Rob built the furniture in the living room because I asked him to. It was my second year in the apartment, my second year in graduate school. The first year, I lived with another woman, an education major from Montgomery, Alabama. The apartment was furnished by the landlord with cheap, ugly pieces made of pressboard and plastic veneer. When she left, and Rob moved in, I asked the landlord to take the furniture back. I wanted our own space. We bought a bed.
We were in love in some childish, naive way. Enjoying the physicality, sharing music, sharing college gossip. We lived in a closed universe with a secret language all our own. He liked the idea that I would ask him to build furniture. This was a manly task, an appropriate one in his eyes. I gave him an idea of what I wanted it to look like, and he planned it and built it. A built-in L-shaped seating area, with cushions that I upholstered. A credenza of sorts under the windows, with terracotta tiles. I would tile and grout it.
His idea of the project was to build it so a 500-pound person wouldn’t break it. Since we had friends who were opera singers, and whose weight might approach that number, it wasn’t unwise. Thus, he bought a vast number of 2x4s, and overbuilt the thing so that a massive earthquake wouldn’t move it. Of course, the one element we didn’t plan for was comfort. The sofa was a miserable thing to sit on; the proportions were wrong. Sit on it for more than twenty minutes and your legs would fall asleep if you were short; your back would start hurting if you were tall. It looked pretty good, though, in a earth-toned 70’s modern way, and we shared the pride of having made something ourselves.
I was also responsible for the lamp, made from a big green glass jar. As with everything connected with the project, I thought I was saving money by doing it myself. By the time I bought the components, it always was more expensive. My heart loved it because I had made it, but no one would ever mistake it for a hundred dollar lamp, or even a twenty dollar one.
Having completed this fine project, we needed a party to celebrate. The occasion came when my mother decided to come up from New Jersey for a visit. Thirty years later, I can’t recall if she knew that Rob and I were living together – I think not – but she must have suspected it. Nevertheless, we decided we would throw her a dinner party, and I would cook a feast.
She didn’t know I could cook. In her home, the kitchen was her fortress. My father and I entered at our peril. Small tasks might be delegated to us – stringing beans, peeling potatoes – but she controlled the castle. She was a good cook, albeit a predictable one given my father’s predilection for meat and potatoes.
When I left for graduate school, after four years of college while living at home, I taught myself to cook, first by using Craig Claiborne’s Kitchen Primer, then by the ineffable Julia Child’s The French Chef Cookbook. I experimented every night after my last seminar, often cooking late into the night. That first year, living with my Alabama roommate, I’d often hear her drawl “Mary, you’re gonna have nightmares eatin’ that stuff this late.” Sometimes, I did. Some mushrooms - made a la grecque per the old Joy of Cooking - had a decidedly non-hallucenogenic effect – I knelt in homage to the porcelain god in our little bathroom for several hours. She was living on cottage cheese, with an occasional hot dog, so her comments on cuisine held little weight. She didn’t want to try my experiments, unless they were baked goods.
By the time the second year, and the fateful dinner party, rolled around, I was an experienced cook, at least by my own measure. Thus it was that I decided I would cook a cassoulet for the party, in honor of my mother’s Alsatian heritage. It was late autumn, so a hearty casserole-type dish would do well. That, plus a salad and bread, would make a fine feast.
That old rhyme that begins “for want of a nail” comes to mind when I think of the project that the cassoulet would become.
Vast quantities of various ingredients, some unavailable in Hartford in the mid-70s, were called for in the recipe. I needed to decide on substitutions for things like duck confit. I did find a regular Long Island duck, something that was not on the menu at my house growing up. I couldn’t find French garlic sausage. Kielbasa would have to do. And so on, through the seemingly endless list of things I’d need for this casserole, not the least of which was a very large bag of dried beans.
I am not a bean lover. I like regular American baked beans because of the high brown sugar-molasses content. I’ve learned to love lentils, with the variety of spices that can transform them. Unreconstructed white beans – no. The cassoulet would add some flavors, but this was a bean dish. Nonetheless, this would be my culinary triumph, my way of showing my mother that I was now an adult. I could cook! Not only could I cook, but I could make something that my mother had never tried to cook.
For this dish to work, only one pot would do: a massive Le Creuset pot. Le Creuset makes beautiful enameled cast iron pots. They are famous for two things: the slow, even heat such a pot lends to stews, and the incredible weight of the cast iron. Even the small pots are heavy. A large Le Creuset is hernia-inducing.
Off I went to the kitchenware store for the pot. I found my pot, in the traditional flame color (orange fading into red and a status indicator for foodies even then). It cost a whopping $185, a vast sum for someone who was working part-time as a schoolteacher. The investment was worth it. I was proving something (to myself? To my mother? To Rob?) and this was a requirement.
