Thursday, March 5, 2009

Where'd I Put My Good Cassoulet Spoon?

A friend of mine "second-person invited" me to what he referred to as a cassoulet party last weekend, and naturally, I dropped everything and went. As I've said before, anytime someone extends an invitation into their home (or in this case, someone else's home...gulp!) to share a meal of any kind, I'm there. And cassoulet? Anyone would be mad to turn this offer down, and when mention was made of a well stocked cellar of French wine, I shaved my weekly shave, put on my clean shirt and got in gear to go.

Now, cassoulet is one of those things that everyone familiar with it has an opinion on. It's from here, it's from there, it has this in it, it has that in it. But that's what makes it, and any dish like it, so great--it'll have a different personality every time you eat it. It seems to come from the south of France, and for those of you who aren't familiar with it, cassoulet is a wonderfully slow cooked casserole-type dish (the name comes from the glazed earthenware container is is traditionally cooked in, a cassole) of white beans, duck or goose confit, and various sausages and meats. Larousse Gastronomique offers that there are three main types of cassoulet, calling these examples the "Trinity": The "Father" being from Castelnaudary (supposedly the oldest and containing the largest amount of pork in the form of loin, sausages, ham, and rinds), The "Son" from Carcassone (using mutton and , when in season, partridge), and the "Holy Ghost" from Toulouse (with similar ingredients, in smaller proportion, to that from Castelnaudary, with lard, mutton, and importantly, Toulouse sausage added).

I was fortunate enough to sink my unworthy choppers into a version that was heavy on the duck fat and Toulouse sausage. And I find it pertinent to mention that the wonderful woman who made the cassoulet is a vegetarian, yet cooks this enormously meat-heavy dish with the soulfulness of the heartiest French farmer. In fact, she told me, of her insistence on using Toulouse sausage, it "smells like southern France, the same way that truffles and cepes and the local chevre cheeses do." It's got a certain terroir, and it's this unmistakable characteristic that makes this version of cassoulet this version of cassoulet.

And it doesn't have to be French for this to happen. I've had a thousand different versions of Mac and Cheese, and is it ever bad? I mean, Kraft Mac and Cheese is gross, sure, but somehow it tickles that nostalgic nerve the way only some really bad foods do, and it's designed to bomb us with fat and sodium and sugar and taste good. Same thing goes for pizza. I love really, really great pizza (in fact, my favorite restaurant in the world, and yes, this includes such competition as Charlie Trotter's, L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, Chez Panisse, and all the high-brow standards, is the original American Flatbread in Waitsfield, VT), but somehow, whenever I'm around pizza of any level, I revert to, as a friend described, "an eight-year old with wet hair and a towel wrapped around his waist yelling 'PIZZA!!!' at some pool party, shivering while calculating how much pizza can be consumed in how little time and how much time will have to pass before being able to get back in the pool." To that end, even bad pizza is still pizza. Ah, the standards of an eight-year old.

Anyway, more importantly, the general vibe at the cassoulet dinner was what it was all about. Standing in a warm kitchen with great people, talking, eating cheese from someone's childhood in France, bread I made, and drinking that great wine--that's really special. Winding down a great meal with a slice of homemade chocolate cake, trying new things such as tasting the cake with a bit of the Roquefort from earlier, finishing with coffee roasted and brought by my friend. The grace of genuine hospitality and generosity, welcoming of new (and sometimes uninvited!) friends as though they were old friends; that's special, and perhaps too rare these days. Maybe this rotten economy will cause more people to stay at home and cook; I would honestly love to see a resurgence of the potluck. Here's hoping we can get that back.