Thanksgiving is the one day in the year which, as O. Henry reminds us, is purely American. It’s also the only day when overeating is considered a patriotic duty. And when, according to another keen observer, we surpass the French in culinary matters…
Spare a thought on November 22 for those Americans living in France who will try to recreate the comforts of home by putting on a proper Thanksgiving spread for friends and family. Cooking-wise, this can be a challenge, which is tacked in many different ways depending on the size of the party. For example, the students at the American University of Paris are so numerous that they have to celebrate in the sanctuary that is the chapel and theater of the neighboring American Church, in the 7th arrondissement. The university staff prepare the turkey and stuffing and ask each person to bring a different dish. Smaller groups of people find it easier to manage, but some of the basic logistical headaches remain.
Things are easier today, of course. One of upsides of globalization is that exotic ingredients such as yams, butternut squash puree, and creamed corn are (relatively) easy to find here in Paris. Back in the day, though, special expeditions had to be made to Fauchon, a gourmet emporium on the swanky Place de la Madeleine, to hunt for essentials such as cranberries. Those food-buying missions were not always successful, even though we boned up on our French vocabulary beforehand (“Avez-vous des canneberges ?” – “Qu’est-ce que c’est ?”). Those of us with no access to a PX store or no visiting American friends would generally have to improvise for some of the side dishes.
Discover our list of the best American grocery stores in Paris. Pictured above, the shelves at The Real McCoy in the 7th arrondissement.
Then there was the critical problem of the turkey. We would patiently explain to a puzzled butcher that we wanted a real turkey, not a pimped-up chicken. Something that would feed a whole table of hungry Americans and their autochthonous guests. And no, we don’t want any fancy stuffing, thank you. How do you say “all the fixings” in French? Oh, and please, please remove and dispose of the bird’s head!
Even when a proper-sized fowl was found and prepped, another hurdle would crop up: the design of French ovens, which weren’t intended to accommodate a fifteen-pound Butterball. Various workarounds were found nonetheless, though one attempt at roasting an enormous gobbler over a makeshift bonfire in a friend’s backyard was a dismal, carbonized failure. Yet despite all the logistical hurdles and ingredient compromises, dinner was usually a success, leaving everyone feeling at one with their fellow human beings. In any case, after a good meal it’s easy to find a kind word for anyone, even one’s relatives.
But before slumping on the sofa to watch recorded football highlights on TV, or, in the case of French guests, to argue about the upcoming elections — for there are always elections looming on one horizon or the other in France — a time-honored ritual would take place. Pushing the empty plates aside, we would bring out a copy of the International Herald Tribune (known universally as the IHT, now the International New York Times) and turn to the back page. One of the guests would read aloud an article written in a strange lingua franca and purporting to explain Thanksgiving to the bewildered French. Here it is:
Le Merci Donnant
One of our most important holidays is Thanksgiving Day, known in France as le Jour de Merci Donnant. Le Jour de Merci Donnant was first started by a group of Pilgrims (Pèlerins) who fled from l’Angleterre before the McCarran Act to found a colony in the New World (le Nouveau Monde) where they could shoot Indians (les Peaux-Rouges) and eat turkey (dinde) to their hearts’ content.
They landed at a place called Plymouth (now a famous voiture Américaine) in a wooden sailing ship called the Mayflower (or Fleur de Mai) in 1620. But while the Pèlerins were killing the dindes, the Peaux-Rouges were killing the Pélerins, and there were several hard winters ahead for both of them. The only way the Peaux-Rouges helped the Pélerins was when they taught them to grow corn (maïs). The reason they did this was because they liked corn with their Pélerins.
In 1623, after another harsh year, the Pélerins’ crops were so good that they decided to have a celebration and give thanks because more maïs was raised by the Pélerins than Pélerins were killed by Peaux-Rouges. Every year on the Jour de Merci Donnant, parents tell their children an amusing story about the first celebration.
It concerns a brave capitaine named Miles Standish (known in France as Kilomètres Deboutish) and a young, shy lieutenant named Jean Alden. Both of them were in love with a flower of Plymouth called Priscilla Mullens (no translation). The vieux capitaine said to the jeune lieutenant:
“Go to the damsel Priscilla (allez très vite chez Priscilla), the loveliest maiden of Plymouth (la plus jolie demoiselle de Plymouth). Say that a blunt old captain, a man not of words but of action (un vieux Fanfan la Tulipe), offers his hand and his heart, the hand and heart of a soldier. Not in these words, you know, but this, in short, is my meaning.
“I am a maker of war (je suis un fabricant de la guerre) and not a maker of phrases. You, bred as a scholar (vous, qui êtes pain comme un étudiant), can say it in elegant language, such as you read in your books of the pleadings and wooings of lovers, such as you think best adapted to win the heart of the maiden.”
