(french) onion soup.

In the Alice B. Toklas cookbook (whose merits we exalt here), there’s a chapter titled Food in the United States in 1934 and 1935. It opens with an amusing anecdote:

“When during the summer of 1934 Gertrude Stein could not decide whether she did or did not want to go to the United States, one of the things that troubled her was the question of the food she would be eating there. Would it be to her taste? A young man from the Bugey had lately returned from a brief visit to the United States and had reported that the food was more foreign to him than the people, their homes, or the way they lived in them. He said the food was good but strange indeed – tinned vegetable cocktails and tinned fruit salads, for example. Surely, said I, you weren’t required to eat them. You could have substituted other dishes. Not, said he, when you were a guest.”

Despite such misgivings, Alice and Gertrude Stein – as Alice always calls her – leave on the Champlain not long after. Their cross-country adventure is epic, and they feast on such fascinating items as Clear Turtle Soup (which begins with soaking actual turtle meat for four days in water), Bird’s Nest Pudding (the only recipe in the entire cookbook that calls for sour cream), Cornsticks (for which Alice buys a special cast iron pan to bring home to France) and the “ineffable” Iced SoufflĂ© (which, Alice notes, is a particular favorite with men).

The trip is a success, with many interesting encounters with the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Branch Cabell (and an amusing moment where Alice is asked not to light at a cigarette at the University of Austin, as “only men smoke”.) At the close of the chapter, Alice admits that “the seven months we had spent in the United States had been an experience and adventure which nothing that might follow would ever equal.” And yet, despite the success, the chapter is suspiciously thin on recipes. And the recipes she does note are not recipes we’ve ever come across, even in the most “authentic” of American kitchens. Did none of these recipes survive the 1950s?

It’s a particularly interesting question, especially when compared to the chapter that follows it: Little Known French Dishes Suitable For British and American Kitchens. Alice’s cookbook was first published in 1954, and while much has happened in the half century since, it’s intriguing to us that the dishes in this chapter, dishes she considered (we’ll assume correctly) to be a completely unknown quantities in the United States in the ’30s and ’40s, are ones that are still in the repertoire today. In fact, with the exception of Salad Meli-Melo and Mimosa soup and few others, we recognize all of them. And most interesting is the entry for onion soup, which is today as ubiquitous a dish a macaroni and cheese.

Who has a recommendation for a good book on the history of American food in the 20th century? Where did it all go?

(French) onion soup is a perfect dish for March, when the sky is white with clouds and the rain leaves an ever-present sheen on one’s glasses. March, here, is finally behaving itself (spring came early, but seems to have righted itself) and we took advantage of the new cold and our newly planted thyme to give this dish a try.

It’s not a hard dish. Anything but, really. But it takes patience and some attention. It’s a dish best made when you can’t leave the house anyways, and can take the luxury of a few hours to pad into the kitchen every so often, to give the onions a stir.

If you have hearty, homemade stock on hand, this is your chance to use it. Brown stocks are the best – long simmered with dark meats and darker vegetables. And rather than serve up individual bowls, restaurant style, we took Alice’s advice and did the final broil in a dish like so. We were skeptical, but the bread and cheese turned out perfectly.

(french) onion soup.

For two as a hearty main. An amalgamation of Alice and experience.

2 pounds sweet or vidalia onions
2 tablespoons salted butter & 1 of olive oil
4 cups (32 oz) beef or another dark broth, warmed
A handful of fresh thyme, minced
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1/3 cup sherry cooking wine
2 tablespoons white vinegar
2 tablespoons flour
A baguette
1/4 pound Gruyere

1. Peel the onions and slice thinly, as thin as you can manage.

2. In a large heavy skillet or pot, the largest one you have, melt 2 tablespoons of butter with the tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions, and stir to coat the onions evenly in fat. Cover, and let cook for five minutes, to get them going. Give them a good stir, cover and turn the heat down to the low.

3. Cook the onions, covered, on low, for 45 minutes or so. Stir them one or twice to make sure they don’t stick and are cooking evenly, but otherwise leave them be.

4. Uncover, and turn the heat up ever so slightly to medium low. Cook in this manner, stirring once or twice, for another 30 minutes. This will help cook off some water that’s leached from the onions. You’ll see the onions will begin to brown slightly, and the liquid they’re in will begin to reduce.

5. After the half hour, sprinkle in the sugar, minced thyme, and some freshly ground black pepper, stirring to combine. Cook uncovered for five minutes – the sugar will help the browning along. Add the sherry and white vinegar, stir, and cook uncovered another five minutes. Add the flour, stirring to combine, and cook uncovered two or three minutes more. The flour will absorb most of the remaining liquid.

6. Pour the hot broth over the onions, and stir. Bring to a boil, and boil, covered, for fifteen minutes. Taste the soup and adjust the seasoning – you might want a splash more of the sherry, or some salt, or a bit more pepper. Reduce the heat to medium, and simmer uncovered for fifteen minutes more. The soup will be begin to thicken and reduce. But – you don’t want it to reduce too much; it still has twenty minutes in the oven ahead of it.

7. While the soup boils, preheat the oven to 375F. Slice six thick pieces of baguette, and lay them in a ovenproof casserole dish. Top each piece of bread with thin slices of the cheese, using the entire 1/4 pound.

8. Pour the soup over the bread, and put the casserole in the oven. Bake for 20 minutes. Remove and serve immediately!


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