“Lee-beeze … ? Non, monsieur, nous l’avons pas,” is the standard response here in Paris as I go from one specialty store to another, asking if they had “Libby’s pumpkin mix” in a can.
This year marks our first Thanksgiving trying to make a traditional dinner since moving here in 2006. Actually, that’s not quite true; our first Parisian Thanksgiving, we hadn’t yet learned that reservations for Thanksgiving at the handful of American restaurants were necessary weeks in advance, so that first year we spent a full day buying ingredients and preparing various courses in our tiny Easy-Bake Oven-sized kitchen. Since then we have booked our table at Joe Allen restaurant at Les Halles. However, with COVID-19 restrictions in place, all restaurants are closed in France until January 2021. So, off we go in search of everything needed to recapture the scents and tastes of my favorite holiday of the year.
As a child, my Thanksgiving meant time with my Great Aunt Beulah; to me, it was Beulah’s Day. Our entire family came from all corners of the civilized world — or at least the four surrounding counties — and would brave the often-icy roads to spend all day and night together at Beulah’s. Just hearing her name, which is a Biblical Hebrew term for “the Lord’s Country,” transports me back to her huge dining room that miraculously sat over a dozen adults, with a spillover table for kids and others in the adjoining study. Around that table was a pastiche of similar names from another age: Tory, Boyd, Ival, Elaine, Elsie, Letha, Mildred, Nora, and Irene.
While every family has its own traditions, there is a shared universal Thanksgiving experience: the food. Maybe that’s why I love this time of year so much. The sweater weather makes it the perfect opportunity for a gay man to add on a few extra pounds without too much guilt. It’s a good thing, because I lose any self-control when serving dish after serving dish of stuffing, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, and cornbread muffins is passed around the table.
Looking back at old family photos of decades spent at Beulah’s, I realize how much times have changed. Obviously, gone are all of those wonderful people with the beautiful and now never-used first names. But there’s a distinct mid-century, middle class aesthetic that has departed. The men all wore ties (and smoked, for the most part) and talked about their next fishing trips, and the women wore dresses and heeled shoes and gossiped about their respective social circles. The men congregated around the color television in the living room and watched football (okay, that hasn’t changed), while the women “busied themselves” in the kitchen. I remember as a kid being torn between which orbit I wanted to be part of, a conflict I suppose most queer kids probably also experienced, but there was enough joy and laughter beckoning from each room that I never felt out of place.
Above all else, it was a place and time for love.
I guess today’s world is far more complicated, and people are more sensitive, or perhaps we’re just less polite with each other. We carry bitterness about an argument we had years ago or can’t stand someone because of their politics or have never really let go of some other perceived personal injury. I’m no longer naïve enough to believe that this was true for everybody else, but for me, it truly was. Gathered around that table were multiple generations bound together, not just as a family, but also in love. For that I remain eternally grateful.
Fast forward to today, and I’m doing my best to keep that tradition alive as I make some green bean casserole (using my great-aunt Mid’s recipe, the one she would bring to the monthly Woman’s Missionary Auxiliary potluck each month), baked macaroni and gruyere cheese (this is France, after all), potatoes au gratin, and since there is no Libby’s to be found, a homemade pumpkin pie. We’re also making a pecan chocolate pie, just in case the pumpkin doesn’t turn out.
We’re eating all of this deliciousness on Aunt Beulah’s good china. When she passed, she had handwritten in her will that I was to get all of her china. I guess she knew, maybe even before I did, that this little blond kid who loved Thanksgiving so much was going to grow up someday, and maybe, just maybe, carry on her tradition in his own way. With love and joy and lots of laughter.
Happy Beulah’s Day, y’all.