That electronic question box Google has more than 500,000 Internet sites referring to the sublime French bean dish, cassoulet.
Waverley Root, A. J. Liebling, Joseph Wechsberg, James Beard, James Claiborne, Georges-Auguste Escoffier, and my friend Richard Gehman all loved cassoulet, had their own favorite recipes, and wrote about it endearingly. But who was my friend Richard Gehman, you may ask?
Gehman was the author of several novels, an off-Broadway musical, biographies of Frank Sinatra, Humphrey Bogart, Jerry Lewis, Hugh Hefner, and literally thousands of magazine pieces. He also wrote several highly personal, idiosyncratic cookbooks – one called the Haphazard Gourmet (New York: Scribner, 1966), which he assuredly was. Newsweek did a piece on Gehman in 1963 and said he was half god and half goat. He was married five times, including a stint with Academy Award-winning actress Estelle Parsons, and had nine children.
A workaholic as well as an alcoholic, he frequently had three or four major magazine articles appearing in various publications in the same month. His obituary in the Lancaster Pennsylvania New Era (he was born in Lancaster) reported that he kept 11 typewriters in his study, each with a different manuscript on which he worked as it suited him.
Richard Gehman lived hard. He died in 1972 when he was 51. I still think of him almost every day. Mostly, I think of Richard when I get hungry for cassoulet, which is also almost every day. When he was still with us, Richard and I communicated constantly by mail and by telephone. He lived In New York City and I, in San Francisco. We exchanged stories, anecdotes and ideas about food and about our so-called love lives. Those love lives (so-called) we frequently equated with good food and drink. We also exchanged recipes, and on occasion we cooked together when he was in San Francisco or I journeyed to New York. When we cooked together it was usually for small groups of young women with whom we were attempting to ingratiate ourselves.
Richard and I had a lot of fun together and sought out each other when we found ourselves on the other’s turf. We shared a love of jazz and boyish pranks although we weren’t boys. For example, we sometimes played the game of jacks in various bars. The loser bought the drinks. Of course, the loser was usually the bartender, who stood us to drinks in order to stop us from playing jacks. We both also enjoyed good scotch, good wine and good food, and we liked to “double date,” as we described it in those days.
One day in 1963 I wrote him a letter and requested his recipe for cassoulet. In the letter, I told him that I planned a small dinner party in my Telegraph Hill bachelor pad and that its success depended on the success of the cassoulet I hoped to prepare. It would be a major event. I had recently met an attractive young woman in a San Francisco coffeehouse and I had in mind to invite her to share in the cassoulet shopping, cooking and eating. I reasoned that I would undoubtedly get to know her well during the time it took to do all of that. In any case, I sent the letter of to my friend and in a few days I received this reply.
My Dear Comrade:
You have asked for my recipe for cassoulet. Undoubtedly a seduction depends on it. With my cassoulet, success is assured. First however, a few words about this noble dish. There are basically three kinds of cassoulet – Castelnaudry, Carcassonne and Toulouse. All are in the French region of Languedoc. The original dish appears to have come from Castelnaudry. It contains beans, of course, fresh pork, some ham and some bacon rinds. In Carcassonne they add some mutton and partridge if it is in season. In Toulouse, and I lean toward Toulouse in my admiration for cassoulet, they add some good sausage and some preserved duck, and perhaps a bit of preserved goose if it is available.
That grand textbook Larousse Gastronomique, has a charming anecdote by Anatole France, the French novelist, poet and critic, about a woman of his acquaintance, a certain Madame Clemence, who operated a Paris restaurant. Anatole, who obviously researched Madame Clemence’s cassoulet as well as he probably did Madame Clemence, said the lady had the same cassoulet on the stove for 20 years. She just added to the pot over the years. Quite a lady, but please don’t try that.
You will find that my version of this noble dish ranges far and wide within the acceptable parameters.
That’s Richard Gehman. Just writing about him has prompted a tremendous appetite and I must end this and get down to Le Central for my cassoulet fix.
If readers have become cassoulet inspired and want to try Richard Gehman’s recipe, just send me an e-mail and I’ll shoot it back to you.
Ernest Beyl is a North Beach writer and cassoulet enthusiast. For the recipe he writes about here just send him an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org