore Id made on the computer.
Downstairs in the dining room, we began with homemade pumpkin soup. I said grace in English; Laurie said it in Cherokee; Nick in Scots Gaelic and Annie in Provençal. I added a quickie in Hebrew. We shared a long, leisurely and happy feast and promised to gather together again next year for another Thanksgiving à la Provençal.
Later that night as I climbed contentedly into my bed the dishes and pots washed, thanks to my friends I thought back on the many Thanksgivings in my life. The ones with my family are best forgotten, the ones with neighbors and friends in New York, complex and rich. For many years, I cooked Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings for local homeless people, including the transvestite hookers who lived in the Salt Mines on the Gansevoort St. Pier. One year, I remember approaching Abingdon Sq. Park, my shopping cart filled with individually packed dinners; Id felt an odd sense of letdown that Id arrived too late. A group of homeless women and men were sitting, celebrating, around one of the concrete chess tables, take-out containers piled high to the sky. I said something to the effect that I was happy theyd already eaten, that someone else had provided such a sumptuous feast. No, no, theyd said, beckoning me closer; theyd gone through the neighborhood garbage, collecting take-out containers in the hope they could scavenge a few leftovers inside....
Thanksgiving is distinctly North American; it does not exist in Europe. This year I invited a British woman who lives in Nyons, someone Id thought a dear and old friend; someone who certainly knows my politics, chapter and verse, my loathing for Bush and the savagery his administration is inflicting throughout our world. No, she told me, she wouldnt be coming. She couldnt morally take part in anything American, in something that might be perceived as celebrating the U.S. You know, said she, Americans are a terrible people, truly the worst; though, she added, of course, I was different; I wasnt truly American. Really?
At first, I tried to argue, challenge, debate and explain. And then, I realized, whats the point? Prejudice, bigotry and racism are what they are. She was no different. Contrary to her beliefs, racism is not only applicable when the color of ones skin isnt white and ones economic riches are nil. I thought of my friends in America, the individual people I know, love and respect. A terrible people?
If anything, Thanksgiving is a time to give thanks, to be grateful for what we have that is good, to bless what we love and to forget, at least for one day, all thats painful, divisive and bad. Yes, Nyons is far from New York in more ways than one. But what happened last Thursday here in my home, with friends at my table, made everyone feel, especially those whod never been there, almost American and certainly close to New York. Quite frankly, for most of us, beyond those moments, what better is there?