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Postcard - An American Thanksgiving in Provence

Kathy Wood (Kaydee)

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. I like the fact that it's relatively simple: just a big traditional meal, usually shared with family or friends. It's a holiday that involves very little decorating, no gifts that need to be bought and wrapped, no cards, no parties, no stress - just simple. Everything is just focused on that one Thursday, and really just on that big traditional meal: turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, vegetables, rolls, pumpkin pie.

Charley and I have been married 12 years, but until this year we've never hosted the Thanksgiving meal. My contribution to the meal has usually involved a broccoli casserole and a mashed potato casserole; no stress - just simple. Yes, Thanksgiving has always been a simple holiday for me.

Or it was until we celebrated Thanksgiving in Provence ...

Finding the Chairs

With my big celery in my pretty Provenal kitchen

Much as we want to embrace the cultures of the countries we're visiting, we also want to continue some of our traditions from home. We arrived in Provence on October 2nd, and had only been there about a month when we decided to host a Thanksgiving dinner at our farmhouse. We invited our American friend Kevin, his French wife Elisabeth, and their son Thomas. Later we invited our newer American friends, the Thompsons. They now live permanently in Provence, in a beautiful home not far from us. Craig (the dad) would be away on business, but Lisa, Alayna and Andrew were happy to join us. A week or so before the Thanksgiving Thursday, Kevin asked if we could include another American family they had met in their village. This dad was also out of town, but we were happy to also invite Jenny and her children, Avise and Jack. Our Thanksgiving dinner would now be for twelve: six adults and six kids, ages four to eleven.

We've been eating all our meals in our yellow kitchen, but this meal required moving into the adjacent dining room. I wanted to have everyone, adults and children, at the same table and then use the kitchen table for our buffet. Charley and I experimented with the leaves of the tables and the available chairs. We could fit twelve snuggly around the table, bringing in four of the yellow kitchen chairs. There was even room to maneuver around the ends of the table. I checked all of the tablecloths in the house, but none of them fit the expanded table. Then we found a perfect tablecloth at the market in Aix-en-Provence; only 15 euro and in perfect colors of orange, red and yellow.

A week before Thanksgiving Charley and I visited the top winery in this area: Chateau de Canorgue, just down the hill from Bonnieux. We tasted a couple of their wines, chatted with the nice woman in a mix of French and English, and bought a couple of bottles that would complement our meal.

We had guests, enough seating, a tablecloth, and wine. This turned out to be the only simple part!

Ordering the Turkey

A couple of weeks before Thanksgiving we checked out the turkey selection at the big Leclerc grocery store in Apt, just to see what was available. The French seem to eat a lot of turkey, called "dinde" here. We saw lots of packets of turkey parts in the long meat display: whole breasts, cutlets, and legs. But we didn't see any whole turkeys.

We did see frozen whole turkeys in another small grocery store in Apt; about the size of a chicken at home! Charley dared to suggest that we could buy a couple of chickens and serve roast chicken, or perhaps turkey parts. Kelly and I protested; we wanted a BIG turkey, a REAL turkey, a WHOLE turkey, the kind of turkey that would be overflowing the display cases this time of year back home in America.

Charley and I embarked on a search for a whole turkey. We first visited the butcher shop in our village of Bonnieux, armed with our dictionary. Although we hadn't visited this shop before, we thought it would be good to shop locally and perhaps develop a relationship with our village butcher. The butcher was quite friendly, but of course spoke no English. We tried to explain that we needed a "dinde", "tres grande", for a special "fete d'amricaine", "six ou sept kilo" (13 to 15 pounds). The butcher's eyes grew wide and he spoke rapidly. It wasn't clear to us exactly what he said, but it was clear that this was not a typical request, and certainly not at the end of November. At Nol maybe, but not now. He might be able to order something - well, we think that's what he said. He gave us his telephone number and said we should call.

On our next visit to Leclerc Charley tried to talk to someone in the butcher department. The young woman assistant seemed to think it would be possible, but Charley needed to talk to the head butcher, who of course wasn't there just then. She gave him the phone number and said Charley should call.

