Marcia Aldrich

I had never heard of Cassoulet until my friend approached me about participating in the making of one. Lynn, a professor in Education, was contemplating writing a book about food with her graduate students. They wanted to open with a collaborative piece about their making of the Cassoulet. Details were vague. I didn’t see the connection between educational curriculum and food, but I thought there is no corner of discourse or life that food hasn’t infiltrated. Most of us haven’t worked out a philosophy of food, haven’t worked through what we eat and why. I can’t think about food without thinking about gender and class and consumption. Can’t answer a simple question like what’s my favorite meal without running through some rough cost analysis.  

Lynn is a gifted cook, who loves planning meals in advance, and stocking her cabinets with items I can’t pronounce much less know how to use. I, on the other hand, am what Lynn calls an assembler. Cooking, it turns out, means to prepare food by the use of heat. Head chefs cook. An assembler is an underling, closer to the garde manager, pantry chef, the person responsible for cold foods, or the extranetier, the vegetable chef.  But really, these roles are too grand for what I am.  An assembler is someone who gathers an array of food items, often raw, and forms them into a salad. I do not follow recipes. I’m a primitive, relying on instinct and availability. I don’t quarrel with this characterization. I prefer raw food; I prefer opening the refrigerator and grazing on celery.  I like nuts and berries and I like to eat them with my fingers. Where is it written that we must cook our food? Where is it written that we must sit down at elaborately decorated tables to eat? I’d like it best if I didn’t have to dirty a plate or use a fork. It isn’t that I don’t get hungry, I do, I just don’t like what we call meals—procuring ingredients, preparing food, serving food on dishes, sitting down at tables at prescribed times, and then cleaning up the whole mess. What a lot of time and effort and money and I’d rather skip it. I’m not unhealthy; I am just peculiar.

Lynn, a Cook:
Has kitchen tools in perfect working order;
Has knife skills;
Has mastered the mise en place (having everything she needs at hand);
Knows how to make good stocks and always has them on hand;
Makes sauces, marinades, and rubs;
Coordinates multiple tasks efficiently;
Has a bookcase of well-thumbed cooking books, with pages covered with
      handwritten notes;
Likes to talk about food;
Vacations revolve around eating;
Watches the Food Network;
Has developed cooking principles.

Me, an Assembler:
My cabinets rattle in the rain because of their emptiness;
Owns one knife that tears rather than cuts;
Has a refrigerator stocked with gin and olives;
Has mastered disarray;
Didn’t know what stock was until I met Lynn;
Makes martinis, margaritas, and scotch on the rocks;
Stands looking out the window into the woods for long dreamy stretches
      of time while supposedly making a salad;
Owns one cookbook, The Joy of Cooking, in case I have to thump a
      burglar over the head;
Has never initiated a conversation about food;
And has developed an anti-cooking stare.

Therefore, I was an odd person to invite to participate in the making of the Cassoulet and I asked Lynn in what capacity she saw my involvement. She envisioned me tucked in the corner by the lace curtains writing while others cooked. Writing what, I wondered. An ode to the Cassoulet? Was I supposed to document each stage of the cooking: now Dan is opening the oven, now great clouds of steam are billowing and have fogged Lynn’s glasses, oh no, the Cassoulet has slid onto the floor, will they just pick it up and go on, that sort of thing? Surely I would be a voice of dissent, existential as Camus in the cluster of sincere Francophiles. That can’t be what Lynn wanted in her opening chapter.  I envisioned everyone wearing chic French chef hats except me. I would wear a dunce cap and sit in the corner, the designated incompetent. I would be well supplied with red wine and her husband would serenade us on the piano, she said, trying to lure me in. Should I wear clogs, I churlishly thought. The conversation had gone far enough; I had to reveal my ignorance, and my resistance, perhaps my ignorance gave birth to my resistance. “What is a Cassoulet anyway,” I blurted, “and why are you cooking it?” Lynn was dumbfounded by the depth of my culinary ignorance.

It turns out that no French dish is more steeped in “history, myth, and religion”¹ than the Cassoulet.  Cassoulet is said to date back to the 14th century siege of Castelnaudary during the Hundred Years’ War, when citizens created a communal dish so hearty their revivified soldiers sent the invaders packing.  According to Lynn, the power of the dish to transform history and its communal status is why the group was starting their book with it.  

The next time I saw Lynn she handed me five pages of recipe instructions to make a Cassoulet in the authentic way. She and her main cooking partner, Brett, would start the preparations in the middle of the week for the dish to be served late on Sunday. (Joy of Cooking has this to say about preparing the Cassoulet: “For this recipe you almost need a routing sheet. If, however, you follow directions, you may proceed with the self-confidence of the bullfighter who put mustard on his sword.”) Shopping for the hard to find ingredients in East Lansing, Michigan would be time consuming in itself. Then there were things like rendering the goose fat, whatever that was. The more she divulged about the Cassoulet, the more I wondered why she wanted to involve me, a vegetarian.  Goose, sausage, loin of pork, ham shank, and lamb shoulder go into a Cassoulet.

