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.