"The evolving Francophile..."

My husband Jack has always wanted to live in Paris and learn French. I thought it would be good for him to achieve his life time dream. Hence, we moved to Paris in 2008. My first year was difficult. I started "missives" to relieve some stress and chronicle my life so friends back in the US could read what I am experiencing. I currently write about my food and travel experiences, which is my passion.

It is definitely a challenge to live here, but each year it gets easier, and quite enjoyable, in large part because I value friendships over locale. I have a love/hate relationship with Paris as do most Parisians, mais La vie est belle (but life is good)!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Thanksgiving in Paris...

Our Paris family--Thanksgiving celebration 11/26/11
 Tips and tricks to having a happy, great and successful THANKSGIVING in Paris!!!

Our normal routine is we would leave for the U.S. a week before Thanksgiving and stay there until well after the New Year, so we can visit and spend the holidays with our friends and family.  About 2-months ago, we decided, let’s give Paris a try for the holidays, since we’ve never experienced the holidays here. And, voila, here we are.

Imagine in the 4-years we have lived in Paris, this is the first time we’ve actually been here for the Thanksgiving festivities.  We’ve had early, simple Thanksgiving dinners in Paris before, but they were typically small and intimate, and we usually have them just before we leave for our annual winter “Hajj” to the U.S. for the holidays

In a lot of ways, it’s the same as in the U.S.  Although some ex-pats have Thanksgiving on the actual day (Thursday),  most ex-pats have it either the next day on Friday evening or as for us, on Saturday, which would enable our friends who work, to participate as well, of course, American Thanksgiving is not a holiday in France.  

We all stress out, because we want to make sure we have enough food, and what if we have too many desserts etc., or not enough “greens” etc., etc.,   A lot of out French friends don’t understand why we get all frenzied and worked-up, and I try to explain to them it’s part of the whole process, the excitement, the stress, the anticipation, and then the actual day of catharsis and enjoyment. Surprisingly many more French know the Thanksgiving holiday from movies.  And, they sometimes ask me is the turkey really that large, is it really that big of a festivity, and I respond, yes, to their amazement. I try to explain to them it’s the “biggest” non-denominational holiday where we will travel for miles to spend this one meal with our family and friends. 

My best friend Steve and I pretty much organized the whole Thanksgiving and there were definitely some challenges. What started as a small group of maybe 10-people reached 16.  There was a mix of American ex-pats and French.

Granted, there are several places that serve Thanksgiving dinners, and "Paris by Mouth -- Thanksgiving"  put this excellent list together where to eat; however, Steve and I wanted it to be traditional, in a home with good friends.
Let’s start with some of the obstacles we faced, needless-to-say it can be fun and challenging:

 Most of us in Paris are “room-challenged.”  Most of our apartments are small. So, Steve volunteered to hold the festivities at his apartment; by Parisian standards he has a large living/dining room combination that can easily accommodate 20+-people.  And, more importantly, he has a large kitchen.

Now this is probably the most challenging.
·        Turkey--turkey parts are easily sold in the supermarkets, e.g., thighs//legs. However, whole turkeys are not and must be ordered at a butcher shop or many of the speciality stores, such as "Thanksgiving in Paris Store".   The turkeys are medium sized and one must be careful when ordering, since Parisian apartment ovens tend to be much smaller than our American counterparts. In other words, "measure twice, cook once..." Note: Turkeys are extremely expensive. For a 10-lb turkey it can cost upwards of 70€.

Steve getting ready to put the turkey in the oven
·        Giblet gravy—If you are like me, you have to have giblet gravy. Unfortunately, you don’t always get the giblets, neck or liver from the turkey.  I have come with up a great solution.  Make your gravy as you would normally; however, buy a can or bottle of “confit gésier de canard” It’s the gizzards from the duck that have been cofit’d.  It adds incredible flavor and the gizzards are typically nice and tender.  You can also buy chicken livers in the supermarket, and you can add to that as well.
·        Corn meal—They have the “farine de maïs” (corn flour) at health food stores such as Naturalia; however, it’s not the same, nor is the Italian polenta.  I find that Latin American markets such as “Latino Market 55 Rue Firmin Gillot in the 15eme carries corn meal, and is exactly what you find in the U.S.
      Appetizers--try to serve cold or room temperature appetizers beforehand, hence, freeing up space in your kitchen and more importantly, freeing up your oven.

Room temperature appetizers

·        Cranberries (canneberges)—this can be challenging to find. Yes you can find them, but they’re typically in very small bags, almost the size of a bag of M&M’s, and quite expensive (4-5€), in places such as Bon Marché, or Monoprix.  Personally, I would recommend that if you have a friend coming in from the US just before Thanksgiving ask them to transport fresh cranberries. They can be stored in a small portable cooler and placed in your check-in baggage. If you don’t care about having fresh cranberries, they do sell canned cranberries at International markets such as Bon Marché or Thanksgiving in Paris store etc.
·        Pumpkin (potiron)—canned pureed pumpkins do not exist; however, fresh pumpkins can easily be found in Paris. You will; however, need to bake them, and mash them to use for your e.g., pumpkin pie.
·        Pecans—for e.g., pecan pie can easily be found in Paris. Try to get them in bulk at the markets.  Pecans and walnuts are extremely expensive. I typically bring costco size bags when I return from the US.  And, as for corn syrup, you can easily find them at the Asian markets in the Korean or Japanese section, and they're usually labeled in English, along with Korean or Japanese.  If you prefer using maple syrup, this is now easily available at any major supermarket.

