Thanksgiving is the greatest American renewal feast, the one that celebrates most clearly the continuity of our country: It depends on having exactly the same thing, in families of all faiths, year after year. Trillin’s joke about replacing turkey with spaghetti carbonara is so funny because it’s a taboo breaker. You couldn’t make the same joke about Christmas dinner, because some Italian families do have spaghetti carbonara, or another pasta dish, that night. While reversal festivals can be a little loose around the edges, renewal festivals have to be rigid and tightly structured; if they weren’t always the same you wouldn’t know that the old was being renewed.
And then it occurred to me: The French don’t really have renewal feasts, or at least they have fewer of them than any other people I know of. Nowhere in the French calendar is there a true renewal festival. The French Fourth of July—the fete national, Bastille Day—is staunchly Republican, and in that sense partisan. Christmas in France is being Americanized, but it still keeps that tragic Catholic core. The absence of an obvious renewal feast in France, though, is a sign not that France is somehow dour but that the custom has migrated elsewhere. Rites missed in one place always rise in another. Renewal feasts are favored by new countries, in need of obvious celebrations, as if we were uneasy about our woven-together nature. Old countries need reversal feasts to break the stifling order of the past—and so for them their renewal feasts are implicit in every day’s action. Every good dinner in France is a kind of renewal feast, I realized: What I love about French civilization is the lack of a neat line between a formal feast and a daily dinner. Ours are pulled-together holidays, artfully constructed to take in as many fundamentally unlike kinds as we can; the poor turkey is sacrificed by the millions every November to the illusion of unity. French holidays come from an indistinct past and supply a sense of continuity even when they are meant to be disruptive. Dinner itself is the renewal feast of French life.
Once I grasped that subtler truth, from that moment on, I stopped trying to persuade French friends to join us for the holiday. Instead, I asked them over for an unnamed November dinner, which was in itself sufficiently odd, sufficiently quaint—with its marriage of fruits and meats, sweet and savory—to justify and make it an occasion. When, a few years later, an American friend in London started to invite us to celebrate the occasion there, we enjoyed it: There were only a handful of Americans and Canadians, ornamented by a few watching Brits. London Thanksgiving felt like the secret Seder of the Marannos; Paris Thanksgiving felt merely, and not merely, like a meal.
If I went back now to France, I would never try and “do” Thanksgiving; I would make a brined turkey, and carrots, and violate the laws of sweet and savory by adding cranberry sauce, and just call it dinner. Thanksgiving without its dressing is also delicious; the ritual can be served as a side, because it is already, so to speak, baked into the continuities of the table. This year we’ll be in New York, eating for pleasure; but a part of me would still rather be in Paris, giving for thanks. The moral remains the same even where the name of the feast can’t be found: The action of grace takes place at the table.
Adam Gopnik is an award-winning staff writer at The New Yorker and author of seven books, including the just published The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food.