Charley and I are struggling with our limited French. We've both studied French and our skills have served us well in our previous experiences as tourists in France. We can exchange basic pleasantries, check in and out of a hotel, pay for something at a cash register, order off a standard menu. I find I can even read a newspaper or advertisement and figure out the general message. But now we are living in France, trying to have more extensive social conversations; ordering firewood, giving directions to our house to a delivery service, ordering a turkey. These communications are hard in person, but even harder on the phone. The person on the other end can't see you to realize that you don't understand their rapid-fire French and you lose your ability to use any kind of hand motions to supplement your spoken words. (How do you say "a whole turkey" when you don't know the word for "whole"? Why, you use your hands!)

Charley's French is more confident than mine, and he is especially good with the required dramatic flair. I tend to push Charley forward to represent us in difficult communications. I could tell the turkey communication was going to be especially difficult. I told Charley I'd handle everything else about the meal if he would take care of the turkey. He decided not to call anyone back. He would deal with this in person.

He went back to visit the butcher in Bonnieux to explain our need again and attempt to place a firm order. "C'est impossible!" sputtered the butcher, waving his arms.

He went back to the Leclerc the next morning when the head butcher was there. Maybe there would be a turkey, he was told. But maybe not. It wasn't clear what Leclerc could do, and Charley decided not to risk it.

Finally, we enlisted the help of our friend Kevin, who is married to a beautiful Frenchwoman and has lived several years in France. Kevin called the butcher in Apt (a larger, more sophisticated place than our little butcher shop in Bonnieux) and confirmed that they would get a seven-kilo turkey for us. We should pick it up on Wednesday morning. They told Kevin that the turkey would come from the Ger, a departement in France that must specialize in turkey.

Shopping for the Thanksgiving Dinner

Meanwhile, I worked on the rest of the menu. Kevin volunteered to bring pumpkin soup and his special cranberry sauce. Lisa had a couple cans of pumpkin brought over from America and offered to make pumpkin pie and apple pie. I decided to fix a mashed potato casserole, sweet potatoes, green beans, and marinated tomatoes. Kelly wanted to bake cookies for the kids. I would also fix a tray of hors d'oeuvres with a Provencal theme: our home-grown seasoned almonds, tapenade (an olive paste), creme d'ail (an garlic/artichoke spread), and olives.

We made our major shopping expedition into Apt on Wednesday morning. First stop, the butcher. Charley explained that we were there to pick up our dinde. The woman behind the counter brought out our big bird. We had been a bit anxious that it might somehow arrive in a way we weren't accustomed to, with feathers or - shudder - (surely not!) maybe even a head. Fortunately, our bird was plucked, footless and headless, and cleaned out inside. It looked almost like a fresh turkey at home.

"Mon Dieu," gasped another customer in the store, a woman taken aback at the size of our huge bird. She asked the shopkeeper what we were buying, amazed to see such a large dinde. Maybe she thought we were buying an ostrich.

Then I asked the most important question. How much? C'est combien?

103 euro!!!!! Could that possibly be what she said? Did I misunderstand the number? I looked at the cash register display for confirmation. 103 euro! At today's exchange rate, that's over $130!!!! A 15-pound turkey for 130 dollars. Of course, we handed over the money, but we were shocked. A turkey this size at home would cost what? - maybe $30 or so? When Charley and I thought about it, we realized that this turkey would be the main course for a special dinner for 12 people and that our family would eat leftovers for several days - of course, we would eat leftovers for several days at this price! We would find a way to eat every scrap of meat on that turkey!!! When we thought about the turkey this way, it didn't seem so bad, or so we rationalized it!

Our 103 euro turkey!

Our 103 euro turkey!

Kelly and I found two little pots of yellow flowers at the florist to decorate our table, just four euro each. The young woman inside spent at least ten minutes making our pots look even prettier. She put orange cellophane around the pots, decorated them with curly yellow ribbons, and then wrapped them each in clear protective cellophane. I expected that the decoration would double the price, but it didn't cost anything extra!

Finding sweet potatoes was a challenge. Was there even such a thing in France? I had looked at the big Apt market on Saturday, where there must be twenty different vegetable stalls. I bought my regular potatoes, green beans and tomatoes at the market, but I didn't see anything resembling a sweet potato. My French dictionary didn't offer a translation for sweet potato. I didn't see anything in a can at Leclerc, but then, in the produce department, I spotted patate douce (literally potato sweet)! They were smaller than I was used to and rock hard (imported from Israel, according to the sign) but they were sweet potatoes. I bought six.

