Refuge in French Onion Soup
Rose Edelstein is an eight very soon going on nine year old when we first meet her in Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (Doubleday, 2010). She’s in the kitchen with her mom; Rose is practicing her spelling while her mom is making her birthday cake. There was much deliberation about the cake but finally Rose decided weeks earlier that it had to be a lemon cake with chocolate icing (and sprinkles on top!). As the cake bakes, the kitchen is wrapped in a yummy fog of warmth and sweetness. The timer goes off. Rose’s mom pulls the baked lemon cake out of the oven and places it on the counter to cool. Next to it on the counter, a bowl of chocolate icing waits. Rose’s mom leaves the room; Rose is left in the kitchen alone with her straight-out-of-the-oven, much-too-tempting birthday cake. She sidles up to the cake, still warm and fragrant, and breaks off a small piece. She slathers it in chocolate icing and pops it into her mouth. It’s delicious.
But as the taste on her tongue melts away, something happens to Rose, something inside her comes alive, a sensor that allows her to taste more than just the typical sweet, sour, bitter, salty. From that moment on, starting with her birthday cake, Rose’s sense of taste is extraordinary. Instead of just tasting a warm, bright lemon cake with rich sweet icing, she tastes how her mom feels, how upset she is, her emptiness and hollowness, her smallness. Years later, she can pinpoint exactly when her mom begins an affair; instead of tasting the expected sadness and hollowness in her mom’s food, Rose tastes a wallop of romance and guilt.
But it’s not just her mom’s feelings she can taste; its everyone’s who had anything to do with how the food was made. When eating a sandwich, Rose can taste the desperate cries of a sandwich maker that just wants her boyfriend to love her to the tiredness of the farmers who picked the lettuce. She chokes down the anger of a baker who hates his job, ‘a punching bag inside each of the cookie’s chocolate chips.’ She can taste the stoicism of the chickens that laid the eggs and the weariness of the cows that gave up their milk. Eating becomes consuming myriad emotions, none of which are hers. Rose seeks solace in junk food, food-like stuff that’s made in a factory by machines with no feelings and with very little real ingredients. This food has nothing to say to her and demands nothing from her.
When Rose is in her last year of year of high school, she stumbles into a French restaurant, one with an uninviting façade and a B rating in the window. From the outside, there’s nothing really special about this place. She orders the onion soup. When it comes to the table, it’s crusted with molten cheese, golden on the edges. Rose breaks through the top layer of cheese with her spoon, collects a piece of the toasted bread and oniony broth. She tastes the savoury soup; it is a revelation. The soup tasted whole and focused, warm and kind, “made by a cook that found refuge in cooking. “ Rose returns to this place over and over again. In everything she tastes, ‘the food was the center and the person making the food was so connected with the food that she could really, for once, enjoy it.’ The whole and kind onion soup is the bookend to her sad and empty lemon cake.
Rose’s life changes at this French restaurant. She begins working for the owners, who let her flex her extraordinary taste buds. They take her to farmers markets to sample food, finding the best of what the farmers bring. They teach her to cook and give her a small closet where she can hang up her apron. Rose finds a home at this unassuming place. I have a hunch that Rose doesn’t think Doritos are the best thing ever anymore.
Even though Rose has a superpower when it comes to tasting what really went into her meals, we can all taste when something was prepared for us with love and care. When I feel rushed and anxious and I bully through making my meal, it reflects in the food. But when I let go of whatever irritated me at work, when I just relinquish myself to enjoying cooking my food, it all tastes so much better. And what’s the anxious rush for? Scurrying about frantically will ultimately only save me five or ten minutes max. Sure, a small savings, but what I’ve gained is a stomach in knots and food that taste like I didn’t care about it. I’m better off those days just throwing a frozen pizza into the oven. So, when I’m feeling rushed and anxious and upset, I pour myself a glass of wine, turn up the stereo, and take a deep breath. Making dinner is a pleasure. This is the part of my day I enjoy and where I can really express myself.
Soupe À L’Oignon (that’s Onion Soup in French)
Only very slightly adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking Vol. I
by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, Simone Beck (Alfred A. Knopf, 1961)
5 cups thinly sliced yellow onion (about 1 ½ lbs.)
3 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
¼ teaspoon sugar
3 tablespoons flour
2 quarts good quality beef stock (home-made or store-bought)
½ cup white wine
3 tablespoons cognac
1 to 2 cups grated Gruyere cheese (depending on how much cheese you’d like)
12 – 16 slices of a baguette
olive oil for drizzling
You’ll need ovenproof bowls once you assemble the soup, too.
In a heavy bottomed saucepan with a lid (4 quart size is good), heat the butter and olive oil over medium low heat. Add the onions and stir to make sure they’re coated in the melted fat. Cover with a lid. Peak occasionally and give the onions a stir. After 15 minutes, the mass of onions will shrink to a much more manageable amount. The onions will also be soft and translucent.
Now leave the lid off, turn up the heat to medium and stir in a good pinch of salt and the sugar into the onions. (The sugar will help the onions brown.) Stirring frequently, keep cooking the onions until they are a rich, dark brown. It took me 45 minutes to get the onions to where they needed to be.
While the onions are browning, pour the beef stock into a saucepan, put a lid on it, and bring it to a boil. Keep it a low boil until you need to add it to the onions.
Sprinkle the flour over the browned onions and stir for 3 minutes. Stir in the beef stock and then add the wine. Season with salt and pepper. Stir the soup enough so there are no lumps of flour. Simmer the soup partially uncovered for 30 to 40 minutes. Check for seasoning again.
Preheat the oven to 350 F so while the soup is simmering, you can toast the bread. Place the slices of baguette on a baking sheet. Drizzle them with olive oil. Toast them in the oven for about 15 minutes until lightly golden and crispy.
Add the cognac to the soup right before you’re ready to ladle it into individual bowls.
Turn the oven onto broil. When the broiler is preheated, ladle the soup into ovenproof bowls. Place 3 to 4 toasted baguette rounds on top, dunking them slightly into the broth. Then layer the grated Gruyere on top. Slide the soup bowls carefully into the hot oven. Once the cheese is golden and melted and bubbling, the soup bowls are ready to come out.
Serve the soup with care. It’s bubbling hot.