by Don Lesser

I never made cassoulet for Mitch, and now I never will. Mitch, a real-estate lawyer in midtown Manhattan, was married to my cousin in a happy second marriage for both. Mitch could be nasty, but he loved my cousin and, when he saw that I did too, accepted me into his inner circle. He liked that I was well-read, knew the music he knew, and, most importantly, knew how to eat.

Mitch followed chefs the way cinephiles follow directors. He’d take us to a place and give us the pedigree of the chef, not caring that since I don’t live in Manhattan, I didn’t know the restaurants or the chefs. I cooked for them sometimes at their second house in Connecticut. For years, whatever I made, his response was usually, It’s good, but it’s not cassoulet. I made cassoulet twenty years ago, but that was way before I knew Mitch.

Cassoulet is a French country dish of white beans, preserved duck or goose, sausage, pork, and toasted breadcrumbs. If you have the duck confit, it’s not too hard to make, but it does take a couple of days. I promised to make it when he visited me, but Mitch never left Manhattan willingly. He was like some small-town boy whose small town was Manhattan. He rarely went to Brooklyn and once spent an entire trip to the Island arguing that we should blow off our relatives and go to the Second Avenue Deli with him.

Meat and bean dishes are common to many cultures, from Boston to New Orleans to cholent to feijoda. You take something that isn’t enough for dinner (the meat) and something that is plentiful (the beans) and slow cook them into a savory dinner for 10.

The Larousse Gastronomique lists three types of cassoulet, but they vary mainly in the meats they use. You assemble the different meats and beans, top them with bread crumbs, and bake the dish forever, stirring in the breadcrumbs when they are crispy. Several applications of breadcrumbs later, the dish is ready. It’s hard to make authentically in America. Preserved goose and pheasant may have been common to 19th-century France, but in New England, not so much.

Mitch contracted kidney cancer, lost a kidney, and spent the next eight years on a regimen of chemotherapy and blood transfusions. He tired more easily, but when I visited, there was always a restaurant. The cancer couldn’t even kill him. He died of a heart attack. The last meal we ate together was at the Second Avenue Deli.

So, I designed a cassoulet for Mitch. It will have white beans and the sausage and meats more common to my region. I’ll take a tip from Sienna Restaurant and use toasted croutons in place of the bread crumbs. I’ll make it for my family and we’ll toast Mitch before we eat. I’ll be sorry that he’ll miss it.

""Don Lesser has been writing all his life. He has an MFA in Fiction, has won awards for his food writing, and was a professional technical writer before the IBM PC. He writes and cooks in Amherst.

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