Monday, November 29, 2010

A Turkey of a Thanksgiving?

The aftermath of our French Thanksgiving

Things in my favor when I decided to cook a Thanksgiving dinner while in Dijon:
    -- I’m in France surrounded by the freshest bread and vegetables I could imagine
    -- I have a new recipe for Potatoes Gratin with French Gruyère cheese
    -- Brad and I have French friends with whom to share our American feast
Things against my plan to cook a Thanksgiving dinner while in Dijon:
    -- Our apartment does not have an oven
    -- Not a single roasting turkey exists in the entire city

Did you know that absolutely the only time the French eat roasted turkey is Christmas week – and then only out of tradition because they don’t actually like it?  I found this out later from my Paris friend, Martine.  I could get rooster, pigeon, pheasant, duck, and practically any other bird I wanted, but it was starting to look like a holiday dinner built around slices of packaged deli turkey, which was all I could find a week before the big day.

On the other hand, how would I cook it in our kitchen equipped with only three small burners, a microwave-convection over (and not the family size, either), and a Le Creuset casserole (dutch oven) large enough to serve as a deadly weapon if I were being chased by a large grizzly bear that smelled salmon on my breath?  I also had only two feet of counter space on which to prepare everything.  If I found my turkey, could I cook it?

While waiting for a turkey to drop from the heavens in a Thanksgiving miracle, I set to work on the rest of my meal because my petite cooking accommodations meant it would take multiple days to ready all the dishes I had planned.  My produce vendor helped me pick the perfect apples for my tarte du pomme, which I made with French feuilleté, or puff pastry. The French green beans were almost fluorescent in color from their absolute, just-off-the-farm freshness. The butternut squashes for my soup (that would eventually be pureéd the old-fashioned way -- by pushing the flesh through a sieve) waited on the kitchen counter to make magic. And I had several baguettes of pain de compagne (delicious hearty wheat bread) drying out on the kitchen counter for distinctly American stuffing.  While chopping, and slicing, and mashing, and mixing I also tried to imagine the scent of succulent roasted turkey filling our apartment.

After a luckless week of searching, I again trekked to my butcher on the last market day before the dinner, resigned to choosing one of the large chickens staring out at me from the butcher cases with its feather bedecked head and naked body.  Then voilá, as if on cue, I saw two turkey leg quarters isolated in a distant corner of the cold case.  Their sudden appearance made me think that my favorite meat master knew the importance of this week for his American ex-patriot customers.  I rushed them home and stuffed them into an already overpacked dorm-sized refrigerator, leaving them to await their cue to center stage.

Here’s a handy hint for shopping at French markets: say oui to whatever your butcher suggests.  On Thanksgiving afternoon I realized that my stovetop oven, even as large as it seemed, would not hold my two turkey legs.  So that was what Monsieur Butcher meant when he pantomimed cutting off the bony joint at the end of the leg, to which I replied with a smile and a no, merci because I didn’t have a clue what he was trying to say.  And now it was only a couple of hours before dinner, with no heavy knife of my own to perform the surgery on that miniscule section my butcher could have eliminated in seconds.  With fifteen minutes of cramming, twisting, turning, and attempting to loosen and bend the joints of the quarters I finally managed to squeeze them in, fitted tight like shoes in a shoebox.  Oh, Monsieur Butcher, I’ll never doubt you again!

What a wonderful meal this would be, I thought as I patted myself on the back.  I puttered and cleaned and set the table and anticipated our French guests’ experience of their first Thanksgiving feast.  Then I went to peek in the pot at how dinner was progressing.  Mon dieu!  Where was my roasted turkey?  What I had here was turkey soup, swimming in an inch of liquid.  When my landlady gave me 30 seconds of instructions for using this casserole, it seemed so simple. “You put the vegetables in, comme sa (like so) and then you put the meat in comme sa and then you add liquid un peu and set the flame comme sa.  It’s simple. C’est tout.  That’s all.”  Exactly how much liquid was “un peu”?  I thought I had put in the minimum amount to prevent sticking, but apparently the turkey had its own supply to contribute.

Only one hour until guests arrive and I had not a golden bird but a pale pot of turkey soup!  I cranked up the flame to boil off the liquid as quickly as possible.  Maybe I could salvage the meal by achieving a minimal amount of golden crispy skin on the centerpiece of the dinner.  If I couldn’t do that, what would I use to create that most essential delicacy for the meal – turkey gravy?  It was a tense thirty minutes as I waited for another turkey miracle.  But eventually the apartment filled with the aroma of the bird’s drippings (which would produce gravy ambrosia), and stuffing laced with onion and obscene amounts of sage, the mingling of cheese, cream, and potatoes in my first-ever gratin, and the first spoonful of the sage-infused (if slightly lumpy) squash soup.

