My youngest aunt Shoping and her husband David were the sophisticated ones. They were adventurously traveled, made witty remarks and were always up on the latest books and movies. They lived in a large Tudor house outside of Boston, which my aunt, who was an architect, had decorated herself very simply in pale mauves and frosted glass. When I stayed with them they would take me out to restaurants at least twice a week – usually something easy like local fish restaurant, which was called Captains Wharf. I would get the trout almondine and we would stroll there and back past the brick buildings and the well dressed people drinking in the summer air. It was only later that I appreciated them for their more profound qualities. But since I was a child at the time, and materialistic, what mattered then was that they were such a modern, pretty pair, clean and sharp and smart.
So it was only natural that it was Shoping and David who suggested, one rainy afternoon, to drive into Canada to have lunch. We were staying in a cabin in northern Vermont by a lake that Shoping had adopted for summer holidays.
The day was gray and cool and the café was probably nothing special but I reveled in the dark space, the mysterious, inviting smell, the red and white checked tablecloths, and the candles stuck in wine bottles. I had been to Paris, but with my family, which meant museums and eating dinner at bargain-priced restaurants at five PM in the dead month of August, so in my mind, the café just five minutes away from the immigration patrol between Canada and America, was more Parisian than Paris itself. It occurred to me that this was exactly the kind of place that couples would put on trench coats and have affairs, which in my mind at the time involved drinking wine, smoking cigarettes and holding hands.
I snuck a glance at my father, because I knew that he was studying the menu to see whether there was a kid’s menu. Every time we went out he would insist on me ordering from the kid’s menu, even if it meant that we would swap plates after, because the children’s menu was cheaper. I was already an awkward child, and I hated him for humiliating me. This was the other thing about Shoping and David. When we were out they never made me order from a children’s menu.
There was no kid’s menu and then, in stumbling French, Shoping ordered a bottle of white wine for the adults. I don’t know why the Soupe a L’oignon gratinee caught my fancy. Maybe it was because it sounded the most exotic, or because it cost quite a lot for soup. I asked Shoping what it was and she squinted and said in her offhand way,
“Onion soup? I have no idea. Maybe it’s good. Get it if you want it.”
I asked her to ask the waiter what it was, and he explained but her French was not good enough to understand him. I think it was his hesitation when it became clear that it was I who wanted the onion soup that decided me. Bring it on, I thought. I had Shoping order it in French.
It was brought to me in a crock, spitting underneath a crust that was golden brown and blistered in spots. My first thought was that it looked nothing like soup. My second thought was that my heart felt heavy.
Shoping said, “Oh right, that’s what the gratinee is. It’s cheese. Very cool.”
Cool was something that Shoping said a lot. Pet Shop Boys were cool. As was Mies Van der Rohe and early Beach Boys and morels in Provence and Mel Gibson in Road Warrior. She drawled “cool” in an offhand way. I, her niece, wore glasses and laughed at the wrong times.
I had never seen soup and cheese together before. Also the fact that the cheese was being held up was disconcerting. If you took a can of Campbell’s, put in a bowl, and sprinkled cheese on top, surely the cheese would sink to the bottom, right?
“What kind of cheese is it?” I said. Cheese made me nervous. I loved it passionately but only certain kinds. “What kind of cheese is this?” My napkin was still on the table and I was yet to pick up my spoon.
“I have no idea, okay?” said my uncle David impatiently.
“Is it American cheese?” I asked.
I really didn’t like American cheese, and it seemed that everywhere in my life there were people trying to sneak it in.
David snorted. “I have no idea. It’s Canadian cheese.”
I toyed with my spoon.
“Hey,” said my Aunt Shoping, “it’s okay, you know? Do you want some of my omelet?”
“Absolutely not,” said Uncle David. “She ordered it, and she’s going to try it.” Absolutely not was one of David’s favorite phrases. Whenever he said it, he’d wave his hands in the air, bob his head and usually the effect was comic. This time, however, he looked forbidding. Uncle David was, like my father, Cantonese, and for a moment, he reminded me of a Hong Kong shopkeeper, or a Triad member, standing in front of a sign YOU BREAK YOU BUY. The difference between Uncle David and my father was that my father would not have let me order the soup in the first place, because it was too expensive.
