Shorter days and colder temperatures have triggered in me much thinking about food.
For most animals, food is just something that needs to happen. I envy the simple intensity of my dog Cali’s desire for food. When I ask if she wants dinner, she responds silently and feverishly. All she needs to express her raw drive to eat is drooling and full-body wagging. She is burdened by neither the ability nor the will to describe hunger or eating.
When Cali eats a steak, she doesn’t assess whether it’s properly seasoned; whether the cow had been humanely raised and slaughtered; whether she could maybe ask about the recipe and cook the same dish herself in order to impress a certain significant other dog; whether said significant other dog is in fact a vegetarian; whether the dish is just good or truly exceptional, and whether this distinction should entail a change in her typically miserly tipping policy. She savors nothing and sips no wine. Unconcerned with taste, the tongue is a muscular shovel.
But we humans use food for so much more than sustenance.
I am fascinated by some of the crazy shit people do to eat. Bear Grylls, the host of the Discovery Channel television show Man vs. Wild, has drunk fresh-squeezed elephant dung and eaten raw dead zebra leg, and that’s just in one episode. In Japan, you can pay hundreds of dollars to eat fugu, the pufferfish sushi whose neurotoxin either imparts a pleasant numbness to the lips and tongue, or else causes paralysis and death. One time, I ate a peanut butter M&M that I found between the cushions of my couch.
If my dog did any of this, she wouldn’t think twice about it. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Bear Grylls saw a different man in the mirror after his trip to Africa. And eating pufferfish probably gives you infinite social currency. And I think that peanut butter M&M changed my life.
Whereas most animals have their go-to staple foods, we’ll eat anything. We hubristically assert our utter domination of every other species on the planet. If you’re dangerous, nice try, but we’ll find a way to ingest you. If you taste terrible, guess what, we’ll eat you anyway. Damn right, we’re at the top of the food chain.
I think other species, if they had bigger brains, would describe our “appetizing” food preparations as profoundly disturbing. Whenever I go to a French market and see the rotisserie chicken stand, I imagine the horror a sentient chicken might experience upon viewing such a macabre ballet of his twirling, steaming, dripping cousins. Or a lobster (I always think of Sebastian, from the Little Mermaid, evading the culinary overtures of the hilarious French chef) viewing a seafood restaurant commercial, with the slow-motion slicing of claws, and the sensuous dunking of lobster innards in tubs of butter.
In addition to the exercise of our mastery of the earth, I think part of our food obsession derives from the animal preference for the familiar and rewarding. When I dream about my favorite traditions and comforts, I taste the associated cuisine. Football season and hot wings; Halloween and candy; California and quesadillas; New Haven and pizza; Thanksgiving and turkey, gravy, and stuffing. When I eat my coveted number two with avocado from Gourmet Heaven, my leptin/insulin/serotonin levels spike, and the hormones flip switches in happy pathways, and my brain stamps a smiley face on the experience, impresses in memory the binary judgment that what just happened is something that should probably happen again. So it happens again next week when I gullibly pull the same levers, blithely follow the same superimposed schedules. If I engage in my gluttony with friends and give it a name, it becomes a tradition. “Who’s down for some Early Morning Sandwich?”
The inverse process is also true: bad food experiences make for indelible memories. During my fifth-grade field trip to an indoor roller-blading arena called Golden Skate, I sustained a bloody nose, a stained t-shirt, and crushing humiliation in front of a girl I liked. The only lasting effect of that experience, as far as I can tell, is a lifelong enmity toward Barq’s Root Beer. I am also afraid of licorice and tequila due to unrelated experiences.
(Guy de Maupassant wrote about the conflation of food and experience. In “Boule de Suif,” Cornudet drinks beer and dreams of revolution:
Quand il buvait, sa grande barbe, qui avait gardé la nuance de son breuvage aimé, semblait tressaillir de tendresse; ses yeux louchaient pour ne point perdre de vue de sa chope, et il avait l’air de remplir l’unique fonction pour laquelle il était né. On eût dit qu’il établissait en son esprit un rapprochement et comme un affinité entre les deux grandes passions qui occupaient toute sa vie: le Pale-Ale et la Révolution; et assurément il ne pouvait déguster l’un sans songer à l’autre.)