Lynn and I had been friends for years, and yet here she was inviting me to an eating orgy that cut against the grain of who I was and my sense of economy.  She knew I didn’t eat meat, and we had plodded through countless thorny conversations about the idiosyncrasies of my eating predilections, in particular the range of my inconsistencies. We had exhaustively, to my mind, mapped out the emotional radiography of my identity with food. I didn’t seem to associate good feelings with the preparation of food and Lynn found this odd. And perhaps it is in our food-obsessed culture. We had firmly identified our differences: I occupied the position of non-normative and Lynn represented the norm. Lynn believes that I can be converted, it may take some time, decades perhaps, but I can be brought around to the joys of cooking, to the joys of the Cassoulet. But can I? 

I accept her love of food, her love of everything having to do with food, from the ravenous reading of cookbooks and scouring recipe websites, to shopping for ingredients and standing in the kitchen for hours, for days, to the photographs circulated later documenting the red jovial faces assembled at the table sagging with food.  Lynn expresses her warmth through feeding others. Cooking is Lynn’s social passport and she is widely admired for her skills and generosity. Here’s the thing, I admire Lynn, too, and yet I still resist her embrace of the kitchen. The kitchen is my least favorite room of the house and if I had my druthers I’d either shrink it or devise a way to avoid it. I’ve hosted many a discouraging dinner party and the food I make tends to sit in a depressing heap on the plate. It’s been prepared under duress like trying to hem a wedding dress when you don’t even know how to sew a button and guests have taken their seats. Tension suffuses the whole affair.

When forced to go grocery shopping, I feel as if I am wandering through a sinister world in a horror movie. The crush of people pushing their carts under the too bright lights makes me dizzy and I lose my way. Not that I knew my way to begin with. I go shopping so infrequently that I never become familiar with a store’s layout, never know where what I’m looking for might be. I’m overwhelmed by the choices—a brave new world where hundreds of cereals line the shelves. I’m so out of it, I don’t recognize half of the brand names for the simplest foods like ice cream. And let’s not even talk about trying to analyze the nutritional information.  Hours seem to elapse before I’m pushing my cart out the automated doors into the dark parking lot and looking for my car. When I went in it was daylight. By the time I depart I don’t even remember what kind of car I drive.

Lynn and I were both raised by mothers who didn’t like to cook and were deeply ambivalent in the kitchen. However, our responses to those formative childhood years, when we were held captive to our mothers’ troubles, have resulted in different attitudes about food.  Lynn went one way and I went another.   

My mother had a complicated relationship to food. Both my father and mother upheld a rigorous routine when it came to meals. We had to have three meals a day, no matter what and these meals had to take place at the same time each day. Skipping meals wasn’t tolerated nor was eating them at other times. This was the meal grid, enforced on vacations, through illness, crises, weddings, snowstorms, and death. What struck me as odd about this meal grid was that my mother didn’t like anything related to food preparation. My mother’s job as a stay-at-home wife and mother was to be in charge of meals. My father expected her to do all of the grocery shopping, meal planning, meal preparation and clean-up. And behind my father was a vast apparatus of social expectation that enforced this idea of my mother’s responsibilities. Bucking my father would have been difficult, but bucking the whole American middle-class social set they inhabited would have been impossible for my mother. Yet she could never happily accept her job description, the terms of her marriage bargain. Instead of planning the week’s meals and grocery shopping once, my mother hauled herself to the market every day and stood in front of the produce hoping she’d be struck with an idea. Sauntering down the aisles every day looking at the cucumbers did not inspire her. My mother made dinner, it’s just the food didn’t taste like food; it was food that had little relationship to how it was supposed to taste if prepared in some way that understood its character and texture. She typically overcooked meat that tasted plastic, which was accompanied by a frozen vegetable boiled right up to the point of disintegration. No one starved. Let me state that clearly. But no one enjoyed the meal either.  Often conversation faltered as my family sat before a slab of reheated steak, a grim pile of peas and a whooping cough of instant mashed potatoes.

Breakfast was the meal that baffled me the most. My mother didn’t like breakfast and if she had believed she had any free will at all, I think she would have skipped it. She lived in fear of breaking conventions as if some Meal God would strike her dead if she strayed from the mean. Instead of just skipping the thing, she made a single piece of diet toast, and crunched disconsolately at it for the required minutes of breakfast. She also drank the obligatory small glass of orange juice. What she was mainly interested in was the coffee, which she drank throughout the morning. However, here too lies a mystery. The coffee was instant. As a lover of coffee, she didn’t even care enough to brew her own pot.

