November 24, 2017
Jonas and I have only hosted Thanksgiving dinner ONCE in our lives. In 2010, Jonas’ parents, his brother Luke, a 2-month-old Rhône, and Jonas and I crowded around our circular wooden kitchen table in our small Brooklyn apartment for a 5-course feast. Luke had the honor of sitting on Jonas’ large brown leather “man chair” during the meal. The food was exquisite, and that’s because I didn’t make it. We relied heavily on our neighborhood Italian deli Caputo’s, located a stone’s throw away on Court Street, and Trader Joe’s. We served small portions of Triple Cream Brie, Black Pepper Pecorino cheese and crusty baguette followed by spinach salad with cranberries and spicy pecans. Then we moved on to an amuse-bouche of handmade butternut squash ravioli cooked in sage butter sauce. Next was tender turkey breast, stuffing, mashed potatoes and turkey gravy all pre-made by Trader Joe’s. For dessert we had warm brown sugar blondies topped with pumpkin ice cream. Not bad for a couple of amateur hosts with a newborn baby boy. I have so much respect for people who actually prepare and cook an entire meal themselves!
Last year we didn’t do a traditional meal for Thanksgiving. We had family in town and spending time with them in Paris was special enough. This year I was feeling motivated to make a big deal out of the holiday. Maybe it’s because the other night Rhône said, “We’re going to be lonely on Thanksgiving because we don’t have any family here to celebrate!” It saddened me to hear that and reminded me just how far away from family we actually are. Well, we could cry or eat pie, and we decided to do the latter. We would indeed give thanks and share a special meal on Thanksgiving. I thought it would be nice to make some side dishes like my mom’s candied yams and FaceTime our family in the US.
FaceTime? Simple. Making family recipes? Now that’s a pain in the derrière! Okay, the one recipe I chose is not hard to make; it’s just hard to find ingredients here. My mom always made a dish of candied yams topped with marshmallows for Thanksgiving and I thought, 1.) Rhône and Rocky would be into anything with marshmallows and 2.) this recipe was in my wheelhouse. Mom walked me through the recipe over the phone a few days ago and I decided to get the ingredients Wednesday. Our two local grocery stores don’t have anything as exotic as yams or marshmallows so after school the boys and I went to a store further away called G20. Boom! They had the yams and a bag of pink and white marshmallows.
When we got home, Rhône, Rocky and I watched a video on how to make the sweet side dish. The recipe called for canned yams, but I’d read up on how to boil fresh ones. Just for fun we watched another video from a guy named Chef John and learned how to make candied yams with maple syrup, brown sugar, butter, lemon juice, ground ginger and cayenne pepper. Enticed by the syrupy recipe promising even more sticky sweetness, Rhône said, “Mmm, let’s make that one.” I told him we already bought the ingredients for the first one and that he’d love it. He suggested we combine the two recipes. I had read that if the yams were too wet, the marshmallows would end up sinking into a pool of liquid so I wasn’t sure if it would work. I said I’d have to think about it a little more.
Thursday morning I woke up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Normally I am not a morning person but I was ready to start Thanksgiving off right. While the boys and Jonas were in bed the night before I wrote them each little notes describing how I was thankful for them. I placed the colorful paper squares on the kitchen table so they’d see them as soon as they got up. At breakfast I read the notes to R&R and watched their little faces light up as they thought about the words on each page. Rocky asked why I drew a turkey. I didn’t know how to respond. After some cereal we played Legos in the living room and then it was time to get dressed and go to school.
I dropped the boys off and headed to Monoprix to get some spices and a few other items to make a memorable Thanksgiving meal. Monoprix is one of the bigger stores here. It’s a good ten minute walk away and not easy to carry heavy bags home, but I figured they would have just about everything I’d need for the day and I love a one-stop shop. I decided I would make my mom’s candied yams with marshmallows and the other yam recipe separately. That meant I needed some ground cayenne pepper. I scanned the spice shelf at Monoprix and could not find it anywhere. I did locate whole cayenne peppers but I do not own a grinder and I was not about to buy one. I picked up some produce, a couple bottles of wine and a few other items and headed back home.
I belong to a group on Facebook called English Speaking Mums in Paris and whenever I have a question about where to find things, I post my query and wait for the responses to roll in. I said I was looking for ground cayenne pepper and got a slew of recommendations on where to locate it. In the meantime, I saw another mom’s post about a shop featuring American food items called Chelsea Store in the 12th arrondissement. Suddenly, I saw a pumpkin pie in our future. I envisioned canned pumpkin, condensed milk, ready-made pie crusts…all the things you wouldn’t find in a typical grocery store here. I already had cinnamon. I’d just need to find a jar of nutmeg along with some cayenne pepper and ground ginger for the yam recipe. A quick Google search revealed there was a Marks & Spencer, an English store which always carries various spices, only a few blocks away from Chelsea Store. It was a done deal.