This is the kind of stuff I think about when I’m sitting in my huge apartment, alone and a 40-minute walk from anybody I know. I think a lot about food. That’s why I was excited for Thanksgiving this year. All seven of us Americans were excited. We decided to hold a Thanksgiving feast. It’s a lot of food, and the turkey’s not in season in France, and cranberries don’t exist here, and neither does pumpkin purée, but Thanksgiving is a higher order instinct: it’s just something that needs to happen.
We invited about fifteen French people to complement the eight English-language assistants. The celebration would go down in my apartment, which lacked tables, chairs, and the stuff with which you cook, serve, and eat food.
The turkey was the first, biggest concern. Luckily, my man Jean-Jacques hooked us up. He’s an old dude with a booming voice, a great moustache, and a penchant for beer. Brenna met him at L’Estaminet months ago, and he volunteered his services as a former turkey distributor. He sold us an 8-kilo turkey at a heavily discounted rate.
I was in charge of cooking the turkey and making the gravy. Jean-Jacques showed up at my apartment on Wednesday afternoon, carrying the bird in a printer paper box. There wasn’t enough room for the turkey in the fridge, but I wanted to keep it cool, so I left it in the hallway next to the front door of the apartments. I wrote a cautionary note for the other inhabitants of the building: “please don’t touch, turkey inside.”
I formulated my schedule of turkey preparation based on a synthesis of food blog recipes and advice from friends and family. I went to the store to purchase the ingredients for the brine which I would use to marinate the bird: salt, sugar, vegetables to make broth, and spices.
Boil all brine ingredients except water, cool and refrigerate. Early on the day of cooking or the night before cooking, combine brine with water in a 5-gallon bucket. Add turkey, breast side down. Weight the bird down if necessary to keep submerged.
Reuben and I cooked up the brine and sloshed it into the turkey bowl. I had borrowed the turkey bowl—our substitute for a 5-gallon bucket—from the cafeteria at my middle school. However, even the biggest bowl they had to offer could not hope to contain this turkey. In the printer paper box, the turkey had looked sad and out of place, but when we transferred it to the turkey bowl, it looked magnificent. It was definitely not necessary to “weight the bird down.” I was so impressed by this turkey that I decided to name it “Le Duc” (pronounced le Duke). For the rest of the preparation of this turkey I said things like “whoa, Duc!” and “let’s do this, Duc” and “Le Duc abides.”
Refrigerate for 8-16 hours…
So here was Le Duc sitting in a shallow salt bath, but his bowl wouldn’t fit in the fridge. And it wasn’t cold enough in the hallway. So I decided to place Le Duc outside, behind my apartment, on the grass, where he could marinate under the stars on the eve of his roasting. I wrapped the turkey bowl extremely well with plastic wrap and trash bags to ensure that no animals could investigate Le Duc during his slumber. In retrospect, these precautions were probably unneeded, because I don’t think any living thing would ever consider feeding from this bowl.
… turning halfway through.
Turning halfway through? Wow. Due to logistic constraints, I had to marinate Le Duc overnight, so I deemed the halfway-through flip completely ridiculous and out of the question. But when I asked Reuben, he regarded me gravely and said that forgoing the halfway-through flip would invite a host of undesirable results. I know better than to disregard Reuben’s cooking advice, so I set my alarm for 3:45 and prepared my coat and boots.
When I awoke, I jumped out of bed to execute the flip. It was snowing lightly outside. I stumbled around my apartment building. Tore through the trashbags. My hands already freezing. Removed the plastic wrap. Gripped Le Duc’s thighs and turned him over. Dumbly regretted splashing some brine on my pants. I stood and watched snowflakes drift over my shoulder into the bowl, vaguely aware of living a very bizarre moment. Then, there in the darkness, fingers numb, I set about covering Le Duc in cheap Monoprix plastic wrap. This process, like Antarctic origami, was very demanding. Three or four minutes later, when I was satisfied with the job, or too cold, I went back inside to warmth and sleep.
I awoke on Thursday morning to my first ever white Thanksgiving. The sun shone into my apartment. I had asked my teachers to give me the day off work, affecting a tone of sacredness while articulating my request. They happily obliged, clearly responding to the foreignness of the whole situation, the cute American-ness of it. So I had a wide-open holiday ahead of me.
Remove turkey from brine and rinse inside and out with cold water. Discard brine. Place the bird on roasting rack inside a roasting pan and pat dry with paper towels.
After downing my requisite two cups of coffee, which I need to drink in order to distinguish forms, I went to fetch Le Duc. I dumped his brine in the sink, not without a touch of sentimentality. I rinsed him inside and out with cold water, turning him delicately in his turkey bowl, imagining myself bathing an infant. Then into Le Duc’s cavity I dumped some microwaved apples, onion, cinnamon, and water, along with some rosemary and sage.
