Thursday Night Meal: Cassoulet

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[Editor’s note: This year at Hutchmoot, John Cal not only fed us with delicious food; he nourished us with beautiful stories, providing context for each meal and what it meant to him. What follows is the first of his speeches, given a week ago today—we will be posting the others, one by one, over the next couple weeks. Enjoy.]

I had been to New York three whole times, but this was my father’s first time, and he was clearly out of place. He was afraid, from the first second he stepped off the plane, to ride the subway, to get in a cab. The streets were too crowded for him as we walked down 5th Avenue. He worried about pickpockets and street performers and people dressed as hot dogs handing out pamphlets.

Meals were hardest.

At restaurants, he tried to get me to order for him—a request for help which, in my snobbery, I refused. So he eventually just started saying, “I’d like a steak,” when the server would come to take his order. No glance at the menu, which posed its own sort of problem. “Well done,” he’d say, hoping there weren’t any follow up questions. “I want it gray and burnt,” he’d sometimes add. I was so annoyed with how uncool my father was.

At the time, I was living in a cabin and working at a youth camp deep in the middle of the Deschutes National Forest. Besides a few others who also lived on campus, the nearest human beings were twenty or more miles away, so in my twenties I had gotten in the habit of going to New York once a year as a respite from the solitude and loneliness of the woods; a place to remember who I was, that I grew up in a high rise, that I thought myself a city kid, to feel sidewalk beneath my feet, to revel in the smell of metal, and gyros, the sound of high heels on pavement, the pulse of the S Train beneath my feet.

But while New York was a comfort for me, a reminder of who I was (or who I wanted to be), for dad it was all new, and different enough that the peculiarities are what stuck out compared to his life in Hawaii. For my father it was an adventure—new, unbridled, and yes, sometimes scary. So he ordered steak, over and over, maybe half a dozen times over the week we were in Manhattan.

On our second to last night in the city, I reserved a table at Les Halles, an easygoing French bistro on Park and 14th, which was, oddly enough, known for their steaks. But shortly after we were seated, in classic New York fashion, tiny tables and elbows just barely grazing the people sitting next to you, my father was confronted with a plate of food.

His eyes perked and his head turned as it followed the scent across the dining room. “What is that?” he asked in wonder, the order going to a party a few tables down from us, but still in eyeshot.

Somehow, so often, it begins with a meal—the Civil Rights Movement, a year at Hogwarts, Jesus's first miracle; a little sustenance to make us brave, something delicious to fuel us for the challenge ahead, something comforting to remind us that we are surrounded by friends.

John Cal

It was cassoulet, braised pork and chicken, stewed for hours with tarbais beans and tomatoes. Cassoulet in French refers to the deep earthenware vessel in which the dish is cooked. Cassoulet, a casserole, comfort food from across the sea, was for my father pure risk, pure adventure. It is a meal for the comforts of a languid Sunday afternoon, a cold January evening, a gathering, a coming home. But also adventure: chicken or goose or duck confited with bacon or mutton or sausages from Toulouse, lingot, haricot blanc, herb de Provence—flavors and ingredients that don’t often frequent our tables.

We skirt this line at Hutchmoot: comfort and adventure. You each come to the table with something different, a different hope, a different expectation, but we all chose this: to come here, to be together.

But in the end, my father didn’t choose to order it.

In mid-September 1960, four college students, three black and one white, sat down at a segregated whites-only lunch counter in Louisiana. The week before, over bowls of gumbo, they planned their protest.

“Gumbo makes people braver,” said chef Leah Chase of what came to be known as the CORE 4. “It satisfies the soul and gets you talking.”

Their challenge to social convention was to enjoy a meal together at McCrory’s on Canal Street in New Orleans, but in their defiant act of friendship they were charged and convicted of criminal mischief in a case that would eventually go all the way to the Supreme Court.

“All I wanted to do was have coffee with my friends,” said Sydney Goldfinch, one of the four arrested in what is noted as a key moment in the fight against segregation.

Somehow, so often, it begins with a meal—the Civil Rights Movement, a year at Hogwarts, Jesus’s first miracle; a little sustenance to make us brave, something delicious to fuel us for the challenge ahead, something comforting to remind us that we are surrounded by friends. And how privileged we are, to be able to sit at this lunch counter together, to sup and be satisfied, to not only see that the Lord is good, but to, as the Psalmist writes, taste that He is good as well.

But I was too busy being pretentious to enjoy the company, to revel in the togetherness with my father. I inadvertently chose segregation instead.

“Cass- Cass- Cassoulet?” he said as the waiter took our order. “Excellent choice, sir,” the waiter replied, dressed in a pressed white shirt and pin-striped waist apron. “Cote du beouf, bernaise—on the side, frites, and frisee salad for me,” I said—my usual order at Les Halles when I was in my twenties and the annoyance of my pretension was at its peak.

Then as the waiter began walking away, my father called out, “Does that come with rice?”

Rice. Medium grain calrose rice, granularily speaking. We have it so often in Hawaii, with nearly every meal. With scrambled eggs, and spam, and teriyaki chicken, yes, of course, but I’ve also seen it just as easily come alongside pancakes, or spaghetti.

“Uh, no sir. It doesn’t come with rice,” the waiter replied, confused at the request. “Would you like a side of rice pilaf?” It was a nice gesture, but it wasn’t the same, and in the confusion and panic, my father called out, “Steak. Never mind, I’ll just have a steak, well-done. Gray and burnt,” he added.

Now, years later, I wish I had helped.

Les Halles was Anthony Bourdain’s restaurant. In his book Kitchen Confidential he wrote:

“For a moment, or a second, the pinched expressions of the cynical, world-weary, throat-cutting, miserable bastards we’ve all had to become disappears, when we’re confronted with something as simple as a plate of food.”

So let us begin Hutchmoot with a meal, one to make us brave, one that connects us to the grand continuum of one another. Cassoulet, for my father: braised chicken and pork from the South of France—a taste of home from across the sea, comforting and adventurous, full of possibility and risk.

Comfort or adventure; choose what you will. Either will do.

I hope that this meal reminds you to help one another navigate all that’s ahead. I hope that as we sup together these next few days, as we are confronted with something as simple as plates of food, that you find yourself in awe of the many tastes of our great and mysterious Lord. I hope that however you came, whoever you are, whatever the reason you are here, even if, heaven forbid, you’re a bratty twenty-three year-old desperately pretending to be a New Yorker, you are able to, if only for a moment, or a second, remember that you are loved and welcomed; that as you drink from the well, your thirst will be satisfied.


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