By Anetta Nowosielska
Oddly, it happened in Paris. But, in hindsight, where else does one go to fall in love for a lifetime? And that’s exactly what came to pass many years ago, when I packed up and left for the City of Lights in search of whatever is that angst and youth demands of us to find. Only in my case the object of my affection wasn’t exactly tall, rich and handsome; I fell for a turkey.
Growing up, Thanksgiving played the disadvantaged part of an ugly stepsister to the more glamorous, and thoroughly more bestowing Christmas. For my family the meaning behind the Turkey Day paled to the significance of Noel; religiously and culturally Christmas was king. The gobbling bird never stood a chance. Our Christmas Eve culinary tradition requires 12 different dishes, one more elaborate than the next. Its production took place days before the actual meal and called for a living carp occupying one of our bathtubs until he was ready to meet his maker. Roasted turkey with squash and a pumpkin pie by comparison felt juvenile.
Mostly though, we dismissed the holiday as an American oddity we came to accept and learned to navigate around supermarket isles (nevertheless we did appreciate the few days off and the markdowns on Black Friday). That’s not to say we didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving; we just did it our way. My mom served her take on a holiday turkey that was really a pheasant prepared in the Eastern European fashion.
“It’s a more elegant bird,” she would offer as an explanation for the unexpected choice served in its feathery glory. And who could argue with a presentation like that?
So when a Gallic friend worrying about my presumed homesickness invited me to a Thanksgiving meal at the Parisian epicenter of American hustle and bustle, I was taken by surprise, to say the least. Frankly, I forgot all about the holiday. Thrilled about my new life I was more interested in discovery of the unknown than being confronted with rituals that felt insignificant. But as soon as we stepped into the restaurant Joe Allan, filled mostly with ex-pats, some curious French and unsuspecting passers-by, an inexplicable sense of nostalgia took over me. In the only Parisian restaurant that didn’t engulf you in a cloud of cigarette smoke upon entry, all the men seemed to exude a Kennedy-like demeanor, while the ladies, with the brightest and widest smiles you could ever imagine (most locals puffed and complained about everything on their table, showing off evidence of dental hygiene that left much to be desired), ordered their holiday meal with an American accent that somehow abroad always takes on even more pronounced character.
Marinating in a startling sense of belonging, while I listened to my companion go on about the pilgrims and the destruction they caused (aka French version of American history), I realized how Thanksgiving was beginning to creep up on me; how regardless of my otherness back in the U.S., I was marked for life by its idiosyncrasies that were beginning to feel my own. There, miles away from New York, surrounded by my quasi countrymen rambling on about gratitude and blessings, I became a Thanksgiving-loving American. How could one not love a notion that asks so little of us, yet ties us all together into one, nice and neat package, regardless where we came from or where is it that we celebrate it.
Today I’m Thanksgiving’s biggest cheerleader and serve as an unofficial medium of sorts to a group of friends and family, who manage to show up in large numbers at dinner, in spite of being mystified by this holiday’s magic. To make it less foreign, I do take some artistic liberties to interpret the celebration. There are some stabilizing cultural variations like serving apperitivo before we sit down or making Thanksgiving into an elaborate evening affair that requires a dinner jacket and high heels. Still the menu is as American as an apple pie. There are no European substitutions, nor sophisticated modifications to “normalize” the culinary offerings. That hasn’t stopped my family from attempting to persuade me to change my American protocol. This year they are suggesting forgoing of picking up the turkey at Citarella and hunting for it instead, “like any normal European living in America would do,” according to my father.
You may call that crazy, but to be me it’s Americana served with a twist.