Onion Soup

“Food is love,” was my mom’s mantra. She taught me the connections between the earth, food, and seasonality. We grew many of our own herbs, vegetables, and fruits wherever we lived.

Joanne, my mom, was a small-town Minnesotan farmer’s daughter with a Ph.D. in art history. My dad, Jim, is a small-town Minnesotan trucker’s son with a Ph.D. in accounting. Due to my parents’ studies, we lived in England when I was four and eight. On school holidays, we explored Europe and ate many foods that were new to us.

At home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, starting at the age of 10, I watched Julia Child on Saturday mornings instead of cartoons. She was just as funny as a cartoon, but real. She taught that while technique was serious, cooking and eating were fun. Mom shared my enthusiasm for food, fun, and Julia. Our bible was “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” co–authored by Julia and Simone Beck with Louisette Bertholle. Our favorite dish was her famous French Onion Soup, which became the centerpiece of our New Year’s Eve dinners.

We never made recipes as written. Co-conspirators, our love of flavor lead us to add an extra pinch of this, an extra spoonful of that. If a recipe called for one clove of garlic, Mom added three. If it called for two, she added five. Most nights, we left the table with garlic breath.

Our kitchen accommodated several cooks. Long before it was trendy, Dad wired speakers in every room of the first floor, so we’d all gather in the kitchen to blast music, chop, stir, sing, and dance. Mom’s favorite song was Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World.” “Jeremiah was a bullfrog,” she’d sing “Was a good friend of mine…” Then we’d get silly and start imitating Julia: “Save the liver!” and toast each other with “Bon Appétit!”

While we both loved food, we had different favorites. Mom drank iced white wine. I liked red wine. She loved anything crispy-–the tiny French fries that fall to the bottom of the bag, the sugary, brittle corners of brownies, and the crunchy caramelized end pieces of roasts were her favorites. I liked the softer bits, so I got the bigger French fries, Brownies from the middle of the pan, and the rare slices from the roast. We snuck food onto each others plates, trading crispy bits for soft.

However, dislikes were not coddled. Mom loved certain vegetables that I hated. This meant that I had to eat green-pepper-laden Goulash, Brussels sprouts, and piles of lima beans.

We repeated our favorite dishes throughout the seasons. The classic French recipe “40 Cloves of Garlic Chicken” (Mom used 60), and Boeuf Bourguignon were standard on cold winter days. Summer brought Salade Niçoise and pitchers of homemade Sangria. Mom couldn’t just cook for us four, she always made double and triple batches.  It was normal to have last-minute dinner guests – all it took was an extra plate or bowl at the table and we were ready to serve.

She made special treats when my brother and I were sick. A cold meant perfectly poached eggs on buttered English Muffins. The flu meant real brandy in our lemon tea and rich Chicken and Dumplings.

When I had surgery in 1996, Mom flew out to Seattle to help during my recovery. Of course, she brought essential spices including a bag of Hungarian Paprika. She made Pork Paprikash with homemade Spätzle (noodles), Coq Au Vin, and Chicken and Dumplings. I still have that bag of the paprika in the freezer. It’s too old to use, but I can’t throw it away.

Mom was diagnosed with cancer in December, 2001. During 2002, I visited several times, making her favorite foods each time.

I cooked Gyros with ground lamb and lots of garlic, but left the lemon out of the sauce because it hurt her mouth. She enjoyed my homemade Baklava, and my Bread Pudding was sweet and soothing.

I returned to Michigan when mom went into the hospital the day after Thanksgiving 2002. She was so sick that she hadn’t been able to cook the Thanksgiving dinner. After dad and I visited her in the hospital, I cooked the full dinner.

For our family, Thanksgiving dinner was about cooking together, music blasting, drinking wine, and having fun. That day I cooked alone, tears running down my face. I roasted the turkey, made stuffing, and tried to remember exactly how mom made her incredible brown-sugared yams.

When the dinner was ready, I couldn’t bear to sit down to eat it alone with my dad. We packed it up, took it to the hospital, and ate with mom. She was thrilled.

I haven’t been able to cook Thanksgiving dinner since.