Although Jean was fit to be tied (convenable à être emballé), friendship prevailed over love and he went to his duty. But instead of using elegant language, he blurted out his mission. Priscilla was muted with amazement and sorrow (rendue muette par l’étonnement et la tristesse).
At length she exclaimed, interrupting the ominous silence: “If the great captain of Plymouth is so very eager to wed me, why does he not come himself and take the trouble to woo me?” (Où est-il, le vieux Kilomètres? Pourquoi ne vient-il pasauprès de moi pour tenter sa chance?)
Jean said that Kilomètres Deboutish was very busy and didn’t have time for those things. He staggered on, telling what a wonderful husband Kilomètres would make. Finally Priscilla arched her eyebrows and said in a tremulous voice: “Why don’t you speak for yourself, Jean?” (Chacun a son goût.) And so, on the fourth Thursday in November, American families sit down at a large table brimming with tasty dishes and, for the only time during the year, eat better than the French do.
No one can deny that le Jour de Merci Donnant is a grande fête and no matter how well-fed American families are, they never forget to give thanks to Kilomètres Deboutish, who made this great day possible.
The piece was bylined Art Buchwald, a Pulitzer Prize-winning commentator renowned for poking fun at American politicians and hobnobbing with the rich, famous, and powerful in Washington D.C. So how did this Beltway insider become an expert — albeit a tongue-in-cheek one — in explaining U.S. history and tradition to the French? And why in the prestigious IHT?
The reason is that Buchwald originally wrote the piece while living in Paris, where he began his writing career in 1947, after leaving the United States courtesy of the GI Bill to study in the City of Light. He, like many twenty-something Americans at that time, saw himself as an honorary member of the Lost Generation writers who had made Paris their actual or spiritual home. “My dream was to follow in the steps of Hemingway, Elliot Paul, and Gertrude Stein,” he explained. “I wanted to stuff myself with baguettes and snails, fill my pillow with rejection slips, and find a French girl named Mimi who believed that I was the greatest writer in the world.”
Art Buchwald in 1962. © Ted Dinsmore/Toronto Star/Getty Images
While learning French at the Alliance Française, the young Buchwald lucked into a job as a stringer for the show-business journal Variety, but all the while yearned to work on the fabled Herald Tribune, the European edition of the New York Herald. Searching for an entrée into the paper, he realized that it had no entertainment correspondent, so he made a successful pitch to the features editor. Once in the job, the young Art managed to overcome his lack of experience and patchy French through sheer chutzpah. When reviewing movies, for example, he would give every French picture, however good or bad, a glowing write-up on the assumption that directors would never question a journalist’s language abilities if he or she praised their films. (He guessed right.)
After a bumpy start in his new career, Buchwald was assigned to write about the nightlife in his adopted city. The column, titled “Paris After Dark,” went from strength to strength and its author was given another, wider-ranging slot titled “Europe’s Lighter Side.” Covering everything from restaurants and celebrities to goings-on around town, the new column proved hugely popular and was eventually syndicated. Thus did Art Buchwald become everyone’s favorite American in Paris.
In 1952 he hit paydirt with Le Merci Donnant, which he always considered his favorite piece of writing.
Shrewdly, he surmised that since Americans ate the same meal every year in November, he could easily reuse the column to accompany the turkey and trimmings. In subsequent years, he would tweak the headline (“A Turkey With French Dressing,” for instance, or “Le Grand Thanksgiving”) and add a kicker, claiming, for instance, that the text had been leaked in 1621 by a Plymouth Colony pooh-bah. Alternatively, it was described as a confession to a vindictive sergeant in the Foreign Legion. Or a lucky find in a Bethesda garage sale. Or an attempt to address the franc-dollar exchange rate. Or, best of all, an endorsement from the U.S. turkey growers’ association. But despite these minor flights of fancy, the body copy remained unchanged for 50 years. It still makes people laugh today.
Even though Art Buchwald eventually sealed his reputation as a humorist and prize-winning com- mentator after his return to the U.S. in 1962, his glorious Paris years, as he called them in his memoir, I’ll Always Have Paris, marked him deeply and forever. His greatest moment of glory, he said, was being invited back to the city in 1987 to celebrate the centenary of the Tribune. In his last-ever column, published posthumously in 2007, Buchwald wrote: “After this appears in the paper following my passing, I would like to think it will either wind up on a cereal box top or be repeated every Thanksgiving Day.”
They say that on Thanksgiving, the heart will find a pathway home. More than 60 years on, Art Buch- wald’s Merci Donnant is still a great place to start the journey from.