A taste of Thanksgiving

Two Americans living the 20th share how they celebrate this traditional holiday here in France

This year, American Thanksgiving fell on November 26. But with France still locked down due to Covid, Olivia Kelley and Liz Schenck, two Americans living in the 20th arrondissement, have had to rethink their holiday plans. 

Observed in the United States on the fourth Thursday of November, Thanksgiving is a sort of harvest festival, where family and friends gather to give thanks over a large meal. Different regions and families have their specialties, but the main course is typically a turkey stuffed with bread dressing, accompanied by mashed potatoes and gravy, and autumn vegetables, such as squash or corn. Dessert is usually seasonal pies, with the classic being pumpkin pie.

Some Thanksgiving ingredients

While the food is important, Thanksgiving’s focus is on loved ones and gratitude, without gifts, has made it a favorite holiday for many Americans. And its presence in TV shows and films has sparked curiosity among many people in France.

“It’s an easy holiday to share because everybody loves being with friends and eating a great meal,” says Olivia, a Salt Lake City native who lives near the square des Saint-Simoniens. Charmed by Paris while studying abroad here during college, Olivia returned after graduating and has been here for 12 years now. She moved to the 20th three years ago and appreciates living in a diverse and lively neighborhood.

Olivia usually celebrates two Thanksgivings sometime around the official date. One is a small, traditional gathering with a friend from Canada, where Thanksgiving is celebrated on the second Monday in October. Her second Thanksgiving is a decade-long tradition with a group of French friends she met as a student. Olivia makes the dishes she sees as essential to the potluck meal: cranberry sauce and a pumpkin pie. “The pumpkin pie gets a mixed reaction,” she says, noting that pumpkin is thought of as a savory rather than a sweet ingredient in France. “Everybody likes cranberry sauce though.” 

Autumn vegetables, bread dressing and cranberry sauce

While she enjoys sharing her culinary heritage, she embraces her friends’ French touch. “They make all sorts of creative side dishes and interesting desserts. Instead of doing a breadcrumb stuffing, they do a meat and chestnut stuffing. They’re big fans of sweet potato purée rather than straight mashed potatoes,” she says, admitting that “the one thing that’s missing for me is that they’re not really into gravy,” a sauce made from Turkey drippings thickened with flour.

Olivia has also welcomed the addition of a French cheese course, during which a guest gives a “sometimes more sentimental and thankful, and sometimes more funny” speech.

Liz, who celebrated her first Thanksgiving in Paris last year, appreciated that her guests also upheld this tradition, taking turns to announce something they were thankful for.

“They liked the idea of getting together with friends and family to be grateful. A lot of them said that it would be nice if it was something that was celebrated here,” she says. An Atlanta native, Liz lived in New York City for the past 10 years and often celebrated Thanksgiving among friends, “a Friendsgiving”, as it is often called. Liz moved to Paris in September 2019 to improve her French and found a shared apartment in the Télégraphe neighborhood. 

“I’m so happy that I ended up here because I love the neighborhood. It’s a really great balance of tradition and creative thinking and moving forward with new concepts,” she says. She also likes that the security guards at her grocery store now recognize her and say hello.

Last November, Liz explained the Friendsgiving concept to her French roommate, who mistakenly understood “Frenchgiving” and promptly proposed they host their own. Their Frenchgiving turned out to be very French indeed. “We did a big potluck soirée with all of our friends. We had hardly any traditional Thanksgiving food, but it was really good,” she says, adding that today, she “feels like that was five years ago because of Covid”.

Due to the lockdown, both Liz and Olivia’s celebrations this year will be smaller and less copious. “I can’t motivate myself to do a whole turkey just for two people, but then my favorite parts of Thanksgiving are not really the turkey itself but all the side dishes,” says Olivia, who will prepare a scaled-down meal with her husband on Sunday. 

Liz will celebrate on Saturday. She plans to prepare her favorite side dishes and a pumpkin-pecan pie inspired by her mom’s Southern cooking. Her new French roommate, a Corsican of Moroccan descent, will make the turkey using Moroccan spices.

Thanksgiving is “just about being with people that I love, whether it’s friends or family or a roommate that I’m close to; sharing good food and, being in France now, really good wine. It’s a moment to pause and just appreciate the good and bad. And just be happy,” Liz says.