I had found a recipe for simple candied sweet potatoes. All I needed was brown sugar, something else that wasn't clearly identifiable in the sugar-section at Leclerc. I bought some sugar that was definitely light brown, but wasn't quite the same as our brown sugar at home. And then I needed some baking ingredients. What were the names for baking soda and baking powder? Neither of them came in the same kind of packaging. We finally had to ask a clerk where to find the baking powder. It came in little packets like yeast instead of a little round container like I was used to at home.

In the produce section I also bought a bunch of celery, the largest bunch of celery I have ever seen, as big as a giant bouquet of flowers. I bought the whole bunch, but in France celery is sold by the kilo and you can pull off individual stalks if you don't want the whole bunch.

At Leclerc I also looked one last time for measuring spoons, without luck. I bought a multi-purpose measuring cup in England and have carried it with me from rental to rental these past five months. It has measures in cups and ounces as well as in grams. Now I was fixing more complicated recipes, and then Kelly and I were baking cookies. I needed measuring spoons. I had looked in various stores for two weeks and finally concluded that French cooks just "know" how much to toss in. They must not measure anything. Measuring spoons as I've always known them at home just don't seem to exist here. Then I realized that my plastic measuring cup had even more measures than I'd realized and different measures for flour and sugar. How could that be?? At home a cup is a cup, regardless of what's being measured. At least I think it is! Lisa explained that the measures used in recipes here are by weight (grams) not by volume like I'm used to at home. Hence the different markings for flour and sugar in a measuring cup. (And also the little kitchen scales that are much more prevalent!) Meanwhile, I've found that I do have a general sense of how much a teaspoon and tablespoon are. I too can just toss in ingredients and hope for the best!

The Cooking Begins

I started cooking on Wednesday afternoon. I fixed the mashed potato casserole and the sweet potatoes. Kelly trimmed all the green beans for me. She made beautiful name cards for our guests. We planned the seating and decorated our table with the yellow flowers and some little gourds we'd found at Leclerc.

Charley and I spent most of the day Thursday cooking and cleaning. I made the stuffing with "Harry's American sandwich bread," mushrooms, celery, onions, and herbs. (I think the Herbes de Provence made a nice addition!) Charley stuffed the turkey and prepared the bird for cooking, rubbing him all over with our multi-purpose olive oil. We were so worried about messing up the turkey and somehow losing our big financial investment! We couldn't find a meat thermometer at Leclerc either, but we borrowed one from Lisa. We also borrowed a couple extra place settings of silverware. We had plenty of plates, but we were short of cutlery.

Six American kids enjoyed the big meal and being together

Six American kids enjoyed the big meal and being together

Thanksgiving Dinner

It was fun to have a party, fun to cook a big Thanksgiving meal for the first time, fun to have friends and be part of a community. Not simple really. No, definitely not simple. But definitely fun.

Our evening was a success. The turkey was so moist and good. (Thank goodness!) And I especially loved Kevin's pumpkin soup. The six kids were all compatible, and so were the six adults. We enjoyed sharing stories with other expatriate Americans and enjoyed gathering together as Americans. We missed the Macys parade and the football games, and most of all we missed sharing the day with our family as we always have. Although we were thousands of miles away and sitting down to eat several hours before everyone back in America, it was good to know that here in Provence we were still part of that very special American tradition, the Thanksgiving meal.


Woods Family Grand Tour of Europe: List of articles and photo albums by Kathy Wood

The Wood family from Knoxville, Tennessee are veteran travelers who successfully pursued their dream of living and traveling in Europe. Kathy, Charley and daughter Kelly (then 10 years old) began their fourteen-month "Grand Tour of Europe" in June 2004 and returned home in August 2005. Their trip focused on four major areas: France (33 weeks including 6+ months living in Provence), Great Britain (11 weeks), Italy (11 weeks), and the German/Austrian/Swiss Alps (6 weeks). Kathy is a regular Slow Travel contributor and maintained an extensive blog during their travels - Our Grand Tour of Europe.

Kathy is a former Human Resources executive who now works as a consultant and part-time college professor. She and Charley also lead The Luberon Experience (www.luberonexperience.com), a week-long, small-group trip based in Provence.

© Kathy Wood, 2005

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