The last Thanksgiving, for a while

Thirteen years and a few months ago, Thomas and I moved to New York for two or three years. Thomas says one or two years. Apparently, we hadn’t discussed things in great detail. Actually, he went to DC while I settled in New York; it was clear that he would join me a year later. At least I think it was. (He did.) We had married in Berlin three weeks earlier.

Next summer we are moving to London. I know better than to give an estimated time-frame. I think it will be temporary. Thomas thinks it won’t. We still own our opinions.

So for me the holiday this year took on the slightly nostalgic sheen of our last Thanksgiving stateside, for a while. I pulled out a carefully folded, diligently preserved page from the Wednesday, November 17, 1999 New York Times: In a Berkeley Kitchen, A Celebration of Simplicity. I didn’t host Thanksgiving that first year, a friend had invited us to her huge, raw, self-renovated, artfully stage-managed Meatpacking district loft. She gave me the newspaper clipping and asked whether I might bake the cranberry upside-down cake. Of course I would.

The feast featured turkey and salmon, creamed leeks and lots of other sides that I can’t recall, though we helped prepare most of it that afternoon. There were probably thirty guests, in a grand space that could have accommodated sixty. We sat cross-legged on cushions around a long low candlelit table. I eavesdropped as a soul-searching dancer waxed existential with a timidly successful artist. New York! I had landed, incredibly, in the middle of a Woody Allen movie (I grew up in France, after all).

Now, when I pull out the yellowed, dried-out newspaper, that night comes rushing back. And those tentative beginnings in New York. Moving to a new city not knowing a soul (ok, two souls). The daunting search for work in a completely new world. It was scary and exciting and wonderful. Alice Waters’ Thanksgiving recipes remind me of all of it.

This year I didn’t prepare the cranberry upside-down cake because dessert is the one thing I don’t make on Thanksgiving nowadays, but I made her wild mushroom stuffing and the stewed fennel. For old times’ sake. And lots of other things. In the past I’ve stuck to a well orchestrated, carefully balanced mix of dishes and flavors that worked very well but kept bugging me as lacking the true spirit of American Thanksgiving, which, I know, is very much about the abundance of sides. Pushing aside this European restraint, I let go.

I would make mashed potatoes, of course, and a shaved Brussels sprouts salad I’ve been wanting to do for years. On the Monday before Thanksgiving I tried to make cranberry chutney. It wasn’t right. On Tuesday I cooked it again, with more sugar and some walnuts. I imagined something sweet and very thick, practically sticky. Wednesday evening Thomas baked his pumpkin pies, I made soup, and as I started a classic cranberry sauce I felt the chutney still needed more sugar, more cooking. It was getting late. But at 1:00 am I decided I must also make those pickled carrots I’d seen a few days before. And I had squash so I’d roast that with spices and a light touch of maple syrup. It was a lot of fun. The final menu looked something like this.

Celeriac and chestnut soup

Heritage turkey
Wild mushroom stuffing

Mashed potatoes
Stewed fennel
Spicy roasted squash
Brussels sprouts salad with pecorino
Pickled carrots
Cranberry sauce
Cranberry chutney

Desserts — pumpkin pies, pear and chocolate tarte, apple cake, tiramisu, chocolate soufflés …

The next day, elated from the party but also exhausted from it all, as we drove away to spend the rest of the weekend — traditionally — by the sea, and although our friends were already scheming to come to London to celebrate next year, I was practically ready to leave that holiday behind.

A new city, a new country, new traditions, surely. Of course I wouldn’t. I’ve taken Thanksgiving with me from Paris to Berlin and home to New York. London Thanksgiving will have to be, and forge its own traditions.

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19 Responses to “The last Thanksgiving, for a while”

  1. Jane Says:

    This is lovely Valerie. I agree with your Papa that it will be so great to have you nearer. But i simply cannot imagine that your traditional thankgiving menu could be improved. And i am about to cook it (the old one) for christmas dinner and i will tell you if it works for that too.

    • valerie Says:

      Thank you so much, Jane. It was hard not making the same Thanksgiving menu, but this new, rather exuberant version worked really well. How nice that you’re making the traditional one for Christmas, though, and I’m sure, in your expert hands, it will be perfect.

  2. michelvago Says:

    Moving… It is nice having you as a warm live connection to NY… yet it is already an excitement to imagine you a just a couples of (train) hours away, soon. And do keep on writing so nicely…!

  3. Michelle Says:

    Such a lovely post. And I, for one, look forward to reading of your adventures in London … and wherever else life takes you.

    • valerie Says:

      It’s very kind of you, Michelle. And I look forward to staying connected with all things stateside through Gourmandistan. May wouldn’t be the same without the Kentucky Derby and the promise of a Mint Julep…

  4. Isaure Says:

    Beautiful post. We met in France, met again in New York for a few years and I am selfishly very happy to know we’ll be living in the same city again and hopefully celebrating Thanksgiving together…

    • valerie Says:

      Thank you, Isaure, it’s so nice of you to say. I know, one of the best things about London is reconnecting with old friends, and your fondue dinners…

  5. Young Says:

    I’m sorry to hear you’ll be leaving New York, but I look forward to reading about grad Christmas dinners. Best of luck in your next phase of life.

    • valerie Says:

      Thanks very much, Young. Must I make Christmas dinner? It’s the one meal I really don’t like preparing – much rather play with new Lego sets and puzzles all day… But I am up for tea parties. With scones, clotted cream, and strawwwberry jam…

  6. baconbiscuit212 Says:

    What a beautiful post! Life ebbs and flows; you captured that sentiment perfectly.

    I am very glad that I got to meet you here in New York. I very much look forward to hearing about all of your adventures in London.

    And who knows! Maybe some very American traditions will follow you there :-)

    • valerie Says:

      Thanks so much Daisy. Same here. And oh, I’m sure a few American traditions will migrate with us, just curious to see which ones…

  7. Imen McDonnell Says:

    PS. Your children are beautiful!

    • valerie Says:

      THANK YOU, Imen, for the kind words. Yes, I’m curious to see what Britishisms will make their way into future Thanksgiving celebrations… And hopefully London will make a visit to Ireland quite likely. I’d been dying to go for years and your blog has only made it worse! Looking forward to all of it. V

  8. Imen McDonnell Says:

    Hi Valerie, yes…London Thanksgiving will have to *be*….only with a bit of Fortnum & Mason thrown in for good measure. How exciting! Loved this post and all of the gorgeous recipes. Thank you for sharing…..xx

  9. Mariya Says:

    Gosh. How melancholy. I’m almost sad to see it end. Almost.

  10. Karen Says:

    Beautiful! Past, present and future in one event: Thanksgiving.

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