This year marked the first time I’ve ever spent Thanksgiving away from New Orleans. I’m a third of the way into a year’s stint as an au pair (translation = live-in babysitter) in Paris, where my principal job is to teach American culture to a 4-year-old. (Major milestone: Getting him to call them “beads” instead of “necklaces,” but I digress.)
Despite what one might think, living in a foreign country isn’t always as glamorous as it may sound. It took me two months to figure out where to find a cheap hair straightener, I still never know when to switch from “Bonjour” to “Bonsoir” (good evening) as it remains necessary to greet literally everyone at all times, and I am still too terrified to take out a velib – the self-service bike sharing system in Paris – for fear of drowning in hectic Parisian traffic. I crave normal hot dog buns, as the French seem to think that a baguette is a worthy substitute, and regular diet Coke.
Don’t even get me started on the dark red substance they call “ketchup” here.
Basically, what I miss the most is familiarity. Yes, everything is new and exciting abroad, but it’s also just so different. Which can be especially tough at that time of year when one is normally surrounded by the comfort of friends and family. Living abroad can just feel so lonely sometimes.
So I wanted to do something special this Thanksgiving. I wanted to bring a little piece of home to Paris, to comfort me, especially after times like when I get yelled at by my 4-year-old’s critical Croatian grandmother (but that’s another story). So I decided to make the ever popular, ever famous Brandt Family Asparagus Casserole.
Sounds gross? Not. Asparagus casserole is a treasured family dish. One that, although highly caloric, is mouth-watering and deserving of seconds, even thirds. We eat it at every holiday meal. I just had to recreate this very special family tradition.
Not gonna lie, I am HORRIBLE in the kitchen. I rarely cook, and when I do, I’m awkward around anything more demanding than pasta. But I was determined. So I got together the necessary ingredients: canned asparagus, cheese, hard-boiled eggs, cream of mushroom soup, saltine crackers, a white sauce, and butter. I was pretty sure the recipe had come from a Louisiana Junior League cookbook from the 1960s. I realize the ingredients don’t make it sound any more appetizing, but trust me, it’s amazing.
There were definitely some mandatory substitutions. I used a different kind of cheese because American cheddar isn’t too popular, especially shredded. And I refused to pay the absurd price of 9 euros for a box of saltine crackers at a small American grocery nearby. I did, however, splurge on a 4.50 euro can of cream of mushroom soup. How on earth would I have substituted anything for that bit of culinary Americana?
Despite the sketchy French replacements, the casserole came out great. I think I even like it with the French cheese better than regular old American (don’t tell the French). I took my concoction to my friend Jo’s apartment, where we celebrated Thanksgiving potluck style, with lots of wine and KFC chicken (who needs turkey?).
Jo, a fellow New Orleans native, made jambalaya. There were four Americans and four Swedes among us. The Americans rambled on about how we celebrate Thanksgiving back home (we all share the annoying ritual of going around the table and saying what we’re thankful for), while the Swedes made us try this pink Swedish caviar from a tube. They also passed around a variety of Swedish schnapps while singing Swedish drinking songs.
It might not have been the most “traditional” Thanksgiving, but it was certainly one to remember. And as Jo so aptly put it when referring to cooking American dishes abroad, “We all had to make substitutions …”
We did indeed.
After some digging, my grandmother unearthed the original recipe for the family asparagus casserole dish, which, it turns out, was taken from The Acadian Bi-Centennial Cookbook, published by The Louisiana Acadian Handcraft Museum in Jennings in 1955. It was contributed by Mrs. Lillian Sweeney, and this is how it reads, verbatim:
1 medium can green asparagus
2 hard-boiled eggs
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1/2 lb. grated cheese
1 cup cracker crumbs
Make a light cream sauce: 3 tablespoons butter in sauce pan, melt, add 3 tablespoons flour, stir well before adding 1 1/2 cups of sweet milk, pinch salt and pinch black pepper.
Use medium casserole and stack using first asparagas, about 1/2 of can, pour 1/2 of cream of mushroom soup over asparagas, put 3 thin slices of butter on 1 egg, sliced, use 1/2 of the white sauce after sprinkling 1/2 of cheese over the egg, then sprinkle 1/2 of cracker crumbs, then repeat using asparagas first and continue as first layer, using cracker crumbs on top.
Have oven heat 300 degrees F. Bake about 30 minutes. Serve hot.
Katherine Peck was an editorial intern at NolaVie before departing the country.