Updated: Mar 17
Our Thanksgiving dinner made the local news.
Thanksgiving is our favorite American holiday, and back home, we always cooked for a crowd. We had planned to invite our American friends here in the port over for dinner, but when we learned that they would be away, we knew that we needed to come up with another idea. After all of the tragic events in America, we did not want to be alone this year.
This winter, Wednesday night happy hour at the Café Santa Monica across the street has become a popular port event. We decided to invite all of the people from the port who are regulars at happy hour for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Since that would mean dinner for about 25 people, we asked Martine and Otila, the café's owners, if we could use their place for our party. They agreed and said that we could take over their kitchen as soon as they finished serving lunch that day. We told them that we would do all of the cooking and cleanup and that they would be our guests.
They were very enthusiastic about our party. They wanted us to decorate with American flags, and they said that we needed music for dancing. Martine said she wanted to learn cowboy line dancing; Otila decided she would come dressed as an Indian.
Our friends and barge neighbors, Peter and Jane, owned the best French restaurant in Cape Town for many years. Peter is an excellent chef, and Jane makes fabulous desserts; we asked them to be our head chefs. They also thought our party was a great idea. The four of us began planning the menu and trying to solve the problems presented by cooking this traditional American meal in France. This year we were also determined to find all of the ingredients to make mom's famous applesauce spice cake, a family tradition at Thanksgiving.
Our invitations were extended and eagerly accepted. It would be an international gathering with our Dutch, Swiss, English, and French barge neighbors as guests. We were happy when Jacky, our port captain, and his wife, who live about an hour away, accepted. We only asked that each couple bring an hors-d'oeuvre for the cocktail hour before dinner, and we would provide the rest of the meal, including the wine. For the week before the party, there was an air of excitement around the port. None of our guests had ever been to a Thanksgiving dinner before, and they all felt it would be a special event.
We had several delightful recipe testing lunches with our chefs. After we set the menu, we gave them carte blanche to do the shopping and cooking, since that is their expertise. Even though they were doing most of the work, we still had a long list of rather complicated chores.
Decorating the café was more complicated than just a trip to the local Hallmark store to pick up turkey and pilgrim decorations. We used our American flag, flowers, paper table cloths, leaves that we collected on our walks around the port, along with fruits and nuts that we bought at the market.
The seating arrangements were a real challenge. Even though we are all friends, many of our guests speak only their native language, Dutch, German, French, or English, with just a few words in the other languages. It was essential to put the bilingual people in the right locations to help the conversation flow. We put a group of English at one end of the table, next to them, we sat some Dutch who also speak English and then a Dutch couple who also speak German. They were seated next to the Swiss couple who speak German and French and a bit of English. Next to the Swiss, we sat another English couple who both also speak French and then a French couple who speak some English and then the French only speakers. We, the cooks and organizers, sat at the French-only end of the table near the kitchen so that we could hop up when needed. With this seating arrangement, if someone at either end of the table said something important, it could be transmitted back through all languages to the other end of the table.
On the day of our party, we prepared some of the dishes in our kitchens. The turkey went into Peter and Jane's oven in the morning, and Jane put the finishing touches on the desserts that she had made the day before. We made the stuffing and mom's famous cake because we were the only ones who knew how they should taste. Then we peeled the potatoes and yams and prepared the vegetables for our chef to cook and season to perfection. When the customers had finished lunch at the café, we set the tables, decorated and began cooking in their kitchen. Our guests soon arrived, and just before we were ready to serve dinner, a reporter showed up to interview us. Our chefs explained the menu, and we all had trouble trying to explain the cranberry sauce. The word for cranberry in our French/English dictionary did not mean anything to the French, and they did not recognize it by sight or flavor. That explains why we could not find any fresh cranberries here and had to ask English friends to bring us cranberry sauce from England.
Because of the skill of our chefs, our dinner was delicious. The buffet table abounded with good food, and the turkey was wonderfully moist and flavorful, a real American dream. The conversation and wine flowed happily around the table, and almost everyone came back for seconds. Being the first Thanksgiving for our guests, so there were many questions about all of the dishes, especially the stuffing and the cranberry sauce.
After dinner, we set out the desserts. We had a pumpkin pie, a mince pie, a fudge cake, a chocolate mousse cake, and our applesauce spice cake. Even though in true Thanksgiving tradition, we had all overeaten, the desserts looked so tempting that everyone wanted to sample a bit of each. Mom's cake was a big hit, and people are still talking about all of Jane's beautiful treats.
After dinner, as we turned up the music for dancing, our guests surprised us with a gift. A beautiful travel book full of good ideas for exciting trips to all corners of France. They all signed the book and wrote, "For the 1st Roanne Thanksgiving, thanks for a great day."
Our guests are right; it was a great Thanksgiving Day. Evenings like this must be how traditions begin; everything starts with a 1st.