What I did see, and I saw this early on, was my mother’s vexed relationship to food. Why did she not think she had the right, the wherewithal to refuse breakfast? Where was it written that all wives and mothers must eat breakfast? If a documentary were being made of our mornings, the filmmaker would pull my mother aside and ask her: what do you really feel about breakfast? And my mother, if she were being truthful, would look into the camera and say: I hate it. And once she had uttered those three little words, she’s say more: I don’t want to look at food this early in the morning and I don’t want to prepare it and I certainly don’t want to eat it. My mother never said these things, but she passed them on to me as her silent legacy.

Naturally, I hated breakfast. After all, it wasn’t very good. The toast tasted like cardboard and contained no nutrients. The orange juice wasn’t even real and I didn’t get the rush from the coffee because I wasn’t allowed to drink it. Yet, I wasn’t allowed to skip breakfast. I arrived late and like my father inhaled the toast and juice or I was forced, like an inscription into servitude, to sit at the table and slowly and bitterly crunch my toast in the manner of my mother. Males inhaled; females ate so slowly one wondered whether the person eating might just keel over in the process. What I absorbed was my mother’s bitterness over doing what she felt was expected for her to do as a woman. Why she inflicted the same tyranny on me that was inflicted upon her, I don’t know. It’s one of the large mysteries of female kinship.

Because of my mother I saw the cost of fulfilling conventions one doesn’t fit, even if they might be positively experienced by others. In my mother’s case, her inner forces wanted to go in some other direction than the preparation of food.

Lynn embraced the food her mother refused. I acted out my mother’s repressed refusal. I don’t like complying to other people’s expectations that don’t coincide with my own desires. It’s better to fight. There are costs either way. As my mother’s daughter, I’d prefer to incur the costs that result from fighting rather than the costs that come with complying. Better to not eat the breakfast you don’t want, better to refuse the Cassoulet, and that’s what I did.

I declined Lynn’s invitation. But in the aftermath, my refusal gnawed at me. I felt pangs of envy viewing the photos of the enormous Cassoulet pulled from the oven and set steaming on the table where a crew of Lynn’s happy students gathered. I listened to Lynn’s cooking tales, punctuated by laughter, and realized I had disappointed more than just her.  I disappointed myself. The joys of the Cassoulet had been offered to me and I had refused.

Recognizing that my refusal was my default position, an almost automatic response, made me pause and ask whether it is possible to change one’s attitudes, one’s tastes, solidified over decades? Do my attitudes no longer serve me? 

For a few months after the incident with the Cassoulet, I volunteered to make dinner twice a week as an experiment. Not much, I know, but my efforts nearly knocked my family out of their chairs.  I began planning meals in advance, making a shopping list to insure I had the needed ingredients on hand, and I stood in the kitchen stirring heated pots. In my own way I was trying to embrace the Cassoulet and its joys and, I’m sorry to report that it was exhausting. The tension lodged in my back was something else, let me tell you.  Maybe if I kept at it, over time, I’d become more accustomed to the enterprise, but would I ever like it? Would I ever feel right and happy following recipes and whipping up dishes? Something in me, profoundly in me, resists turning food into dishes with names.  I just want to see food for what it is, if that’s even possible, before it has been trussed up and made a vehicle for something else—the coin of marriage, for example in my mother’s case. Being her daughter opened my eyes and made me see that the preparation of food is a potentially freighted subject, a task and burden for some, a sign of privilege and indulgence, an emotional comfort and secret pleasure—the list goes on. The symbol of romance, of family values, of civilization.  Food is rarely just food.

Standing in the kitchen stirring, I looked longingly out the window at the river and into the woods beyond.  I imagined a documentary filmmaker pulling me away from my steaming pots and asking: what experience involving food do you remember as your happiest? I’d think for a moment, but not long because I always come back to this memory when the conversation turns to food. When I was a young camper in Pennsylvania, we’d hike along the edge of the lake where blueberry bushes grew wild.  I’d pick a blueberry and put it in the tin cup of my mess kit for later, and then the next one I’d plop onto my tongue where I would hold it. It felt alive, as if it had a pulse. The berries I saved for later tasted of the lake water and the tin cup, sweet and bitter together, not just one thing, but rich and complicated and mine.

¹Jeffrey T. Iverson, “Cassoulet: Savory Taken Seriously.

Author Portrait

Marcia Aldrich is the author of the free memoir Girl Rearing, published by W.W. Norton and part of the Barnes and Noble Discover New Writers Series. She has been the editor of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. In 2010 she was the recipient of the Distinguished Professor of The Year Award for the state of Michigan. Companion to An Untold Story won the AWP Award in Creative Nonfiction. She is at work on Haze, a narrative of marriage and divorce during her college years.