How France — Yes, France! — Introduced Me to Thanksgiving

updated May 24, 2019
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(Image credit: Lauren Volo)

Growing up in the United States, my family’s Thanksgiving tradition looked nothing like the holiday my friends and classmates celebrated. That’s largely because everyone in my immediate family was vegetarian and therefore ill-equipped to handle or cook meat.

So while I was exposed to turkey talk and aware of the traditional feast, I didn’t realize how much there was to love about Thanksgiving — until I moved to Paris. Yes, it was in a country that doesn’t even celebrate the holiday that I discovered what I had been missing most of my life.

My Thanksgiving Tradition in the United States

This isn’t to say my family didn’t have a Thanksgiving tradition. We did. For a time, we even participated in the archetypal feast with relatives (although I was still a toddler and too young to remember much). We’d pack the car, ensconce ourselves in heavy scarves and coats, and make the six-hour journey to upstate New York for a big dinner with our extended family.

But with perpetually uncertain weather and my older sister’s obligations to cheer on the high-school football team for the annual Turkey-day game, we decided it made sense for our festivities to take place closer to home. So we created our own tradition.

We’d slip on our finest outfits and drive to Mainland Inn, a converted 18th century country inn outside Philadelphia. There were beautiful Thanksgiving dishes for those who wanted them (me!) and plenty of fish and vegetable options for those who didn’t.

As the years went on, l looked forward to picking out the dress I would wear to dinner, to the pumpkin pie with a generous dollop of whipped cream, and to seeing familiar faces at nearby tables. Families with young children, grown children with aging parents, and couples dining tête-à-tête shared the moment with us.

Most importantly, I was excited to see the waiter who took care of our table each year, a Frenchman who had moved to Pennsylvania 20-some years prior. As I was learning French, I pushed myself to exchange a few words with him each year at dinner – La dinde s’il vous plaît! Je ne suis pas végétarienne. Impressed with my command of the language, he urged me to continue studying, and I heeded his suggestion. I still remember him as an unwitting harbinger of my personal journey to France.

My Thanksgiving Tradition in Paris

I knew my family’s tradition was unconventional, but it didn’t occur to me just how unusual until I moved to Paris. My community of expat friends expressed their astonishment when I told them I had never sat down to a proper, home-cooked Thanksgiving meal, complete with all the fluffy cornbread, green beans, cranberry sauce, and juicy turkey.

It took many years of living in Paris to develop the friendships that would warrant an annual ritual. But now, with a tight group of expat friends who love to cook, I have spent the last three years celebrating “Friendsgiving” in France. It has given me all the traditional home-cooked festivities I was missing as a kid, although we’ve generally opted for chicken instead of turkey since the ovens are so teeny-tiny.

Candles are lit, the large dining table is set and dressed beautifully by my friend Frank (who wins awards in our group of friends for host with the most), and everyone in attendance is in charge of a side dish. We finish with Champagne and a round of thanks that always makes my French husband uncomfortable. There is no familial infighting and no disputes about the menu — just full-bodied laughs and enough food to keep us entertained until the wee hours.

My family gave me one introduction to holiday feasting, but bonding with friends over the shared experience of expat life has brought me full circle to the home-cooked celebration I never knew I truly craved.