Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Turkey in France

Dear Jane,
We have mostly nothing in common. My mom is a spectacular cook, I'm an okay cook, and it's too soon to tell for my daughters. I admire the life-choice of watching suns set and herbs grow in Italy, but here in Sacramento County, I can't see the western horizon and I tend to let my herbs parch and or bolt. I don't travel to report on travels or food or for any other reason, generally. When I write, it's ... well, like this.
I have cooked Thanksgiving dinner in Paris. In 1986 I was an au pair. At 25, I was old for an au pair, but there I was nonetheless. I had never cooked Thanksgiving dinner before. My mother, having no idea the difficulty of the undertaking, suggested I cook our national holiday dinner for my French family. She sent me a detailed shopping list and Thanksgiving-dinner-step-by-step how-to. The family I lived with was intrigued enough to agree to it. They weren't your typical French family, as you may already suspect. The mom, Helen, was a New Zealander and the dad, Thierry, was born in Egypt to a Swiss mom and French dad. They had an international circle of friends. But none who had ever cooked them Thanksgiving dinner. Especially in their own apartment. The shopping, of course, was the first challenge. Helen managed to convince her butcher that she really did want a turkey. She had greater difficulty convincing him not to stuff it for her, but she managed that too. I searched everywhere for cornmeal -- cornmeal stuffing is our family specialty too. They just don't eat that much corn in France, it seems. I finally settled on a small packet of polenta. Being the kind of person who is never organized enough to have buttermilk when I want to use it for cooking, I took care of that the same way I did even when I lived in San Francisco: put lemon in the milk. I knew how to make mashed potatoes pretty well. Lumpy with lots of cream and butter. Since I'd already ruined gravy multiple times on my home continent, I was sure I'd do that here too. Anything that had to thicken intimidated me. I know there was also some kind of green vegetable, but the only other menu item I remember is creamed onions. I held out little hope for their success.
My mother's instructions included how to "quickly" peel the dozens of teeny white onions. Helen, willing to go along with the other weird American traditions, scoffed loudly at peeling your own onions. She said, "I know an even quicker way," and showed me a big bag of the congellee ones from the all-frozen store. (Why don't we have those? I loved that place.) The onions turned out delicious, smooth, tender, creamy. I haven't included them in subsequent Thanksgiving dinners, I don't think I could top them. The turkey was even more challenging than I expected it to be. It was pure chance that it fit into the oven. Technically, I suppose that when your food presses against all four oven walls it doesn't really fit at all. But since we were using the turn-turn-turn method of turkey roasting, it was handy to be able to wedge it in there, held on its side, back, or front by the close fit. The turkey, potatoes, stuffing, and gravy were all, miraculously, delectable. I was the only American present. My co-hosts and nearly every guest told me how completely surprised, shocked, astonished they were that it was so good. They did not expect to enjoy a meal based on American cuisine. Maybe it wasn't so good considering the low expectations. I didn't even expect it to turn out. I have to give most of the credit to my mom's instructions. I questioned nothing. Except for using frozen onions, I did everything exactly as written. It is one of the great regrets of my life (I have a few) that I do not know what happened to those pages. I can still picture them. One page for each menu item. One page listing what to do when so that it would all be ready together. White pages, typed on an IBM Selectric. Everything centered. A few splatters of gravy.

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