My friend Sharon asked me if turkey is as popular here in France as it is in the States. That made me think about the differences.
The first Thanksgiving I spent in France was in 1972 (I'm dating myself). I was living in the city of Rouen in Normandy and teaching English in a high school there. That fall I had made friends with the family of one of my students. Around November 20, the mother of the student showed up at my apartment -- I didn't have a phone back then so she just had to drop by -- to give me a turkey. She said she had read that late November was when Americans celebrated the Thanksgiving holiday and that the traditional meal was a roasted turkey. So she brought me one, because they weren't easy to find.
Well, it was the scrawniest thing I had ever seen. That's all I remember about it. I and my American friends in Rouen (there were 6 or 7 of us there from the University of Illinois that year) must have cooked and eaten it, but I don't remember that part very well.
Later, when I lived in Paris in the mid-'70s into the early '80s, the University of Illinois Architecture School's year abroad program in Versailles would always have a big Thanksgiving dinner and invite the students from the University of Illinois French Department's program in Paris. We would take the train out to Versailles on a cold, wet November night and sit down to a big Thanksgiving feast. The problem was that the food was usually pretty awful. It was a French effort to reproduce the American meal, and it wasn't very successful as I remember it. And then we all had to rush to get the last train back into Paris late at night and try to get home before the subway shut down at midnight or so. So it was always kind of a disappointing experience -- it just didn't live up to our expectations and memories of good Thanksgiving holidays at home.
Jump forward to 2003. Walt and I arrived in France in June, and that year was our first holiday season in Saint-Aignan. At Christmas, we ordered a small turkey from the butcher in Saint-Aignan. We wanted to get a good turkey, farm-raised, free-range, Label Rouge -- all that-- rather than just buy one in the supermarket. It was delicious, I remember, and was very different from the turkeys we were used to getting in California. It wasn't scrawny, but it wasn't butterball fat either. It seemed closer to nature, somehow. There were still some feathers on it, and it was lean and gamey looking. But there was a thin layer of fat lying just under the skin, and when we roasted it that fat melted and tenderized the breast meat. It was delicious.
Turkeys are not available year-round here, and it can be hard to find one even in November. You have to order one, as the friend who is organizing our Thanksgiving dinner this week told us. Even then, you have to wait a while to get one because they just aren't widely available before December. There is no Thanksgiving holiday in France.
We often buy turkey legs/thighs at the supermarket. We eat them ourselves, or I cook them for the dog. It's easier to cook and debone a big turkey leg than it is to cook and debone a whole chicken, and you end up with about the same amount of meat. So that's what I often buy for Collette.
The other thing that is not available here is ground turkey. I wanted some this week to make a meat sauce for spaghetti, so I bought a turkey leg, deboned it raw, and then put the meat through the meat grinder. We also grind our own lamb and chicken when we need those. Ground beef is available at the butcher's or at the supermarket, as is ground pork (sausage meat), seasoned or plain. But not other ground meats.
What do French people eat for the Christmas feast? Sometimes turkey, but probably just as often a roasted capon or goose. They don't do bread stuffing, either, as far as I know. They use chestnuts or sausage meat or foie gras to stuff the bird. I'll be making cornbread stuffing for our Thanksgiving dinner this year. We'll see if anybody likes it.