Our fabulous dessert table

·        Buttermilk—for your biscuits can easily be found at the Arab markets or at the supermarkets in the yoghurt section and labeled under “Lait Ribot” or “Yoplait, lait fermenté”.  Note:  they tend to be much richer than your American counterpart.
·        Sweet potatoes (patates douces)—These too can easily be found at any produce store.  However, the color is a little anemic compared to the American version, but works and tastes great.  If you are going to make sweet potato pie, you’ll need to bake and mash the potatoes as you would regular potatoes.
·        Cream Cheese—This was once very difficult to find. I remember getting cream cheese at Bon Marché at 4€ for 4-ounces.  The American “Philadelphia” cream cheese have been recently introduced to the French market and can be easily found at almost any French supermarket at a cost of 1.50€ for 4-ounces.  Note: if you are making a cheesecake, speculoos cookies found everywhere, makes the perfect crust.
·        Crusts—Although you can find all sorts of store-bought crusts in France, I find them to be a lot tougher than our flaky crusts back home. And, there's no beating homemade crust. With that said, I would suggest for a flakier crust, make it yourself. You can purchase "graisse végétale" a great Crisco substitute which is typically found in the butter section, and in some cases the freezer section of the grocery store.
·        Flour—you can find all purpose flour called, “tout usage” (all usage) at some markets.  If you need flour for specific type of baking see the following:
American Cake & Pastry: Type 45
American  All-Purpose & Bread: Type 55
American High Gluten: Type 65
American Light Whole Wheat: Type 80
American  Whole Wheat: Type 110
American Dark Whole Wheat: Type 150

Cooking in a typical Parisian kitchen can be quite challenging.  First of all the ovens are much, much smaller. And, in some ovens as in Steve’s, the heating element is at the top and bottom of the oven, which is normal operation.  You cannot just have the bottom heating element on. This poses quite a challenge, since the top of the turkey takes up about 90% of the space.  Hence, the top portion of the turkey (e.g., breast) is about 2-inches from the top heating element.  With that said, you will need to tent the turkey with aluminum foil until maybe the last 30-45 minutes of roasting, at which time you can remove it to crisp the skin. Note: temperatures are in centigrade, hence, a typical 325F = 162.8C; 350F = 176.7C; 375F = 190.6C.

Proud daddy posing with his 10-lb baby!
Don’t even think about deep frying a turkey.  With such tight quarters chances of a grease fire are much, much greater.  And, smoking a turkey is also out of the question, since it’s illegal to have BBQ’s or smokers in residential apartments, even if you have a terrace or balcony.

            Tips and Tricks:
  • ·        Having 2-ovens is unheard of in Paris, unless you had your apartment remodeled to American standards.  Desserts should be made the day before. And, if you have a small refrigerator try and stay away from anything that needs to be chilled.
  • ·        Stuffing, candied yams, spring bean casserole, corn bread, rolls, etc. that need oven time should be made first, because once you have the turkey in the oven, that’s it, you will not have any room for any other food items.  You can always reheat e.g., the casseroles in the microwave.
  • ·        Keep mashed potatoes over boiling hot water or a warming plate to keep warm, and put it aside somewhere, which will allow you to use your stove-top to cook or use as a prep station, since many Parisian kitchens have very little counter-space.
  • ·        Always, always clean as you go to avoid unnecessary clutter in the kitchen and give you more work space. And, if you have a dishwasher load as you go and immediately wash, and unload for the next following batches.
  • ·        Try to limit the number of people in your kitchen, or just yourself if you have a very tiny kitchen.  It can be very dangerous, especially if knifes are flying around.

Food, glorious food!
 Most of the American ex-pats are from different parts of the US.  So, with our regional differences, many brought dishes typical of their family or region.  For example, our good friend Gina made a “corn pudding” a very southern dish which I’ve never had, and it was delicious.  Steve’s family hails originally from Ohio, and he made a fresh cranberry jello pudding, again it was my first time to ever have this, and it too was delicious. Zabie made baked onions stuffed with spinach,  and I made a vegan "Poor Man's Sushi" which hails from Hawaii, and so many other dishes were made which truly made this bountiful meal a diverse and joyous holiday.

Needless to say, we had a most wonderful, wonderful Thanksgiving. Although I miss my family, I don’t regret staying here for the holidays, because of all our wonderful friends who have become our families.

Here's some great entertaining reading:

Art Buchwald on "A Turkey with French Dressing"


When Continents Collide: The Tribulations of Making (and Serving) Thanksgiving Dinner in Paris by David Jaggard

  (see comments section for extra tips)


  1. You've captured it, all right! Especially the French not understanding the rush of the buildup to the meal -- that's half the fun! The few things I'd add after my first Thanksgiving are a) You can have the boucherie cook your turkey for you to save on oven space; being just 2, we ordered a roti de dinde (which looked like a long pork roast and was juicy and better than I could have made) b) I asked for canneberge at my produce market and they special-ordered them for me for the next day -- 3€ for about a pint -- not sure if I lucked out there, but I know where to go next year!

  2. Thanks Lynn, great tip about the Boucherie, especially for those who don't have an oven, which, as we know is not uncommon in Paris. I'm a bit of a traditionalist, I love the process of seasoning, dressing and basting the turkey and love the smell of turkey cooking in the house. And, of course using the drippings for the gravy, a must have in our family.

    Great tip on the cranberries. Thanks!

  3. Just came back from Bon Marché first time I saw cranberries from Wisconsin at 6.95 Euros for 12 ounces. So, it's double what you pay at the produce... Anyway, just an FYI...

  4. I feel better knowing you all had a fairly traditional dinner but lord have mercy the trouble that must have been just rounding up the ingredients. I love you all but I travel with carryon or I'd haul you some cornmeal. What on earth is dressing unless it's CORNBREAD dressing? I made it for the first time solo this year. I know what you're thinking, but why do it if somebody else will? Actually it was easy and I'll do it again.