Someone once said that the main difference between people is that some people eat to live, and the rest live to eat. Any regular reader of this site, or anyone who’s seen my waistline, knows that I fall into the latter camp. I thank/blame my mother for this. She’s both a fabulous cook and a good teacher of the culinary arts, so I started learning to appreciate and prepare inexpensively a wide variety of foods at an early age. Throughout elementary, junior high, and high school, I brought brown-bag lunches of either my mother’s or, later, my own devising.
Then, I went to college. Living in a dorm for four years, I was too lazy to make my own meals. Besides, my boxy fridge was fit only for cold beer and the remains of last night’s takeout Chinese. Lacking the funds that come with a full-time job, I discovered the horrors of a school cafeteria. Oh, it wasn’t so bad, and there were special, succulent “chef days” that featured exquisite food, just to deceive us into thinking this would become a regular thing. For the most part, though, the school cafeteria wasn’t so much a step down from my expectations as it was a full flight of stairs.
The only item that was consistently excellent was Chef David’s French onion soup. Once a week, I’d open one of the huge stainless steel pots to see the glistening oil and shining onions of a great batch of soup. It smelled buttery and peppery and salty. In a perfect world, there would be a perfume like this that women could buy and spritz on their necks. My friends and I took slices of provolone from the salad bar, and laid them over our hot bowls of soup, to make for an authentic French experience.
Or so I thought. I went to Paris, my first trip overseas, for two weeks in May 1999, with my then-girlfriend and her best friend. We ate cheaply—ham & cheese sandwiches every day for lunch, baguettes and market-bought cherries for breakfast and midday snacks. We decided to splurge one day after a trip to the Paris Sewer Museum—long story; let’s just say that we should have been warned that the museum was, in part, a fully operating sewer—and ordered onion soup and salad from a café.
I’ve rarely been so disappointed in my life. The murky brown liquid was as thin and fragrant as dishwater; the diced onions were tiny and still crunchy; the texture was not smooth and buttery, but merely greasy; there was a lot of salt, to cover up the lack of any other distinct taste; there were no soggy chunks of bread in it.
So this was true French onion soup. Thinking we must have just found a bad restaurant, I tried another place later in the week. The soup was marginally better, but it wasn’t as good as Chef David’s, or even the stuff at a Jason’s Deli chain restaurant.
This weekend, I decided to try making my own batch. I’m not sure why I hadn’t thought of this years ago. I used a recipe from Mary Land’s Louisiana Cookery. Land is engaging and blunt:
Slice ten large red onions. Sauté in butter. Add one quart of beef or game stock and simmer fifteen minutes. Add one teaspoon of blackstrap molasses, one-fourth teaspoon of salt, and one teaspoon of white pepper. Simmer for ten minutes. Sprinkle pieces of toasted French bread with Parmesan cheese and drop in soup when ready to serve. (Serves two.)
That’s her entire recipe. So, Saturday late-afternoon found me in my typical cooking garb—a plain white t-shirt, paint-flecked sweatpants, and flip-flops—and getting weird stares. You see, with my windows and blinds open, letting the sun light my place, anyone can see into my apartment. What the average person, looking up into my second-floor apartment, could see is a sleeping cat on the coffee table and a black man energetically toiling in a t-shirt, sweatpants, and tinted blue swimming goggles. I waved out my balcony window once, grinning like an idiot, at a passerby who had stopped and was staring.
Oh, come on. It’s not that strange. The goggles keep the onion spray out of my eyes. And why would I wear nice slacks to do down-and-dirty cooking?
Anyway, I could see immediately that I’d have to watch out for Land. A classic enthusiastic Louisianan, her portions were, ahem, excessive. I especially love that parenthetical “Serves two.” Sure, if the two happen to be Gargantua and Pantagruel. Otherwise, the recipe serves six to eight easily, with enough for leftovers the next day. “10 large red onions” translates to three or four for regular humans. Otherwise, the recipe was brilliant. I would have never considered molasses, but it added a musty sweetness that surprised me.
I surprised myself. It was the best soup I’d put in my mouth in a decade. With the toasted bread, salt, and the flood of butter, this might be the unhealthiest concoction I’ve ever consumed, and I’ll be walking off the pounds until October. No matter. That first sip, a reminder of the rare joys of cafeteria food and the pleasures of cooking, was worth every inch I added to my waistline.