By Karen Dill • Guest Writer
I was driving through the south of France in February 1985 when I had an experience that taught me the importance of the mystical union of food and love. I had my mother and young son in tow, and while we had a wonderful week traveling the country roads from Frankfurt, Germany, to Marseille, France, I was pregnant with my second child, physically tired and achingly homesick for the mountains of North Carolina.
I had lived in Europe for five years and had not been back to the United States during this time. I had convinced myself that I loved this foreign life and was too sophisticated for a common case of homesickness. But traveling on this Sunday morning in February, the week of my daddy’s death five years earlier, fraught with hormones, missing my daddy and hungry for the food of my childhood, I was homesick for the home I knew best —the green mountains of western North Carolina. There is no homesickness, I’ve discovered since, that is more powerful than the longing for your mountain home.
We had been riding for over two hours on a side trip to Toulouse and as we passed small country inns, I could smell the delicious food that had been cooking over stoves for hours and the smell was both familiar and haunting. I remembered Sunday dinners (the noon meal right after church) of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans or the standard roast with the same side dishes. It was always a special meal — one of the few during the week that featured meat. The smell coming through the front door after church was intoxicating.
I remembered the lines from Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down:” “… the Sunday smell of someone frying chicken … and it took me back to something that I’d lost somehow, somewhere along the way.” The grief that I felt at those moments was overwhelming. I kept driving, blinking back tears and trying to swallow the enormous lump that had formed in my throat. I wanted desperately to be back at my childhood home in Bethel with my mother cooking her standard Sunday meal and I wanted my son to understand the importance of communion in a simple house with people that you love.
But there were practical matters to attend to: we were hungry and finding a place to eat had become a daunting task. The problem was finding a compromise for my mother and 5-year old son.
My mother, a mountain native from Madison County and not well-traveled, preferred simple dishes with ingredients that she could recognize and pronounce. She had been patient throughout this week in France but I could sense that her sweet disposition might turn south if she had to face another meal of snails or goose liver. My son was clamoring for pommes frites and schnitzel — a fine German dish but we were in France. I was caught in the middle — arbitrator between two generations, caught in a compromise in the web of love and food, wanting to placate both mother and son.
The primal needs for love and food are so intertwined that the unraveling often takes a lifetime. Our first romances are with our mothers. They feed us; they nurture us; and thus the entanglement begins. We need and love the mothers who provide us with food. Each mouthful of food accepted by the child is proof that the love is reciprocated and the entanglement continues in an evolutionary fashion. We show love with food; we woo with food; we seduce with food. We are drawn toward simple food that nurtures in our childhoods, move toward food that excites when we find lovers and return to the comfort foods when the raging passion ebbs. The evolution is complex and universal. It encompasses relationships between families, lovers and many generations.
So on this beautiful Sunday afternoon in February, I did what one must do to balance a relationship between mother and child and the desire for food. I did what anyone who loves must do. I listened to my heart, trusted my instincts and took a giant leap of faith. When a homely and comfortable auberge (inn with a restaurant — the best to head for in France for a good home cooked meal) appeared around the next curve, I pulled over and took my mother by her arm, my son by his hand, and bravely entered the dining room of the small French inn.
The room was filled with Sunday diners as the noon meal in France is a popular family occasion. I saw mothers, grandmothers, grandchildren sitting together, enjoying simple country dishes. My homesickness was abating in this foreign yet familiar setting and I could sense that my mother and son were beginning to relax.
I don’t remember the words that were used — my French is elementary at best — but as our waitress looked at us and we looked at her, she seemed to know what we needed. We needed simple country comfort food and it was at this table that we came to know and love the cassoulet. We ordered a dish that was unknown to us but the ingredients were familiar and the sound of the dish’s name was much like our own casserole. The dish contained savory chunks of pork, white beans, duck legs, herbs and a garlic crumb topping — a one-dish wonder.
The cassoulet that we were served in this simple dining room in France would become a model for many meals over the next two decades. I could always find the common ingredients wherever I lived and shopped and the ingredients could be altered to accommodate tastes and locales. The one-dish marvel is a peasant dish, tracing back to a 14th century siege during the Hundred Years’ war when peasants created a communal dish to provide sustenance to the soldiers who were fighting off invaders.
It is simple — consisting of beans, meat and herbs but its preparation can be complex. It is a labor of love and requires patience. It is the perfect dish for a much-loved family or for a new lover — a dish that is both simple yet elegant. The cassoulet is a perfect dish for February.
I did not know the complications of the cassoulet’s preparation at that time but I knew that the dish held magical powers. My mother loved the simple pork and white beans; my son loved the crunchy topping; and I loved the savory combination of herbs in the delightful rich and hearty dish. We all cleaned our plates and as we finished the meal with café au lait and a pear tarte tatin; we smiled warmly at each other with knowing love and contentment of family.
In that moment I realized that we were not all that different despite the language and cultural diversity. Food and family had joined us in an elementary way for we all need the basics: food, love and a sense of belonging. Like the ingredients in the cassoulet, we are joined by flavor and diversity.
Sometimes on rare and wonderful occasions we blend together in perfect harmony — a blend of family, food and love — and the effort that we must exert to maintain this balance is worth it. And like the preparation of a good cassoulet our hard work and efforts are rewarded in simple and profound ways. For no matter how far from our beautiful mountains we might roam, a connection with familiar food and moments of soft contentment with family will take us home again.