I straightened up the house, checked in with Jonas about work (editing would need to be done later) and looked around for a pie tin in our cabinets. The apartment came equipped with various baking dishes, but not that. If I could find a ready-made crust then it wouldn’t matter. I slipped a large folded grocery bag in my purse, grabbed my helmet and speed walked down the street, ready to take my first ever Vélib bike ride. Vélib is a bicycle program in Paris that allows you to pick up a bike at one station, ride it and drop it off at another one, wherever your destination may be. You do have the option of locking the bike up on a rack somewhere but you must return it to a station in under 30 minutes or you’ll get charged an extra fee. I chose a bike and struggled for a couple minutes trying to get it out of the station. I saw a seasoned rider walk up coolly, wave his card over a sensor and wait for a double beep. I looked down at the bike I’d been attempting to wrestle out of the dock and noticed the chain was detached anyway. I moved over to the next bike, adjusted the seat, waved my card and released the bicyclette like a pro.
Riding through Paris was exhilarating and, I’ll admit, a little scary. I went through the crazy roundabout at Bastille, rode alongside cars, buses and motorcycles on major streets and even dodged a few car doors opening. I made it to the Vélib station I wanted, returned the bike and started walking up the Rue Crozatier. A guy on a scooter said “Bonjour” so I politely said the same back. He started riding next to me on the sidewalk and asked me what I did for a living. I told him I was a stay-at-home mom, which I somehow thought would give him the message that I was taken and not interested but then I remembered this is France. He wasn’t deterred at all and asked if he could give me his number. I smiled and said, “Non merci, je suis mariée,” which still means squat to most French people. He started rattling off his number, as if I was going to remember it, adding that he was mignon and sportif. I nodded and said, “D’accord,” acknowledging that I had heard the number and allowing him a clean exit. He sped off and I chuckled at the whole interaction.
Chelsea Store was small and contained lots of American junk food. Cheetos, Pringles, Oreo flavored pudding…you name it. I picked up some canned pumpkin, a Betty Crocker corn muffin mix and a bottle of ginger beer for Rocky. He tried some in Copenhagen and he’s been talking about it ever since. I didn’t see any spices, pie crusts or condensed milk. The store was tiny and I was pretty sure the skinny French shopkeeper was not hiding the good stuff somewhere else so I didn’t even bother asking him. I hopped on another Vélib bike and continued on to Marks & Spencer. They had the cayenne pepper and ginger powder but no nutmeg or condensed milk. Oh well. While I was there I stocked up on Indian curries, naan bread, some Chinese dishes, gourmet pizzas, pasta sauces and some specialty beers for Jonas. My bag was full. I jammed it into the Vélib basket headed home to the Marais.
I still had my eye on the prize (the pumpkin pie). After parking the bike I stopped at one more grocery store called Intermarché to see if they’d have the remaining ingredients. They did not have nutmeg, but I was able to find the condensed milk and some pastry dough. Was I supposed to get pâte feuilletée or pâte brisée? I wasn’t sure so I grabbed them both. Then I looked all over the tri-level store for a pie tin. I’ve never seen something like that at any of our local grocery stores, but I’ve never really been in the market for a pie tin so maybe I missed it. I scoured the place from top to bottom and finally gave up. My bag was extremely heavy and my legs were hurting from all the riding and walking. It was time to go home.
I unloaded all of the Thanksgiving items and set them on the table. I had been to five different stores in two different arrondissements over two days and I still didn’t have everything I needed to make a side dish and a dessert! It made me laugh. Why was I going crazy trying to make a pumpkin pie? I considered running to a couple other stores get the pie tin and nutmeg until I heard a noise outside the living room window. It was the rain pounding on the buildings and cobblestones. I sighed, opened the window and admired the new piece of street art at the end of Rue du Trésor. I saw a young guy putting it up as I was walking home from my Thanksgiving adventure. I told him I liked it. Normally I wouldn’t talk to a stranger like that here (French people are very private) but I just watched an episode of “Humans of New York” about connections, or lack thereof, in the city and I decided that I don’t care about social conventions if it means I can brighten someone’s day. So I told him and he smiled sheepishly and said thank you. And now this kid’s artwork was brightening my day.
I returned to the kitchen and started making some cornbread. I thought about the pumpkin pie and decided, “f-— it,” meaning “forget it” of course. I had a box of delicious frozen pastries from Picard we could have for dessert. All I had to do was pull them out of the freezer and let them thaw. When the boys got home from school they helped me peel and cut the yams and we made our two sweet potato side dishes. The cornbread was ready, I made some green beans sautéed in butter and garlic and Jonas brought home our favorite rotisserie chicken and potatoes. Dinner was served. As I looked at Rhône and Rocky and saw them happily eating foods they wouldn’t have touched a year ago, I thought, “Wow, we’ve come a long way.”
For me, the sweetest part of our evening was not the sweet potatoes doused in maple syrup or covered in marshmallows. It was not even the mini pastries that Rocky popped in his mouth one at a time whole. It was FaceTiming with my parents. Rhône and Rocky each had a chance to talk to my mom and dad, and when Jonas wasn’t cleaning the kitchen (super hubby!) he popped in to say hi and share anecdotes. Miraculously I found my kids occupied with Legos and I had a chance to talk to my parents alone. At the end of our conversation, my mom said, “Brook, I want to tell you I am so thankful to have you as a daughter.” And then she went on to tell me the things about me she was thankful for. I cried and beamed at the same time. It was like I was getting my own note from MY mom on Thanksgiving. I couldn’t have scripted a better ending to this day. I am so grateful for family – for the one I grew up in and the one I have now – and for this beautiful life we have been given.