Since James and I got engaged, I’ve learned recipes tell stories.  I find myself wanting to cook every second, every day.  In fact, when I’m at work, all I think about is what new recipe I can prepare when I get home… and I don’t even necessarily want to eat everything I cook — I just want to cook.  I want to make fruit pies… and beef bourguignon… and mixed drinks… and osso bucco.  I want to try e.v.e.r.y.t.h.i.n.g.  Who the hell is this?!, I ask myself… all too often.  This past weekend, I ate a raw oyster.  Okay, okay… so it was half of a half… of a half of an oyster… but my God — It was a freaking raw oyster!  Annnd I manned up and even chewed on the thing!  Who. am. I?  …While I don’t have an answer, I do like this person I’m becoming…

We’re now on Episode 9, Season 1: “A Bowl of Onion.”  I made this application months ago (I know, I know… I’ve fallen behind… but I’m trying to catch up!)… and at the time, I was not excited to try something new.

Alton tells me, “During the American Civil War, slices of onion were often placed on open wounds in order to keep them ‘sterile.'”  …Interesting… and it probably would make me like onions more, if not for the voice inside my head saying, “That’s why so many people suffered from gangrene.”  …I’m just sayin’ it does not help that I hate onions — no matter what interesting fact is thrown in.  True, I enjoy chives and spring onions (yes, there is a difference)… but not the typical “onion” onion.  Also, I don’t like what this episode called for: “French Onion Soup.”  YUCK!  …There was one plus side though, and I clung to it: My dad adores French Onion Soup.  It happens to be his favorite soup… which made me excited because I decided to plan a dinner party of sorts, inviting anyone that could make it — my dad and mom, my sister and her boyfriend, James… and my grandma, who was probably the most important part of this dinner party.  Here’s why…

In January, my grandpa passed away, leaving my grandma alone… after 62 years of marriage.  As most older people do when a spouse passes, they neglect things — from cleaning, to having a positive attitude, to showering, to eating… and all break my heart.  My grandma was once a vivacious woman; a woman who had too much energy and love for her skinny, five-foot-something body.  She loved people to a fault… and more than anything in her world, she cherished my sister and me.  I use past-tense words here because while my grandma is still all of that inside, my grandpa’s death has robbed her of many of those traits on the outside, the side she shows to the world.  The woman I once knew as strong, smiling… has now become a different woman… one with a sad, ugly side at times.  She gets cranky and snaps at people, everyone… and at the turn of a hat, she’ll cry, openly… asking God why he didn’t take her too.  This new woman, I have trouble making her smile.

When a death in the family happens, odd things happen to that family.  The balance shifts; you can feel it.  You can feel a different person step up to become the new “backbone of the family”… and you can feel an understanding when a veil is shifted over someone else… who wants to hide perpetually in the shadows.  Well after my grandpa died, this is what my grandma wanted to do… hide.  Hide inside her own thoughts.  Hide inside her home.  Just hide.  …But I won’t let her.  If she wants to hide, I will hide with her… and this is what James and I vowed to do.  We knew she wasn’t eating, so we decided every time we prepared an Alton application, we would do it at her house, and give her a huge dish.  In fact, this seemed an easy solution because I want to cook often… which means I could see my grandma often.  She is smitten with James… and I don’t cook without my fiance.  And best of all, my grandma will eat anything… which is surely the company I need as I tackle new recipes.  It was a perfect fit.  Of course, my grandma was thrilled with the idea too.  I’ve always been close to both of my grandparents, but since my grandpa passed, her and I have seen each other more… and instead of just being my “grandma”… this new woman has also become my friend.

So one day, James and I called her up and invited ourselves and her son over for our dinner party.  She was elated.  She sat at her wooden kitchen table, staring wide-eyed and happy at James and I… admiring the woman the woman I’ve become… loving the man I’m about the marry… and showing her gratitude for our company with often teeth-showing-smiles and one glimmering eye, the other winking.  True, she was nervous… fidgeting with napkins and forks I’d just set out.  “What can I help with.”  Not a question, but a statement.  See, my grandma was raised with 13 brothers and sisters, so all grew up to be independent… teaching each other, parenting each other.  That means whenever moments arise for my grandma to be pampered — in any sort of way, she doesn’t understand how to act, what to do… or even what to say.  James and I both explained we just wanted her sit there… enjoy herself… watch us cook a meal for her… and talk to us, about any and everything.  And she did.  She talked and talked, asked questions, answered others… and we all laughed together while James and I began preparing our meal.  …But my grandma’s pampering moments didn’t last too long; she was on the move… begging my fiance to come downstairs so she could show him my baby pictures.

