Camas Davis was at an unhappy crossroads. A longtime magazine editor, she had left New York City to pursue a simpler life in her home state of Oregon, with the man she wanted to marry, and taken an appealing job at a Portland magazine. But neither job nor man delivered on her dreams, and in the span of a year, Camas was unemployed, on her own, with nothing to fall back on.
So when a friend told her about Kate Hill, an American woman living in Gascony, France who ran a cooking school and took in strays in exchange for painting fences and making beds, it sounded like just what she needed. Upon her arrival, Kate introduced her to the Chapolard brothers (Dominique, Marc, Bruno, and Jacques) and two of their wives (Cecile and Christiane), part of a family of Gascon pig farmers and butchers, who were willing to take Camas under their wing, inviting her to work alongside them in their slaughterhouse and cutting room.
All manner of nearly dried or drying sausages hung from two dozen horizontal wooden dowels that the Chapolards had attached to a vertical metal structure. Americans are more familiar with the Italian word for these sausages: salami. Dominique schooled me in the French version.
“Saucisse sèche,” Dominique said, pointing to a somewhat shriveled, purple-looking sausage, more like the color of Jehanne’s salted and dried duck breasts. Flecked with ground meat and what looked like fat, the saucisse sèche was about an inch in diameter.
“Saucisson,” Dominique said, pointing to a much larger dried sausage the color of the tiled roofs in Toulouse. I knew that the word saucisse, when used alone, referred to fresh sausage, so I deduced that saucisse sèche meant dried sausage and that saucisson was just a larger version of saucisse sèche. Dominique gestured for me to squeeze the saucisse sèche and the saucisson between my thumb and forefinger. Each had a little give to them, but the saucisson seemed softer than the saucisse sèche. They were all clearly made out of meat and fat and encased in pig intestine, so why did they look so different? “Could it be they came from different parts of the animal?” I tried to ask Dominique in French. He pointed to his butt and thigh and said, “Jambon,” followed by a lot of other French words I didn’t understand.
Later, Kate would explain that saucisson is made from lean meat from the hind leg, or ham, that has been completely trimmed of fat, sinew, and connective tissue, with 20 percent of fatback added back in. Saucisse sèche is in some ways a by-product of saucisson, made from meat from other parts of the animal plus a good amount of the fat, sinew, and connective tissue that was trimmed in the process of making saucisson.
Only when I finally understood this did I come to appreciate the deep level of resourcefulness that the Chapolards employed when it came to using the whole animal.
Dominique took me back out to the cutting-room tables, where Bruno, Cecile, Christiane, and Marjorie were hard at work. I watched him thinly slice a long cylinder of fresh, lean muscle, for which I had no name yet.
“For Christiane’s paupiettes,” he said, making me repeat the word, Pope-ee-YETS. He handed the slices to Christiane, who wrapped small scoops of ground pork inside of each, then a thin slice of what looked like bacon around that.