Guest Columnist

A Thanksgiving feast gone awry in France

Carroll McKibbin and several of his students in Aix-en-Provence, France. (Submitted Photo)
Carroll McKibbin and several of his students in Aix-en-Provence, France. (Submitted Photo)

Thanksgiving of 1985 approached. The 55 college students under my direction were far from home and family in Aix-en-Provence, France. How might I arrange a suitable celebration?

That question was answered when Pierre, a dean at the University of Marseille, came to my office. “I understand you Americans celebrate a holiday in late November that is called ‘Thanksgiving,’ ” he said. “Our students had such a grand time at your Halloween party. We would like to reciprocate with a Thanksgiving dinner for you at our university.”

“Oh, that would be grand,” I responded with thoughts of the French magic with cuisine. “We would be delighted.”

“What do you Americans eat on Thanksgiving?” he asked. “Do you have a special menu for that day?”

“Yes, we do,” I replied. “But it is pretty elaborate. I wouldn’t want you to go to a lot of trouble.”

“No trouble at all. We French know our way around a kitchen, you know.”

The dean took a notebook and pen from his pocket and prepared to write.

“OK,” I said. “I’ll give you an idea of a menu. Roast turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, corn on the cob, pumpkin pie with whipped cream, and perhaps a salad.”

I paused for a moment. “Are you sure it isn’t too much? You wouldn’t have to prepare all that.”

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“Oh, no. It’s no problem at all. We have a very good chef. He doesn’t know much English, but I am sure you will be delighted with a splendid meal.”

We worked out the timing and transportation details, I thanked the kind Frenchman again, and he departed with a smile on his face. I did likewise as I typed an announcement of the upcoming Thanksgiving celebration, complete with the menu, and pinned it on the student bulletin board.

In the afternoon of Thanksgiving Day we boarded a chartered bus for the 30-mile trip to Marseille. Along the way the students laughed and joked in anticipation of eating a French-prepared Thanksgiving meal.

Upon arrival, we were ushered into a college dining hall decorated for the occasion with tablecloths and flowers. The French students greeted us with smiling handshakes, kisses on the cheeks, and ushered us to seats with place cards.

The ambience was warm and inviting; the welcome overwhelming. And now the main event: the meal.

The French serve meals in courses. The first was a cabbage salad with anchovies, oil and vinegar dressing, and a cold ear of sweet corn on top. The students, French and American, looked at each other in puzzlement. Some took a stab at eating the salad, but most left it alone.

The waiters picked up the mostly untouched dishes with looks of disapproval. The French students were bemused, perhaps reflecting a common French notion of American cuisine being drastically lacking.

The next dish was supposed to be mashed sweet potatoes, I think, but was actually some combination of white mashed potatoes mixed with a minced orange gourd of some sort. The mixture was served warm, but without gravy or butter or any kind of seasoning.

Those plates also were returned to the kitchen, again mostly untouched.

Next came the turkey, cooked and edible, but not sliced in the normal American manner. Instead, it had been chopped into pieces, bones and all, with a meat cleaver, or perhaps an ax. It is interesting how much taste buds are affected by appearance. I found the turkey tasty enough as I rescued bits of meat here and there, but many of the students did not.

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Stomachs were growling. Students were eating bread and drinking wine while awaiting the grand finale, pumpkin pie.

The pie arrived, topped and largely hidden by a generous portion of whipped cream. Just as well. When the topping was pushed aside the pie had not been prepared with processed pumpkin. Instead, the chef scooped out the innards of a pumpkin and cooked the stringy pulp and seeds into what he apparently thought to be an American delicacy. The pie was awful, inedible.

By now the students, American and French, treated the meal as a hilarious blunder. They laughed and elbowed each other in amusement.

The chef heard the commotion and rushed into the dining room in a rage, saying French words I hoped my students didn’t understand.

Pierre explained to me how hard the chef worked with a French-English cookbook in preparing the meal. The dean was embarrassed, and so was I. I thought it best to just call a halt to the evening. “Everyone on the bus!” I shouted over the gleeful din. “We’re going home.”

The French and American students exchanged handshakes and cheek kisses, I thanked Pierre, and we were on our way back to Aix.

The next week Pierre again came to my office, his face still red with embarrassment. “I’m so sorry about the misunderstanding,” he said.

“You needn’t apologize,” I replied. “I should have given you more detailed information.”

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“I have talked with our chef about this, and we would like to invite you back for a Christmas meal. Do you have ideas for a menu?”

“Please tell the chef we would be delighted to return. This time just have him prepare a traditional French meal.”

He did. It was wonderful.

• Carroll McKibbin is a native Iowan who lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif., as a retired Cal Poly dean.

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