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“Amazing! You know about cassoulet! You see, that’s where I come from, where we make the best cassoulet. In the world.”
I have been trying to leave this bar where I’ve been cornered by a loud-mouth American and his girl friend, who may not actually be his girl friend yet, who are explaining their upcoming infidelity—at least he is. It’s complicated business and not very pretty, involving being high-school sweeties back in the day, except they weren’t, you see, because he was a loser and she was the number one cheerleader or Queen of the May. But they found each other somehow online, the incubator of endless criminal enterprises, and here they are in Paris contemplating, about thirty years later, what to do next and explaining to a total stranger—that would be me with my halting English—that he has no qualms about lying to the live-in girlfriend in Geneva while she admits to being a little uncomfortable with what she has had to tell her husband back in the States about a trade show, even if she is going to one and even if he is her third husband and they’re more like business partners than a married couple.
So: I’ve been trying to escape for good reason—and besides the people in this side-street bar in Montparnasse, excluding the loud-mouth and his girl friend or not, depending, are too well dressed and too international for my taste. No one is speaking his native language, except the loud-mouth, which leads to a howling chorus of broken dialects, including the cassoulet Frenchman who is speaking booming, exclamation-pointed English to the almost-French–speaking American ladies and complimenting them on their knowledge of the existence of cassoulet. It’s hard to know why this should be amazing since one of them, the youngest, has evidently just finished eating one. I hope they will tell him about Philly cheese-steaks and offer him a similar compliment when he confesses to a weakness for them, not to mention singing along with Danny and the Juniors. It’s worth waiting around for another few minutes just to see what he will say next.
The same thing, as it happens. He’s from the South, near Castelnaudary, where cassoulet may have been invented and in any event it is loved, prized, and eaten at all times of the day and night, in season and out, come hell or high water, en ventre sa mère, more or less. “We call it the international capital of cassoulet, you know,” he tells the American ladies who seem to represent three generations and three varying abilities of French, which they insist on speaking to him, but not about cassoulet. They are telling him, in brief spurts that seem unconnected, about an international candy expo coming up shortly, the recent unveiling of the latest Michelin Guide Rouge which may or may not have led to a suicide by a demoted chef, and three restos étoilés where the great feasts are now twenty percent off because of the hard times, the lack of tourists, and of course a desire to stay thin. Or so it seems. Each lady blurts something, then turns to her companions.
Or they were. Actually they are discussing the check, getting it, paying it, and leaving, all to the background drone of his offering a distinction between the cassoulet made with lots of mutton and the other made with more confit de canard, which, of course, he favors. I imagine he is about to insist that the white beans must be gathered only by the light of the silvery moon, but it is clear that he is delivering his gift of cassoulet passion to the youngest of the American ladies, a good-looking woman, maybe thirty-five or forty, who looks less than thrilled and slightly queasy, as if a combination of too much to drink—the barman is proud of his American cocktails with Bourbon and fruit—too much talk of cassoulet after her own heavy meal, and too much Monsieur from Castelnaudary have given her des gaz. She says as much out loud.
Uproar and oh dear! Even Australians don’t talk about having gas in public. Her American solecism stops all conversation for a radius of three tables from hers for a moment, except for M. White Beans himself who is growing more ardent the queasier jolie madame becomes. Perhaps he believes that eating a good cassoulet or even hearing one described is reason to have des gaz and perfectly normal in his experience—actually a sign of appreciation of the pride of the tables of Castelnaudary, not to mention Carcassonne and Toulouse, and several obscure villages known only to the… who cares? And don’t the Japanese burp after a fine meal, or is that a canard, as in cassoulet?
But it is fascinating, or maybe just amazing, to hear a bore and, I guess, a drunk, attempting to seduce a woman by describing one of the heaviest dishes in the world, especially when she has made it clear by word and contorted facial expression that her tum is full and maybe ready to do something explosive but less than romantic. He must want to tell her how beautiful she is, how desirable, how something, but he has lost the words and has only a recipe up his sleeve or on his tongue or perhaps is so deeply in love with white beans and mutton and fat poultry that he can’t think straight. Or he can’t understand that a belly full of bean stew is a prelude to deep sleep, solo, not an invitation to foreplay or a pas de deux. Or he is scared out of his wits, but can’t bear to stop. Whatever the reason, I give him credit and make a mental note that he is the most boring Frenchman I have ever heard in my life, maybe the most boring person ever, period.
I also feel he deserves some extra credit for distracting me from Mr. Infidelity and Ms. Cheerleader who, I realize, have been talking to my back the entire time I have been taking in the cassoulet sweepstakes in front of me, presumably without taking a breath the entire time. Maybe I have been too eager—and maybe he is more boring than the Frenchman, a problem I could settle some other time, but why should I punish myself? Still, I gather that, after addressing my shoulder blades, he has finally asked a question and actually taps me on the arm, wanting an answer or maybe it’s advice. What should they do? Several ideas, mainly rude, run through my head, but sometimes inspiration pops to the surface just in the nick of time. So before I say anything that might make me feel that I am on their side, I suggest they should take the situation into their own hands, make it their own, over a romantic late dinner—and what could be better than a cassoulet at a bistrot I know that stays open late and serves pretty bad food? They begin to thank me, but I bolt.
The three American ladies are escaping, having paid their bill, and are already out the door, but with M. du Cassoulet in hot pursuit, and I’m on his tail. He is still spouting about his beloved Langue d’Oc, the joys of its beany tables, and his own status as a member of the provincial ministry of gastronomy, or something, which maybe clarifies the whole scene for him, but not for the American ladies who are moving as fast as they can, which is not so fast, seeing as how the young one in the middle is being more or less dragged along by the two others.
“But no!” he shouts, really in anguish, “why do you go in that direction? My hotel is this way.” He pleads, begins to follow them, stands still and stares: how can this be happening? How can they resist his charm? His beans? He begins to follow again. The young woman, still supported by her older friends or relatives or whatever they are, doubles up as if she is going to be sick, then straightens up slightly and farts magnificently—so help me, it echoes in the narrow street. The man looks as if he has been awakened from a dream—completely disoriented, immobile on the sidewalk, not knowing whether to advance or retreat.
This is the moment that the loud-mouth and his girl friend hit the sidewalk—perfect: they have just missed jolie madame’s commentary: they are in the dark—and they are going to take my advice. I restate the directions to the restaurant and recommend that they wash down their cassoulet with beer, maybe Belgian double dark ale, absolutely. In the distance, I hear the American lady repeating her performance, but fortunately the couple is heading in the opposite direction. All will be well tonight.
Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons/avlxyz