Somehow in a kitchen smaller than a modern spa tub I had succeeded in replicating a traditional Thanksgiving with a bit of French flavor.  Travel – c’est l’aventure, toujours!

What is your favorite Thanksgiving story?  What dismal failures or rousing successes have you experienced?  Click to share it in the comments box.  And I hope your holiday weekend was wonderful.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Birthday Wisdom

I know I've posted this before, but it's one of my favorite photos.  Tonya never had a bigger grin in her life than on her first birthday in the United States when she found out about this wonderful tradition of showering birthday girls with love and attention and presents.

“Today is my birthday and all that I want
Is to dig through this big box of pictures
In my kitchen ‘til the daylight’s gone”
-- Kristian Bush/Jennifer Nettles “Very Last Country Song”

     Yes, today is my birthday.  But not just mine.  My daughter and I have shared this special day for the last fifteen years.  Being born on the same day made us so much alike (a blessing and a curse), but we absolutely stand at polar opposites when it comes to the menu for our birthday feast.  She wants steak and a plain cake with minimal or no icing; I want the dinner my mother always fed me – fried chicken and mashed potatoes with gravy – plus a gooey, sweet Black Forest Cake or something similar with enormous amounts of sugar.  As a good parent, however, I made the ultimate sacrifice for my child and usually gave up my favorite food for the sake of her birthday dinner.

    Now, with my daughter several hundred miles away at school, I’m going to have myself a carb-laden fried chicken blowout for my birthday (and yes – to answer my sister – there will be lots of gravy).  But I’ll also be thinking of T on our special day.  Since one thing we have in common is a love of music, I’m sending her some words from our favorite singers to live by in the coming year.  And you might find something that hits you just so as well.

Help me if you can/ I’m feeling down/ and I do appreciate you being round
-- John Lennon/ Paul McCartney “Help”
Just remember, T, it’s not a sign of weakness to ask for help.  The world is full of people with wonderful experiences and bucketfuls of knowledge that mean we never have to reinvent the wheel.  If someone gives advice, that doesn’t mean he or she is trying to run your life.  Let someone else carry part of the load sometimes.

Guess what, honey, clothes don’t just wash themselves!/ Neither do dishes, neither does the bathroom floor// So, now if anyone asks, not that they would/ I’ll be down in Mississippi and up to no good
-- Kristian Bush/Kristen Hall/Jennifer Nettles “Down In Mississippi”
Keep this one in reserve for when you have a child of your own.  For myself, I’d change it to “I’ll be at a Keith Urban concert and up to no good.”  But you already know that.

And speaking of KU –
Days go by/ I can feel ‘em flying/ Like a hand out the wind as the cars go by
-- Monty Powell and Keith Urban “Days Go By”
We sang this at so many concerts.  Don’t get so caught up in making all your plans for the future that you forget to roll down the window and stick that hand out.  Right now is just as important as tomorrow and next year.  Don’t be too impatient; you’ll get there soon enough.

I know you can hear me/ You don’t have to say a thing/ My love is stronger, lasts a lot longer/ Than your anger or your pain
-- Radney Foster “I Know You Can Hear Me”
During that first year after the adoption when we were learning to be a family, your dad was trying to make you sit on the stairs for a two-minute time out.  You fought every second of it – refusing to listen, testing our commitment to you, and daring us not to love you.  You later asked your dad in a jumbled mix of English and Russian if we were going to send you back because we were angry.  Well, like it or not we’re in this for the long haul.  But the road has gotten less bumpy, don’t you think?

Life is short/Even on its longest day
-- John Mellencamp “Longest Day”
This will mean a lot more thirty years down the line when you’re my age.  So hang onto it for the time when you’ll need it.

     After I make a phone call to my favorite birthday partner today, I’ll put on some music and heat up the oil for my decadent delight.  I’ll think about past years and perhaps pull out those pictures.  And I’ll start planning for many more.  Happy Birthday to me.

Please don't retouch my wrinkles. It took me so long to earn them.

Italian actress Anna Magnani

They say that age is all in your mind. The trick is keeping it from creeping down into your body.


If you have any great birthday quotes or words of wisdom passed on to you or that you tried to share with your own children – or any great birthday story – share them in the comment box here.  Thanks for reading and sharing.
Related Posts with Thumbnails