The first time I fell in love I was 19 years old and away at college. He was a musician who I met while waitressing at a wharf-side bar in Bridgeport, Connecticut. I had slept with one other man before but never stayed for a whole night. In the morning and the rest of the day the musician made me laugh, a surprisingly rare quality in a person.
When the bright autumn sky bruise purple I said I would make him dinner. This is what he had in his kitchen: Three onions, about eight bottles of Budweiser, a box of Aunt Jemima’s pancake mix, and an old container of won-ton soup. The year before I was attempting to get my wreck of a life going again at a community college and often, late at night, free of studies and jobs, my girlfriends and I met in a french bistro equal distance from all our schools. We ordered onion soup because it was cheap enough to allow us to chip in for two carafes of wine. We considered ourselves to be especially worldly and very chic staying so late in that dark basement cafe, drinking wine, sipping our little bowls of onion soup.
I wanted my lover to understand that he had just bedded a chic, absolutely worldly woman by making him French onion soup.
I took off into the twilight on my bike to find the nearest supermarket and spent most of my tip money on two cans of beef broth, butter, Swiss cheese and a loaf of Italian bread. I returned to find the musician blasting out some semblance of what he considered quintessential Peter Frampton chords. After kissing his cheek that I wasn’t so sure he felt, I set myself up in the decrepit kitchen with its one pot and single knife and a vague understanding of how to go about composing the soup. First, of course, slice the onions into thin rings then saute in the butter until they’re completely golden. Dust Aunt Jemima mix over them, stir almost into a paste. Blend in hot beef broth. Add salt and pepper to taste, let it brew awhile, taste again. It wasn’t anything like the French bistro but I made myself believe it was just as good, possibly better.
The musician yelled from the living room, “what’s that smell?”
“I made you onion soup,” I replied, maybe even sang out. I portioned it into cereal bowls, floated slices of buttered toast on top and layered over them two slices of cheese. Into the oven the bowls went and I kept the door open to make sure the cheese bubbled to the right shade of brown. Perfect, that’s what I thought as I carefully placed the hot bowl on a plate and took it in to where he sat on the couch. I returned for mine and folded down on the cushion beside him. He shook back his long dark red hair and leaned over his bowl.
“Hum,” he said, then put his spoon down and went back to pretending he was Peter Frampton. The next month–and another pot of onion soup later–we broke up in a grand opera of hysterics.
I was much older when I cooked again for a man. Two years older, to be precise, and living in Atlanta where for the first time I was not a waitress but a community organizer and a late night, all weekend long writer. I’d passed through a handful of men and women by then but this one thought he was the one for me. I wasn’t so convinced, especially since he left me once and now was back acting like everything was just fine. There he was, flying in from Ohio, walking through my front door, calling me “darlin,'” and bending me back in his arms while I pulled him into my bedroom.
In the afternoon, I took him to the public market, an airplane hanger-size building in the poorer section of the city that was jammed with farmers lording over stalls of vegetables and fruits, cases of meat–hogs hanging from ceiling hooks–tables of ice floats under which lay rows of clear-eyed river fish. We trawled through every inch of the market until we came upon a heap of trout, apparently a family favorite. We bought two.
Trout almondine, that’s what he remembered his mother making. He said it only required butter and some almonds. He thought it was probably baked. We picked up a cake of fresh butter and a half pound of almonds and then stopped at the liquor store for a bottle of gin, vermouth, and white wine. Back home, he mixed martinis and we carried them to my bed. At twilight we put on a few clothes and he stirred up another round of martinis while I took the fishes out of the refrigerator and stared at them lying on the counter. I had no idea what to do with the pair but the second martini encouraged me, along with the distraction of this man’s endless hilarious stories (I tended to pick lovers who, if nothing else, had great senses of humor). I smeared some butter over the skin, sprinkled their insides with salt and pepper, arranged them side by side in a cast iron skillet and shoved it into the oven at some degree or another.
Somewhere between the end of the martini and the opening of the wine, I must have made some wild rice. I figured the fish was done when the flesh flaked. After he chopped the almonds into little nuggets and showered them over everything, we carried our plates to the old picnic table I salvaged for the dining room. We drank the wine, murmured stupid little stories about what happened to us when we were without the other, and choked on little bones. After a couple of hacks and clumsy Heimlich maneuvers, we fled the table’s danger and sought refuge in bed.
The one other dish I made for love was for my husband who happens to be that arrogate man who I almost killed with trout bones. When we are tired–as we seem to be a lot these days–when we are sad or stressed or we acknowledge time is running out, I put together a simple meal of spaghetti in garlic oil. Actually, more often he makes it for me.
French Onion Soup
I finally learned how to make onion soup from Julia Childs. I see no reason to follow anyone else’s version. I’ve cut the ingredients to make enough for two.
2 cups thinly sliced onions, sliced into thin rings
1 1/2 tablespoons melted butter
1 tablespoon neutral flavored oil
1 teaspoon salt
sprinkle of sugar
2 tablespoons flour
1 quarts hot beef stock, though broth is fine, too
1/4 cup dry white wine
salt and better to taste
1 tablespoon cognac
toasted rounds of French bread
1/2 (or slightly more) grated Swiss cheese (see added note)
Cook the onions slowly in the butter and oil in a covered saucepan over a low flame for about 15 minutes. Then uncover the pot, raise the heat to moderate, stir in salt and sugar. Cook for 30 to 40 minutes, stirring frequently until the onions are an even golden brown (I like to make them almost translucently melting). Sprinkle in flour and stir.
Lower the flame to simmer and add the hot broth to the onions. Stir until the flour is dissolve. Add wine and season to taste. Simmer, partially covered for 30 to 40 minutes, skimming every now and then.
Right before serving, stir in a tablespoon or two of cognac. Pour soup into serving bowls. Float the toast on top. Serve with the grated cheese.
Note: If you want the usual gooey cheese topping served in restaurants, layer a slice or two of Swiss cheese over the soup and pass it under a broiler. Watch closely to make sure it doesn’t burn. You want a couple of nice brown bubbles on top.
I have never made trout almondini since that night in Atlanta. Instead, here is my husband’s recipe for spaghetti in garlic olive oil.
Spaghetti in Garlic Olive Oil
2 or 3 garlic cloves (depending on how much you love garlic), sliced thin
2 or 3 tablespoons of olive oil (he uses 3 but I use 2)
half pound spaghetti (we use linguine)
Using a skillet that’s big enough to hold the amount of spaghetti you’re cooking, saute the garlic slices in the olive oil until slightly golden. Set aside.
Meanwhile, put a pot of water to boil and cook the spaghetti. Be careful not to overcook.
Drain the spaghetti well then pour into the skillet with the garlic and olive oil. Toss well. If you wish, add a little more olive oil but be careful not to overdo it.
Serve with slightly toasted Italian bread.