Cassoulet was originally created to use up leftover meats of various sorts, and stretch the protein by adding legumes. It was made tasty by some tomatoes, herbs and spices, and judicious use of fats and breadcrumbs. It was an end-of-the-month penny-stretcher (or sou-stretcher, to be more accurate). My recipe was not.
Even with the substitutions of more mundane ingredients, this casserole was going to cost me a lot. Furthermore, it was going to make a large quantity of food. How many days was I willing to eat beans? Not that many.
We decided to invite several friends, so my mother could meet the young people with whom I worked and played in Hartford. Musicians are eccentric as a rule, and this was certainly true of the young men and women we asked for the party. John, an organist who affected a French beret and a quasi-British accent, was among the milder variations. Stephanie, a mezzo who would later marry a gay organist and then be shocked – shocked – when he left her for a man, was the most sane of the women. The apartment was small and our well-constructed furniture could accommodate weight but not quantity of people. We decided to add some folding chairs. This might destroy the elegance (so we thought) of our design, but would make it possible to share the beans with more people.
I began cooking the components of the cassoulet three days in advance. Ventilation was poor in the little space, and I began to feel like the dish had entered my pores, but I was on a mission to prove my abilities. Step by step I worked my way through the complex recipe. When I reached a step which gave me some down-time, I cleaned or made another course, like dessert. I can no longer remember the other courses. The cassoulet, built with a hundred 2x4s of ingredients, took all my attention.
My mother arrived the morning of the feast. She was more focused on the sorry state of our neighborhood, with prostitutes trolling on the street corners and dirty children playing in the gutter, than on our elegant interior design. She was not shy in her comments. The cat hid under the bed in an act of self-preservation from the acerbic tone and the second-hand smoke.
I completed the final stages of the dinner, relatively calm because of all the preliminary work, and set up the buffet in the kitchen. Our guests would have to balance their plates on their laps. Had I thought of this problem, I might not have chosen the meal I did, but it was too late now.
Slowly, and predictably late, our friends came. The concept of time to a musician is relative, not absolute. This is particularly so for opera singers, who made up the larger part of the guest list. For them, tempo must be flexible. How else would one hold a high note until the conductor is shaking with rage?
We had wine, hors d’oeuvres, chatted away. My mother, never easy with young people and in the unfamiliar role of being the guest rather than the chef, squirmed in her uncomfortable seat on the home-made sofa. Our friends were oblivious to her discomfort; I was intensely aware of it. I could think of nothing that would put her at ease, and felt the sting of failure as her hostess. I didn’t realize then that there was nothing I could do to make her feel better. Her discomfort was not the awful sofa, it was being in a group of young people who already had more privileges than she had ever had in her life, who were not only done with four year college degrees, but were in graduate school. Their conversation might have been in Urdu. She didn’t belong. I was too busy fussing with the food to act as a conversational bridge for her. If I had she might have resented it even more.
It was time for the piece de resistance: the cassoulet. I announced the main course, and everyone got up to grab another plate in the kitchen. The young people didn’t let Mother go first. This was an unforgivable sign of poor manners in her eyes. When she got to the buffet table, she looked down and said, “Beans? You made beans?” My protestation that this was cassoulet, that it was French, that I thought she’d like it, were useless.
I had not even made real food for her. I had made beans.
Everyone (perhaps even my mother) enjoyed the dish. Several of the guests had second helpings. Even so, we barely made a dent in the ocean of beans that was the pot of cassoulet. My stomach was already jumping at my mother’s displeasure and the jug wine; the thought of beans for the foreseeable future nearly sent me over the edge of nausea. Somehow, I survived the main course, and started the coffee and served dessert. Whatever it was, it was well-received. Full of good food and sufficiently alcoholic wine, we continued to sit, though some were shifting from side to side. Whether this was the beans at work or the 2x4 sofa, I didn’t know.
Rob and the guests departed, and I was left with the clean-up. My mother helped. Washing dishes was the equivalent of Zen meditation in her household. We did the work silently. I wondered how angry she was about the beans. I was too young to know that it wasn’t the beans that she was angry about.
She stayed for another two days. We went out to eat and had mediocre food, in no way the equal of the cassoulet, but she paid for it, and was happy. She didn’t thank me for the hospitality or the effort or the food, nor did she compliment our décor. I had failed.
Almost thirty years have passed. I have learned that the predicate of pleasure at the table is the company and the love with which the food was prepared. At potluck dinners, I still find myself doing competitive cooking, asking my husband if what I served was superior to what others had brought, but I no longer overbuild what I bring and tend to rely on the same favorites again and again. I think I know now that food is not competition or proof, but it can be love, and that is the best of what we bring to the table.