© David Emblidge, 2003
Essay read on National Public Radio, WAMC, Albany, NY, Nov. 2003
We all have Thanksgiving stories about colossal meals and outrageous family behavior, but one of mine, rooted in memories of the year when I was a university professor in Toulouse, France, is more about scarcity than abundance.
My wife and I wanted to have an American Thanksgiving as per usual, but there just weren't any Butterball turkeys to be found, even at the hypermarché, which was as close to Wal-Mart as France had come at the time. We went to the street market in our village to buy a live one, but the old geezer farmers, the fellows still setting their prices in pre-WW II ancien francs (several million for the bird I was eyeballing) talked us out of that. They said we'd never get the plucking and singing done right, and besides, you have to cook a fresh, farm-raised French turkey for about a month before it's tender enough to eat. Thanksgiving was just a couple of days off. They said, diplomatically, “What you lack, Monsieur, is not good intentions but sufficient time. Comme c'est domage! What a pity!”
Then, the cleaning lady who worked for the couple next door got drift of our needs, and she offered to pluck and singe a bird for us. She brought the sucker to our place very much alive and squawking, and whomped it with a meat cleaver right in our back garden. When we left the village in June, turkey feathers were still cropping up amongst the leaves of the privet hedge.
Just when we were ready to commit to cooking the still bleeding beast, there was a knock on the door. My English Department colleague, Jean-Paul, who lived in a wonderful walled-in estate house in our town, said he had received a phone call for us (his house was the only one in the village with a phone, as far as we knew), and we had been invited to Thanksgiving dinner in the city, with Jean-Paul and his wife Michelle, at the home of a longtime expatriate, an American woman in our department, who had married a Frenchman. We crammed our own bird in the apartment’s minuscule fridge (about the size of a Coleman beach cooler) and gladly left behind us any idea of cooking for ourselves that day.
Our hosts' place in Toulouse was an elegant townhouse. Here was the first time I ever drank a Rapier, a cocktail so strong and seductive that no matter what they serve you afterwards for dinner, you're bound to like it. Mix one part champagne and one part Armagnac. The alcohol rating is off the charts, and you will be too if you have more than two of these babies. I had three. Which is why, I suppose, I was in a sentimental mood and why I became the confessor, on this darkening November afternoon, for our hostess, our American friend, who wept inconsolably, alone in her kitchen, when I came out to offer my severely motorskill-impaired help.
Yes, she had managed to find what her butcher assured her would be a chewable turkey, if cooked slowly for a day or so. Yes, she said she had made whipped potatoes, though they were from African spuds, not Idahos or Maines. But no, she had not found cranberries, and the day-old baguette, diced to make stuffing, just did not absorb the juices the way Pepperidge Farm does. Her quiet lament rolled on: Several other nuances of the standard American fare just weren't working, due to weak substitute ingredients, or weren't happening at all, due to the cultural gap between our two lands otherwise known as the Atlantic Ocean. I tried to comfort her, at first by saying that she shouldn't worry, she'd be going home again soon, and then I realized she was never going home, ever, because of her Monsieur, the French husband, and that for her a true American Thanksgiving was a permanent, unrecoverable loss.
The Chateauneuf du Pape we drank that evening far surpassed any red wine I had ever tasted at any of my family's hopelessly bland Presbyterian, Midwestern holiday dinners. But for Madame, our expatriate hostess, that which was missing could never be replaced by that which was present. I myself, as a newcomer, was entirely too charmed by France to feel even the slightest hint of loneliness for my family. I did not know that my father would die just two years hence, making this one of the last holidays I could have spent with him. No, Madame was the one with the problem. Uprooted and disconnected, for her the kitchen and dining table rituals that gave flavor and rhythm to her American cycle of personal holidays were permanently on hold. For lack of a can of Ocean Spray Cranberry sauce, here was a spasm of loneliness for home, untreatable by medicine, incurable even by a friendly, patriotic hug. When we gave thanks at the table that night, I sent my appreciation to the travel and fellowship gods who had brought me over to France for a sojourn with many months of stimulating pleasures...and a terminal date. Madame, stoic now at the head of the table, took a pass when the time to speak came 'round to her. She just smiled wistfully and poured herself another glass of memorable Chateauneuf du Pape.