My grandma showing James my baby pictures… Just look at her face; she loves James

Meanwhile (in between sneaking downstairs and snapping pictures of them), I kept cooking.  On the menu: French Onion Soup, my mama’s Italian chicken (my grandma’s favorite food in the whole wide world; as she says, “I haven’t met a chicken I didn’t like!”), sweet potatoes, and broccoli.  First prep: Peeling and slicing five pounds of onions.  Five pounds.  It may not sound like too much onion, but for that crazy fool that thinks five pounds isn’t too much, after you peel and french (a way of slicing; get it — French Onion Soup) all onions, five pounds is an insane amount.  (To further put five pounds into perspective, my dog weighs the same amount all onions used weigh.  That’s just shameful… and not for my dog.)

Some of the frenched sweet and red onions

Once the onions were chopped (which PS-it was sweet and red because Alton says he likes the mix and how the reds make a darker soup… so I decide I too like that), the application said to add them into a sauce pan and sweat them.  Now here’s where I experienced some problems… and yes, problems on something so easy as sweating onions.  Alton says the onions will become a dark mahogany color and reduce to about two cups after 45 minutes to an hour.  Another problem I had was the next step: getting the wine to reduce to a syrup consistency, about 5 to 10 minutes more.  I don’t know if my grandma’s stove wasn’t as powerful as Alton’s, but I didn’t get the desired  results until over two hours… and even then, I feel a true French Onion Soup should have been reduced more.  Still, patience is vertue… and everyone sat with a glass full of patience because in the end, all was done… and we all waited on the soup…

Reduced onions

After the onion soupiness reduced, it was time to add in the beef broth (PS-Alton suggested making your own beef broth… and I know, okay?!  I’ve heard a thousand times before how homemade broth can dramatically improve any dish, but quiet frankly, this application intimidated me for some reason so I chose to stick solely to it!) and the bouquet garni (or herb bundle).

My bouquet garni of thyme, parsley and bay leaves

From here on out, it was smooth sailing — I cut bread rounds (so they’d fit perfectly in the crocks), then broiled the rounds until golden.  James had returned earlier and helped by grating four ounces of Gruyere cheese (which is PS-the best cheese on earth; James and I both agree)…

Freshly grated Gruyere cheese, courtesy my James

Lastly, the soup got its finishing touches: a sprinkle of freshly ground pepper and a dash of Cognac.  Then it was time for plating… or uh, bowling…  We spooned the hot soup into crocks, bread on top of the soup, Gruyere cheese on top of the bread… all to be broiled again.

Golden brown and bubbly French Onion Soup

In the end, my French Onion Soup was picture perfect with its bubbly exterior, ultra cheesy topping…

James blowing off his hot, cheesy bite of French Onion Soup

…and creamy, smooth interior… which my dad proudly proclaimed as “delicious French Onion Soup!”  (And by the way, he’s incredibly picky and hard to please!)

My daddy enjoying his French Onion Soup

I admit, the soup was really good… however, I couldn’t get over the fact that I was eating French Onion Soup.  Ridiculous, I know… but I picked at my soup… mainly eating the cheese, bread, broth.  The important thing for me though was what everyone else thought… and the fact that my grandma had scraped her bowl clean.

See, recipes tell stories.  To me, French Onion Soup will always be known as “my daddy’s favorite soup”… but it will now also be known as the first night James and I cooked for my grandma.  French Onion Soup will also share secrets, that — until this moment — James and I haven’t shared…  See my grandma is a devote Baptist and never had the desire to drink alcohol; and my dad often judges harshly if dishes have alcohol in them.  …Well, Alton’s soup application called for two cups of white wine and a splash of Cognac.  Hell may freeze over.  I knew my grandma would still eat the soup if she knew… but she’d probably be fussy about it, maybe pick at the soup… and I also knew my dad would research (above and beyond) the proper amount of time it takes for alcohol to burn off when cooked (by the way: Fact is it never fully does).  …So I told James we’d hide the bottles!  And we did!  We hid wine and liquor bottles in my grandma’s house… behind one of her chairs!  Looking back on it, I kinda feel bad… fooling them.  But I know two cups and a splash didn’t do the world harm.  …Plus, James and I felt like rebels, like high schoolers sneaking around their parent’s house to make-out.  We giggled… and poured alcohol in when backs were turned… and giggled some more.  So for only us, French Onion Soup is about a secret.

But the truth is French Onion Soup will also be known as much more.  It is a memory of my grandpa… the man who said few words, who always chuckled through his nose, who taught my sister and I how to play tennis, who took our side when my grandma said we climbed too high in trees, and someone who timed us as we raced back and forth in his paved driveway while we rollerbladed.  French Onion Soup will remind me of my grandpa, who never had a true opportunity to meet James… but when he did, it was in the hospital and he was bad off… yet, he still managed to look up, shake James’ hand and try — so hard — to sit up.  To me, French Onion Soup is about a man, my grandpa, who watched his family one night, from a cloud above, enjoying dinner together.

My grandpa

One thought on “The French Onion Soup Story

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