My family didn't get together very often , but the few times I remember were Thanksgiving at Grandma Lulu's house. I have vivid memories of scarfing down TONS of ambrosia salad, swirling it around in my mouth. The sounds of football on the TV and of the adults all gathered around the big table, the dominoes clicking and clacking against one another.
Still, those were few and far between.
One year, I was so torn up that we weren't having Thanksgiving in SOME way that I begged my uncle to take me to the ONE LONE gas station/grocery store in my little town so that I could buy some sliced ham, some canned green beans, some corn bread and some mashed potatoes. I was 8.
I don't know why it never became a habit. Christmas was always there but there were years of my childhood where Thanksgiving came and went and we didn't even realize it. A day or two later, we were like, "Oh yeah. Huh."
I think that's what made Thanksgivign so important to me now, as an adult. Maybe because I love gatherings. Maybe because I love people. Maybe because I LOVE FOOD and any excuse to make/eat too much of it. I think it's all of the above.
In my "spare" time, for the past few weeks I have been researching the internet for recipes and ideas to prepare a perfect Thanksgiving feast. Sam and I have been married for almost 8 years now and not once have I been able to cook a Thanksgiving meal. In the beginning, we were too poor. We ate turkey sandwiches and Stove Top stuffing. In 2003, I had a bird in the fridge ready to go into the oven when my obstetrician told me I had to go straight to the hospital to be induced--Ryan was born the day after Thanksgiving.
This was going to be my year. I was determined. Whenever I brought it up to Sam and he gave me the usual eye roll, I reminded him that he wouldn't let me celebrate Halloween and that I was going to get to celebrate at least one AMERICAN holiday and to me, there's nothing more American than Thanksgiving. Even July 4th pales in comparison. (Thanksgiving is about celebrating the local and seasonal fruits and vegetables... It's about harvest... July 4th is about artery-stopping JUNK FOOD and Asian fireworks...).
After weeks of studying recipes, I finally made up my menu: Free-range, organically-raised Turkey, cranberry-walnut stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, orange-almond green beans, onion garlic green beans (if I could have made even one more kind of green beans, I would have), butternut squash gratin, corn on the cob, homemade cranberry sauce, zucchini bread, homemade cornbread, lamb's lettuce salad with pear and gruyere in a fig mustard vinaigrette, pumpkin pie and apple pie.
I ran into more than one snafu that threatened to ruin everything. First of all, there was Sam. He is shy and not really the "gatherings" type. If it had been a Thanksgiving celebration with just his family, he might have been on board from the beginning. But since I wanted to invite all of my friends, he was against the whole thing. "We don't have enough room. We don't have enough tables. We don't have enough chairs." I argued that we have FIVE tables we could use and that we could buy some cheap folding chairs. The answer was still no. Family only.
I bugged him all month long about finding a turkey. He told me there was nothing to worry about. Then, when he finally called around looking for one, he found a farmer who slaughters his free-rangers on Monday. Well, the day Sam called was Tuesday and our Thanksgiving celebration was to be on Sunday! I was devastated. They don't even have industrial turkeys in the supermarket until the second week in December because turkey is a Christmas thing here (by the way, an aside... turkeys are not native to Europe...they are from the Americas...funny that turkeys got exported but our biggest turkey-eating day of the year did not). I threw up my hands and said, fine, let's just cancel!
I walked around in a depressed stupor for two days, figuring that I would have to wait until my 40's to have a "real" Thanksgiving. But then Sam went to a high-end market and finally found a turkey. I think the sight of me moping around like a popped balloon drove him to it. We ended up paying almost $100 for that little bird.
And then, there were the cranberries. ANOTHER yummy thing that is native to North America and only found here as imported from CANADA and usually either dried or canned. BUT after much scouring of the internet, I finally found a similar berry called an "airelle." It has the same flavor as the cranberry but is smaller. I found ONE STORE in all of Lyon that sells them frozen, imported from Sweden!!!
Then, there was the pumpkin. Another thing you don't find here. They have something called a courge which is close (it's like a winter squash). Then, there's butternut squash which is considered a pumpkin in Australia. Then, theres the potimarron which has a similar flavor. So, I figured since Thanksgiving should be a celebration of local, seasonal fare, I should make my pumpkin pie out of a mixture of these three squashes.
THEN, once invited, family began to cancel. On the one hand, this was a bad thing for Sam and for the fact that I had made up this humongous menu. On the other, it meant we had space--and chairs--enough for my friends!!! So, every time a couple from Sam's family called to say they couldn't come, I emailed another pair of my friends.
Here's how my week went:
Monday: I roasted my orange squashes, turned them into puree and froze them.
Tuesday: Shopping for food, water carafes, pie plates, cloth napkins, table cloths and other little things. Bought a fresh turkey--the butcher told Sam is was a "crying shame" that I didn't want to keep the turkey head for presentation... Yuck! French people are weird! I put the bird in the freezer (with neck and organs but NO head and feet, merci).
Wednesday: Got the airelles... WOO HOOOO!
Thursday: Took the bird out of the freezer. More shopping--silverware from Ikea.
Friday: The cooking starts...
I made the cranberry sauce with the frozen airelles, peels from small succulent clementines from Spain (organic, btw, if not really local...still, Spain is closer to France than California is to North Carolina!), fresh julienned ginger, crushed walnuts, organic fair-trade sugar, nutmeg and a pinch of salt.
Put pear jam I had been cooking for two days into little used yogurt jars (no lids). I cut some small lengths of turkey-trussing string and put them on top of the jam then poured melted paraffin wax over them to seal the jars (the strings are to help lift the wax... we'll see how that works out). I covered the waxed jars with squares of fabric and fastened them with yarn. I made little pear cards with the date on the back and tied those on. These were to be the place decorations and take-home gifts for the guests.