When mom went into hospice a few weeks later, I brought Smoked Salmon Linguini and savory Lasagna, sweet Clementines, crispy salads and chocolate cupcakes. I topped toasted, buttered English Muffins with poached eggs.

I don’t know if she was actually able to taste the food. The cancer was in her brain, affecting her senses. She couldn’t smell very well, so I think her sense of taste was also affected. However, she declared everything “delicious” and I quoted her back to herself, “Food is love, Mom.”

On New Year’s Eve, we had Julia Child’s French Onion Soup. Mom’s eyes sparkled as I brought it to the table, and she held my hand while we ate. That was the last meal I cooked for her.

When she died a few days later, we wrote in her obituary:  “Joanne never wore perfume from a bottle–-her signature scent was that of delicious meals. When we smelled the aroma of olive oil, garlic, and onions, we knew that Mom was in the kitchen.”

At her funeral, the only song we played was “Joy to the World” from Three Dog Night.

On Aug. 13, 2004, I logged on to my computer at work and read that Julia Child had died. It was as if my second mother was gone. I burst into tears when I read that Julia’s last meal, at her own request, had been her own French Onion Soup, the same as I cooked for Mom.

I felt the loss of my mother all over again in Julia’s passing. We were so intertwined. From them both I learned that food is love, and when you put your heart into it, food can nurture both the bodies and souls of those who eat it.

Onion Soup Gratinéed with Cheese

From Volume One, Mastering the Art of French Cooking

The onions for an onion soup need a long, slow cooking in butter and oil, then a long, slow simmering in stock for them to develop the deep, rich flavor which characterizes a perfect brew. You should therefore count on 2 ½ hours at least from start to finish. Though the preliminary cooking in butter requires some watching, the actual simmering can proceed almost unattended.

1 ½ lbs. or about 5 cups of thinly sliced yellow onions
3 Tbs butter
1 Tbs oil
A heavy-bottomed, 4-quart covered saucepan

Cook the onions slowly with the butter and oil in the covered saucepan for 15 minutes.

1 tsp salt
¼ tsp sugar (helps the onions to brown)

Uncover, raise heat to moderate, and stir in the salt and sugar. Cook for 30 to 40 minutes stirring frequently, until the onions have turned an even, deep, golden brown.

Browning the onions

3 Tbs flour

Sprinkle in the flour and (on medium heat), cook, stirring for 3 minutes

2 quarts boiling beef stock
½ C dry white wine or dry white vermouth
Salt and pepper to taste
Off heat, blend in the boiling liquid. Add the wine, and season to taste. Simmer partially covered for 30 to 40 minutes or more, skimming occasionally. Correct seasoning.

3 Tbs cognac

Add the cognac, and bring back to a boil. Preheat the oven to 325 F.

2 oz Swiss cheese cut into very thin slivers
1 Tbs grated raw onion
12 to 16 rounds of hard-toasted French bread
1 ½ C grated Swiss or Swiss and Parmesan Cheese
1 Tbs olive oil or melted butter

Using both Swiss and Parmesan

Pour the soup into a fireproof tureen or casserole, or into 6 to 8 individual onion soup pots. Stir in the slivered cheese and grated onion. Float the rounds of toast on top of the soup, and spread the grated cheese over it. Sprinkle with the oil or butter. Bake for 30 minutes in the oven, and then set for a minute or two under a preheated broiler to brown the top lightly. Serve immediately.

Finished Onion Soup

Notes: While this is Julia’s original recipe, as usual, mom and I made changes. We used half chicken and half beef stock, Sherry instead of Cognac, and did not put the slivered Swiss cheese or grated onion into the soup. You can use any good white bread for the toasts, but I find that slices of toasted baguettes allow you to cover the top of the bowl very easily. My bowls take 4 or 5 slices of baguette toasts. And we always used a mix of Swiss and Parmesan on top.

Since this is a New Year’s Eve dish in my family, we always drink Champagne with it. But any good, light white or red wine will work – try a dry White Burgundy (Chardonnay), Alsatian Pinot Gris, Beaujolais or Côtes du Rhône.


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