Becketwood Cooperative
An Active, Independent 55+ Community of Owners in Minneapolis

A French Thanksgiving: November 1960

By Dee Schaefer, Becketwood Member

(Dee Schaefer was appointed a Fulbright Teaching Assistant in the English Department at the University of Besançon in the Jura Mountains, France, in 1959-60.) 

If Madame Douge’s kitchen had not been so spacious and her dining room so inviting, I wonder if I would have tried to prepare an American Thanksgiving in Besançon. Never mind. The invitations were extended. There would be a dozen guests. Among them, Madame Douge, my landlady, her two adult sons, her five renters including me and the English university assistant from London, an American teacher from Denver, and several international student friends.

Of course, I had never been in charge of an entire Thanksgiving dinner in my life much less one in France. My first task was to find a turkey. My motorized bike took me into a neighborhood known for its quality butcher shop. When I saw the head of a wild boar displayed on a low table, I knew that I was in the right place. The butcher listened to my request for a twenty-pound turkey. He shrugged his shoulders. “Mademoiselle, ça n’existe pas.” (Miss, that doesn’t exist.) Silence. Then, in my most persuasive French, I begged him to do his best to find the biggest turkey in the surrounding area. He promised.

When I returned on my bike days later to pick up the turkey, the butcher proudly displayed his find. He held it up by its thin legs with its head drooping toward the counter. It was the skinniest turkey I had ever seen. There would never be enough meat on those bones to feed a dozen people. He had done his best.

An Irish friend had agreed to lend a hand in the kitchen. She immediately had a solution for the slim turkey. Potatoes. She helped me peel pounds of them which we whipped into mini-mountains surrounding the roasted bird in the valley. So much for that.

As for the dressing, when I started drying French bread on the radiators in the kitchen, Madame Douge was deeply puzzled. My idea was to add onions and celery to the mix before baking it. There was a minor problem. What I thought was celery was fennel. For a novice market shopper like me, fennel had the stalky appearance of celery. So I inadvertently created a licorice-flavored stuffing. No comment.

Although I had given up looking for cranberries, I was determined to make a pumpkin pie. After a search, a big, fat pumpkin graced the rack on my bike. It was tough, stringy and filled with huge seeds. Once I had removed the pulp, I beat it and tried to strain it without success. My Irish helper and I packed it just the same into two pie crusts. Little did I know that pumpkins have a bad reputation in France. They remind some of WWII and others of poverty. At the time, they were used to feed pigs. A so-called pie pumpkin truly did not exist.

To the rescue would be bowls of sweetened, whipped cream. In my bag, I had dropped two containers of crème fraîche, which translated literally means “fresh cream.” What I didn’t know was that it is a kind of northern European sour cream. The Denver teacher (who was older and seemingly wiser than the rest of us) had made us promise that we would never speak a word of English in his presence. We had respected his wishes for two months. He took a bite of the pie with cream, frowned, and said in a loud American voice, “Good God! What is this?”

Humbled by my experience, I vowed to take cooking lessons in Paris if I ever had a chance. Years later, I did. In fact, I eventually taught French cooking in a Minneapolis public school adult education program and created an interim university course focused on regional cookery. Am I grateful for my Thanksgiving disaster in France? Yes, I am. Without it, I wouldn’t have a story.

Leave a Reply

  • Sandra Peck October 27, 2020, 4:43 pm

    This is a wonderful and funny story.

  • judy October 27, 2020, 6:30 pm

    Experience brings a richer life. Thank you.

  • Laura F. Lindell October 27, 2020, 6:38 pm

    So glad you have this story, and shared it here! I wonder what story the other diners have about this “American Thanksgiving Dinner” in France? I especially wonder about the perspective of your super supportive “Irish friend.” Who knows, this story might be told from time to time in several different corners of the world with several different slants!

  • Stephen Bubul October 27, 2020, 8:11 pm

    Dee’s Thanksgiving tale is hilarious. Right up there with Art Buchwald’s attempt to explain Thanksgiving to the French, written he was an expat writing for the New York Herald Tribune in the 1950’s (I think). Thanksgiving was the Jour de Merci Donnant, and a key character was Kilometres Deboutish (Miles Standish). Ah, those were the days.

  • Anonymous October 27, 2020, 9:39 pm

    Thank you!

  • Anonymous October 29, 2020, 12:50 am

    Although this story was familiar to me, I love the written version and the chance to laugh at your expense!

  • Helen Gilbert October 29, 2020, 4:05 pm

    Dee, thanks for this. It’s delightful and funny, and a bright note of distraction and encouragement for a year which will have a “make-do” Thanksgiving. (I have a French daughter-in-law, and she always marvels at our traditional Thanksgiving dinner.)

  • Elaine Churchill November 2, 2020, 6:14 pm

    Dee, I laughed out loud when it came to your dressing disaster. Your French guests will never understand why we Americans rave and look forward for such a grand feast.

  • Anonymous November 22, 2020, 11:54 pm

    Thanks Dee, it is a wonderful story.,especially from you dear Dee, so bright and capable. It brings into focus the humanity in all of us. How about a course in French cooking here at Becketwood?! We’d all love it!

  • Audrey and John November 23, 2020, 7:44 pm

    Such a great story, Dee. Wish all your readers could share our memories of the perfection of meals to follow at your elegant table!

  • Jean A Byhardt November 24, 2020, 4:19 pm

    Another great story, Dee! I can attest to your wonderful cooking skills! Have a nice Thanksgiving!!

  • Joanne Day November 25, 2020, 3:57 am

    Dee, this is priceless! I’m going to share it with friends as it’s too good and to funny to keep to myself. Did Julia Child start out this way??

  • Anonymous November 25, 2020, 5:29 pm

    Yet another great story, Dee! Thank you so very much for sharing it.

    PS: was your bike a Vélo Solex or maybe some other type?

  • Mary Schaefer November 26, 2020, 1:10 am

    Oh Dee, What a wonderful story. I love the image of you buzzing through the streets in the neighborhood caring the turkey and later the pumpkin. I am sure a lot of laughter and wine made that dinner all the sweeter, though not quite as you had imagined!
    I did not know you taught French cooking classes. You have so many talents! Oh, to be your student!
    Have a lovely Thanks Giving!

  • Pat and Richard November 26, 2020, 2:01 am

    Dear Dee, so much for a memorable Thanksgiving! No mention of how your guests “enjoyed” the rest of the dinner including the sacrificial turkey. Thanksgiving blessings and be well!