Friday evening, I made a brine out of kosher salt, clementines, lemons, garlic, onions and olive oil and plunged the nearly thawed bird into it and stuck that huge pan of bird bath into my fridge.
I roasted the turkey neck and giblets until nice and brown, deglazed with white wine and threw it into a pot with a whole head of garlic, onions, turnips, parsnips, carrots, peppercorns, olive oil and nice cold water and let that simmer for about two hours to make stock. I made a nice nutty white roux and then added the stock to it to make a thin, savory turkey gravy.
Sent Sam to the market for all kinds of goodies including a few funky looking squashes for the centerpieces. Also had him buy one roasted free-range chicken in case the turkey turned out not to be enough.
Roasted more squash. Thawed out two jars of eggplant-zucchini pesto and a chunk of parmesean cheese. Pureed the squash and layered it with pesto and cheese. Topped it with little cubes of butter and baked it for 40 minutes... Ta-DA! Butternut Squash Gratin!!!
More shopping... FOUND EVAPORATED MILK!!!! WOO HOOOOOO! Bought three folding chairs from IKEA for 4.50 Euro each!!! Found a basket of mixed nuts for the centerpieces.
Made two kinds of pie crust. One was just a regular pate brise and the other substituted almond powder for part of the flour.
Thawed the "pumpkin" puree, mixed it with evap milk, free-range eggs, spices and fair-trade organic sugar, poured it into pie crusts and baked the bejeezes out of it. I had to bake the pies one at a time because I only have one rack in my oven *eye roll*
Made a pie with frozen apples (from when sister-in-law gave us those huge crates of apples a few weeks back... remember the apple butter? I peeled and cored one of the crates, dipped it into a vitamin C solution and froze those puppies) and my almond crust. Brushed it with egg wash and baked the bejeezes out of it. I had planned to make little leaves out of the left over pie crust and either sprinkle them with different colored sugars OR with food coloring, but I couldn't for the life of me cut out a leaf that didn't look like a marijuana leaf, so I scrapped that project.
Made four loaves of bread, cut them into cubes, toasted them and cooled them in a big huge bowl.
Made two loaves of zuchini bread.
Made homemade herb butter using organic butter and herbs I bought from the organic market this summer and froze. Put the herb butter into the freezer.
Took the bird out of the brine and injected it with a mixture of dark beer, white wine, mixed fruit juices and olive oil.
I went to bed at 5am.
Sunday (Thanksgiving for us):
Got up at 8am and sent Sam out for fresh bread for breakfast (as well as bread for lunch... while I had wanted to make my own bread for the occasion, I just did not have time and energy to do it).
Ate "breakfast" while standing up in the kitchen, cooking little pigs in blankets we would eat for appetizers with dipping sauces.
Cooked a pan of generously buttered and oiled onions and celery, added a chopped apple and a chopped unripe pear. Added a cup of dried cranberries from the organic market. Poured the mixture into big humongous bowl of toasted bread cubes, added stock, mixed, added an egg, added herbs, spread onto two pans and cooked it.
Cut disks of herb butter and slid under the skin of the turkey. Put quarters clementines, apples and onions into the bird and re-trussed it. Coated turkey with olive oil, salted, peppered and chucked into the oven.
Scrubbed about 20 potatoes and put them to boil with skins on.
Peeled another 30 potatoes and put them to boil.
Basted the turkey with white wine.
Basted the turkey with fruit juice.
Made an aluminum canopy for the turkey after an hour so the bird would cook without the skin burning.
Mashed the potatoes, added cream, butter, milk and salt.
Warmed up gravy.
Guests arrive and help with setting the table, including centerpieces and little jars of pear jam I had made and decorated earlier in the week.
My neighbor and new hero went into the living (now dining) room and got people drinking and eating the pigs in blankets. One of my friends comes into the kitchen and helps warm the mashed potatoes.
Take the bird out and let it rest for half an hour. Pour the bird juice on the stuffing. Put the bird on the bed of stuffing.
Warmed up extra chicken and the butternut squash gratin.
Steamed green beans, added either orange and almond or herb butter, garlic and dried/fried onions and tossed.
Finally, all is ready. We didn't have cornbread and the lonely lamb's lettuc salad stayed unwashed in the fridge cuz I just didn't have any more time.
The meal was awesome. We had 25 people total. I had invited the two girls I met that day I went to my journee civique (remember? where I did the Joelie Show in front of a group of people) and their husbands (and kids). I also invited the girls I met who had done NaNoWriMo here in Lyon this year--only one of them (and her husband) was able to come because the other one is leaving for Jakarta today. One of Sam's sisters, her husband and their four kids came. And Sam's dad went to the rehab center here in Lyon where Sam's mom has been, kidnapped her and brought her here.
Guess what? We had enough chairs. We had enough wine glasses (ahem, actually, I found two huge boxes of wine glasses someone had left in the trash pile downstairs in the garage...I washed them and they looked better than new--20 glasses right there!!!) We had enough plates for both lunch AND dessert. Everybody had enough to eat and RAVED about the food!!! YAY!!!! America is no longer just about McDonald's!!!! I'm an ambassador of my culture!!!
The only bad thing was that the downstairs neighbor came up to ask us to quiet down. I wish I had thought to invite her in and give her a slice of pie, but I was so flustered with all of the cleaning and conversation... Plus, it's just not something you do in France... Shame, huh?
The last guests left around 9pm and by the time they did, we had set up dates in the future to have a sushi night, a Mexican food/board game night and a Brazillian food night.
Look! I have a life!!!!