Cas­soulet Con­fes­sions: Food, France and the Stew That Saved My Soul

  • Review
By – November 21, 2022

Sylvie Bigar’s mem­oir, Cas­soulet Con­fes­sions, com­bines an inves­ti­ga­tion into the author’s dys­func­tion­al fam­i­ly and the cas­soulet, a dish native to South­ern France. She first explores trou­bling child­hood mem­o­ries involv­ing her tough-to-reach father and dis­turbed old­er sis­ter, her con­tin­u­ous­ly evolv­ing rela­tion­ship with her Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, and her par­ents’ and grand­par­ents’ move­ments across Europe before and after the Sec­ond World War. Then, she joins forces with Eric Gar­cia, a famed cas­soulet chef who teach­es her both the his­to­ry of the dish and meth­ods for prepar­ing it.

While Bigar’s family’s his­to­ry and her pur­suit of the per­fect cas­soulet are equal­ly cap­ti­vat­ing, the con­nec­tion between Bigar’s pas­sion for the stew and her fam­i­ly sto­ry does, at times, feel some­what ten­u­ous. Pas­sages regard­ing her mother’s expe­ri­ence dur­ing World War II, for instance, occu­py mul­ti­ple chap­ters with­out being refract­ed through Bigar’s expe­ri­ence of under­stand­ing cas­soulet. As a result, it can be dif­fi­cult to ful­ly under­stand why cer­tain sec­tions are placed along­side others.

That being said, Bigar’s writ­ing is strong, espe­cial­ly where it describes the sens­es. Since Bigar is an expe­ri­enced food and trav­el writer, this should come as no sur­prise. Her ren­der­ings of the cassoulet’s taste and tex­ture are thor­ough and sharp, as are the details about the coun­try roads she dri­ves along to reach cas­soulet des­ti­na­tions and the shape and grandeur of her child­hood home in Gene­va. This tal­ent is put to great use as Bigar takes the read­er to New York, Car­cas­sonne, Paris, Toulon, Lau­sanne, and oth­er cities, cov­er­ing events in the mid-twen­ties all the way up to the ear­ly 2010s.

Just as vivid is Bigar’s pre­sen­ta­tion of the many eccen­tric char­ac­ters she meets dur­ing her cas­soulet jour­ney. Experts feud with one anoth­er over how the cas­soulet is meant to be pre­pared, how it orig­i­nal­ly came to be. From a dis­tance, their fight­ing can seem pet­ty, but Bigar does well to con­vey the impor­tance of the dish — not just for these indi­vid­u­als, but for the cul­ture as well — such that the read­er, too, will take an interest.

Bigar clos­es the book with a part­ing gift: She offers a col­lec­tion of cas­soulet recipes, each inspired by a vis­it on her cas­soulet tour. Many take mul­ti­ple days to pre­pare, but Bigar con­cludes with a sim­pler ver­sion — The Gate­way Cas­soulet” — which, like the book itself, is an absolute treat.

Ben­jamin Selesnick lives and writes in New Jer­sey. His writ­ing has appeared in decomP, Lunch Tick­et, San­ta Fe Writ­ers’ Project Quar­ter­ly, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. He holds an MFA in fic­tion from Rutgers-Newark.

Discussion Questions