In order to eat French onion soup, you have to take a literal plunge. Which means you have to take your spoon, stab through the cheese and then make a sawing motion. I was not a graceful child and a lot of the broth ended up on the red and white tablecloth. Underneath the soup there was bread, which having been soaked with the broth, had turned into a kind of pudding, with large, porous holes.
I ate my first bites slowly as the broth made an indelicate dribble down my jaw. The cheese was not American cheese. It was astringent and smoky. Many years later I would find out that it was most likely Gruyere, but Canadian cheese was how I had filed it away in my mind. My first impression of the soup that it was so salty it made my eyes water, and when the broth splashed on my face, it prickled the way that seawater does when you have a cut on your knee and you go into the ocean. By the third bite I had grown enamored– it was like a witches brew. It made me feel quite heady eating this French onion soup in a dark café on the Canadian border while outside the rain threatened to unleash. I reached for a glass of water, feeling the soup scratch deep down inside my throat. After lunch, we piled into the car and spent the rest of the day inside the Vermont cabin, playing poker with my best friend Jeannie, who was there, and with whose older brother Jim I was mildly in love. Even the next morning when I swallowed I could taste it still. It probably meant that I had terrible breath and had not brushed my teeth properly.
For the next nine months, I made French onion soup. I made it for what was always my favorite meal of the day – what my brother Yar and I called after-school snack. It was our favorite because we made it ourselves. For French onion soup, I used Campbells condensed French onion soup from the can, and in lieu of French bread, I tore up Kaiser rolls and browned them in the toaster oven. I searched for Canadian cheese but couldn’t find it and my mother’s Joy of Cooking told me to use Swiss, which my parents obtained at the deli counter. I layered everything in ceramic, ovenproof bowls, decorated with line drawings of vegetables, and with their own handles, which my mother had acquired a long time ago. These were bowls that spoke of individual cassoulets, pot-pies, and onion soups gratinee, and were incongruous to our lifestyle, which my father dominated, and which centered around the wok, the rice-cooker, and deep fryer. I think that when she bought them, she was dreaming that she lived a different life. As far as I could tell, she had never used them.
I would use half a can of Campbell’s (which has in its ingredients tomato paste and caramel coloring), half a roll, two slices of cheese; and when I was finished, and even though I was full, I would scrape the soup bowl clean under the faucet and begin the onion soup again. Yar tasted it, but he hated onions with a passion, so whenever I made French onion soup, I would microwave him a few tater tots. Bread and cheese was Yar and my favorite comfort food, and there was plenty in onion soup– the crusty, blistered outside giving way to a pliant middle. Then there is the soup itself– onions browned and cooked for so long they have almost turned to sugar, the whiff of wine, and above all the saline flavor that is the stuff of tears. Julia Child and Company has you cooking the bones for half a day before adding it to twelve thinly sliced onions that are then reduced for another couple of hours until they are a brown slush at the bottom of the pot. There is not a lot of soup in French onion soup, but what there is, is intense, like a marriage that has lived long and hard. You start with the fresh ingredients, bloody bones and white onions with a sting, cook them until they are charred, add a slug of booze and then continue to force them together until finally they have succumbed to a sweet collapse.
I have not made onion soup in a long time. I have collected recipes– there is one that stands out in my mind that involves champagne and Camembert and cooked in a flash, which for me is, with its freshness and piquancy, like a wild evening out. I am in the middle of my life as I write this, and while I like the sound of this version, the standard version I find increasingly more reassuring. These days, I think onion soup is best eaten out. For four months in Paris, perhaps all to happy to indulge in a cliché, every time I went to a restaurant I would order it. Generally I do not like onion soups in fancy restaurants. I do not want my Gruyere – or Canadian cheese, as I will always think of it – adulterated with superior cheeses. I want a lot of bread at the bottom, and not some thinly curled crouton floating on a surface of clear amber. With my fingernails, I peel the bits of burnt cheese from where it has congealed, during baking, to the rim of the bowl. I siphon the broth off with a spoon. It is still a sloppy food that leaves trails as it courses down my face. I only need a few nibbles of the bread these days because when I eat onion soup these days, I am not actually hungry. This is the thing about adventure, which Uncle David taught me long ago. Adventure is what you do when your needs are already met, but should you decide to order your damned soup, you have to at least take a bite. The last time I had it I was with a friend, and we had been walking for quite some time. We curled up on a banquette, and talked about love and our fathers, who were both dead. My legs were tucked up, in the W position. We ate the soup, shared a glass of champagne and I felt very young. Outside, it was raining.