Place the bird on roasting rack inside a roasting pan and pat dry with paper towels. With butcher’s twine, tie legs together, tuck wings underneath the bird and coat skin liberally with canola oil. Roast turkey on lowest level of the oven at 500 degrees for 30 minutes. Lower heat, blah, blah, blah…
My kitchen is only modestly better equipped than was Tom Hanks’ kitchen in the movie Cast Away. The moment I received Le Duc at the front door of my apartment, I knew he wouldn’t fit in my tiny oven. Luckily, when I had asked for a turkey bowl at the cafeteria, the wonderful women who work there offered to cook the bird in their huge oven! And I didn’t even have to drop any hints! Didn’t even have to speak reverentially about tradition! Didn’t even have to wistfully mention my family while adopting a soulful faraway American look and conjuring tears to my eyes! (Don’t judge: this all sounds very manipulative, but when facing poverty and language barriers in France, it qualifies as resourceful.) So the huge pressure of not setting Le Duc on fire was lifted.
I returned to the cafeteria that afternoon to find Le Duc more beautiful than I could have ever imagined him. He defined golden brown. I thanked Marie-Noelle and the rest of the Collège St-Exupéry cantine crew and proudly carried Le Duc back to my apartment. I bestowed him to a borrowed silver platter and set about making some gravy.
Reuben marveled at Le Duc, then made some delicious apple sauce; after finishing my gravy, I busied myself borrowing tables and chairs from St-Exupéry. I went to the store and bought cheap paper towels, paper plates, and plastic cups and utensils. I made candles out of wine and beer bottles. Then I made a pumpkin pie, using ingredients Natalie sent to me all the way from the United States.
I think it is appropriate to note that in the spirit of an American holiday, and being American men, Reuben and I began drinking beer at noon.
By six o’ clock, the place looked pretty good. Around seven, the other assistants arrived: Craig with his stuffing, Christine with her cranberry sauce and salad, Kristie with her green beans, Lauren with her mashed potatoes, Elizabeth with her pies. Amory came all the way from Metz. Everyone looked phenomenal. Our kitchen has never been so busy or beautiful.
Camille returned from work with a case of wine. Our French guests began to show up around 7:30. They were coworkers at our primary, middle, and high schools; they were acquaintances from the city of Verdun, met around town, at the market, at the pool. They came bearing gifts and a wonderful openness and good humor. Two of our guests, Sébastien and Laeticia, brought their three-year-old and month-old daughters, Maelie and Anaé, which was delightful.
We drank Leffe and Koenigsbeer, bottles of wine from Alsace and Bordeaux and Languedoc-Roussillon. When Reuben carved up Le Duc, I couldn’t bring myself to watch. When it was time to eat, we set the food on a table and served ourselves. I stumbled through a Thanksgiving blessing, in French. Unfortunately, the first sentence of my blessing was something like, “In 1620, the pilgrims left Great Britain because of religious persecution.” The blessing concluded with a tenuous link between the thankfulness the pilgrims felt for Squanto’s corn-planting lessons and the thankfulness us assistants felt for our French friends’ picking us up at train stations and patiently listening to our questions and telling us where we can find some canned beans and not just the dry beans that are so hard to cook with. Next time I think I’ll just say, “Thank you God, let’s eat.”
Then, everybody named something they were thankful for. I mentioned chocolate, coffee, and beer (…and family!), drawing some cursory laughter (enough for an ironic mental fist-pump). Jean-Jacques took the opportunity to speak at length about turkeys, holidays, and Americans, which was amusing and, because he sounds like a French James Earl Jones, quite impressive. Sébastien probably stole the show when, as he held his daughter, he thanked his wife for giving him two beautiful children; the hearts of every girl at the table subsequently melted, and Reuben and I exchanged teary, hopeful glances.
Then we ate, and ate again. Then we ate some pie, served with freshly-made, forearm-burning chantilly. The residue of a feast was everywhere: destroyed pies, empty bottles, broken plates, and Le Duc’s thoroughly demolished carcass.
When our guests left, it was just me, Reuben, and Camille again. Two Americans and a Frenchman, each completely full of food. Tradition completed: we were sated physically and psychologically.
Another Thanksgiving in the bank. Oh, the crazy shit we do to eat.