“Crusted with cheese, golden at the edges. The waiter placed it carefully in front of me, and I broke through the top layer with my spoon and filled it with warm oniony broth, catching bits of soaking bread. The smell took over the table, a warmingness. And because circumstances rarely match, and one afternoon can be a patchwork of both joy and horror, the taste of the soup washed through me. Warm, kind, focused, whole.”
— Aimee Bender, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
Maybe it lies somewhere deep in my French heritage.
At my late father’s knee, he taught me to love onions. We were never without them: yellow, white, or green. Dad would spread butter over a slice of white bread, then top it with a thick hunk of white onion and eat it as an open-faced sandwich. Yellow onions went into soups and chili, which he happily made himself. Green onions were for chomping on along with radishes, washed down with a cold can of Olympia beer while reclining in the front yard overlooking the lake where we lived in Minnesota.
That’s how I confirm my French heritage, passed down from Grandpa to Dad to me: onions and butter coursing through my veins. While I don’t exactly have Dad’s hand-to-mouth devotion toward onions, I always cook with them.
French onion soup gratinée is still one of my favorite dishes to make.
I don’t recall my mother making it, nor my father, but I probably first encountered it in a restaurant, like one of the many our family visited in the 1960s and ’70s. It was so much like that other popular dish of the time: cheesy Swiss fondue, something to share at parties, dip into and nosh on around a fire in the late autumn or deep winter, with the snow piled up outside the steaming and foggy windows.
I still love French onion soup. In fact, on a chilly Thursday last week I had a cup at a local restaurant called Red Cow. The broth was deep and beefy, the onions caramelized brown and sweet, the saltiness of the broth, all deglazed with a little dry white wine or sherry, and that cheese: the best you can get — Gruyère — gooey, luscious cheese melted atop a once-crisp crouton, now soaking in broth.
French onion soup is my favorite comfort food. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s rich and satisfying — almost a meal in itself. Its warm blanket of cheese laughs at the snow cover outside, mimics it: out there, you’re harsh and unforgiving, but in here, it seems to say, all is cozy and delightful. It’s the perfect soup, actually. The memory of it is like warm polished brass by a blazing fire while you’re shaking off the chill emerging from the cold outside.
Somehow this all got transmitted to me at a young age and I wonder, every time I enjoy it, what it is that still rings a bell in me. A delicious comforting dish is memory, and memory is happiness. I’m sure there’s a connection to Dad. “Food, taste and aromas,” writes Kristen Hartke of the Washington Post, quoting the Rev. Paul Abernathy, “like music and images, can bring somebody very vividly into our presence. It can be joyous and wrenching at the same time.”
For me it’s the joyful memories of my father and our heritage. It’s the onions. It’s the warmth and sensory delight.
I can’t eat French onion soup and be sad or angry.
And I’m probably happiest sharing it with a good friend.
Michael Maupin is chief storyteller at StoryShed Learning & Media LLC, and blogs from Minneapolis, Minn. A recovering screenwriter, he launched his WordPress blog Completely in the Dark (completelydark.com) in 2001 to explore narrative in filmmaking. In 2008, however, his parents died, so he switched focus to family stories — trying to make sense of life while still being “completely in the dark.”