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How To // make French onion soup

It was a fall day so perfect that I felt like taking a camera out would only embarrass it.

Trés pressé? Jump to the recipe.

quebec market, l'ail

Yesterday, I was walking through Vieux Québec, on Rue Saint Pierre near the old port, when I found myself behind a phalanx of photographers surrounding a woman with gorgeous black hair, a white fur cape, and a wedding dress. It was hard to tell whether it was a real wedding, or only a modeling shoot--her face didn't look radiant or worried enough to tell one way or the other. But it didn't matter to the people on the street; they honked their horns and shouted "Felicitations, les mariees!" Children climbing on the playground at Parc de l'Unesco stopped and gazed with that direct, dazed eagerness only they can get away with. Tourists laughed in delight and snapped pictures on their smartphones and overly fancy cameras.

I wanted a picture. But I couldn't do it without being entirely obvious. It seemed rude, whether she were an actual bride or only a professional one, to take advantage of her services for free.

And then she lifted up her skirt to make her way across a puddle. She was wearing platform-soled satin shoes with heels mercilessly high. In the chill air, her naked ankle glowed like the petals on my aunt's hydrangea, when the sun hits them. The silvery underside of her dress framed her foot like a Venetian curtain.

Seeing it, I dropped my hand from where it was fingering the buckle on my camera bag. I can't get that moment--goodness knows if I would have, even with my camera at the ready.

quebec, rue saint louis 2a

Two summers ago, we were walking down a dirt road in Mukono from the hotel to Victor's School. It was a week into the trip--by then, I had taken all the pictures I wanted of the laundry lines, the general stores, the hanks of bloody meat hanging in the windows of pork joints, and even of the children who ran in packs to beg a photo. But that day--the day I'm thinking of--there was a woman who walked past us that got me struggling for my camera.

She was about seven feet tall, and was dressed in a full chador--unusual for Uganda. It was dark red, the color of garnets or dried blood, and it fell at a sharp slant on either side of her in straight, utterly curveless lines. Her headcovering grazed her knees, so that her arms and hands were hidden beneath it, and a grass basket was balanced on top of her head.

If I say she looked like a haute couture parking cone, you'll think I mean she looked silly. She didn't. I've been trying to find a word for what she looked like, for more than a year since I saw her. I've consumed more than my share of National Geographic magazines and Lonely Planet guides and countless travel blogs, and still the sight of her made me feel like a backwater farmer must feel when he enters a city like Dubai for the first time.

quebec market, choufleur I took up picture-taking because sometimes there are images like this that don't fit into anything I'm writing, right now. But like anything that hits me upside the head, I want to share these images. In time, it has to some extent taken over my first love.

For one thing, it's so much quicker reproduce a visual that adequately suggests a feeling that came from it, than it is to reproduce a feeling that adequately suggests the visual it came from.

For another, photography is so hot right now. People will click and like and repost images for an hour and think nothing of it, but ask them to spend half an hour reading something and...well, you know. Picture-taking is a much quicker route to social appreciation.

quebec, rue saint thomas

Cindy Sherman has this wonderful series that every beginning photography student learns about--the "Untitled Film Stills"--where she pretends to be various stock personnel out of the old movies. People love these pictures precisely because they understand them intuitively. They're like "choose your own adventure" photographs--their vagueness with a few telling details lets you fill in your backstory.

I love those pictures. But...I don't know...I can't get away from wanting mine to say something more specific. Something about what the image made me feel.

Communication is hard, whether it's photographic or written. It's easier just to snap a picture and throw it up there and see whose admiration it catches, for whatever reason. But that's not a conversation.

Further, I'm not sure it does as much honor to the subject as I'd like.

Just before I saw the bride, I'd been visiting the Marché du Vieux Port. It was Saturday, a boat day (Matt was down at the port, working security), and the halls were as packed as a cattle chute in a slaughterhouse.

Still, the woman at the produce stall found time to walk round her stall and gently place the pears I bought, one by one, from the basket into my bag.

Her husband elbowed a carton of ground cherries and they spilled, with a papery tremble, onto the ground.

No hastily-snapped photograph could get those sensations across the way I experienced them. You'd just see a woman with her hand in a bag, a mess of featherweight fruits on the concrete floor. The best I could do, to approximate it, was catch the light's gentle caress of the hairy down on the backs of the fava beans.

quebec market, fermier 4

Halfway up the Côté de la Montagne, climbing up from the funiculaire to Terrasse Dufferin (sorry, I really love name-dropping places I've been), there was a man in a sailor cap like my Papa's, playing the fiddle and whooping intermittently. A little girl in a purple hijab was clapping her hands in time; another little girl, in a neon pink down coat, stopped to dance for him. Like everyone else crowded around, I took their pictures, as well as the musician's.

What I didn't get a picture of, what only flashed for a second, was the woman who seized upon a pair of wooden clappers that lay on the card table, along with his array of CDs for sale. She was of that not-quite-menopausal apple shape, her skin about the same texture as her North Face jacket, her curly hair bound up in a ponytail. Just as I lowered my camera, I saw her face at the same moment she noticed the clappers. She grabbed them so quickly, it seemed like they jumped at her. A light blazed up in her eyes like a pile of leaves catching fire; her gaze locked with the fiddler's, and for a few brief seconds, they were alone together--somewhere else, I reckon, somewhere in the cold woods, or in the kind of shady seaside tavern that doesn't exist anymore--as his fingers crawled across the neck of his fiddle, and the clappers danced between her palms.

quebec, fiddler This morning, at church, the room was more packed than usual. Maybe there were more visitors in town for Thanksgiving or something. There were more people on the band, than usual--Felix, on the congas, wearing his improbable white linen shirt and pants even though it's the middle of October, and Ghislain on guitar, with his knotty dreads and properly creased polo collar, and Jean-Philippe on piano, wearing a pair of what seemed to be woodshop safety goggles, and Mark on second guitar, and Liliana singing. It was the most lovely, senseless collection of cultures and races, especially for such a tiny church in such an out-of-the-way community center, making such a noise that you could hear it all the way down the block.

I could have killed myself for not bringing my camera. I'd even forgotten my little iPod. There was no way to process the experience except to feel it.

quebec market, raisins I remember going to see the Silent Comedy  with only Gorgeous George as my date. It was the first time since college that I'd gone to a show alone, and I couldn't believe how much fun I could have when I had something to share the experience with. And I don't mean sharing it through taking pictures and sharing them with others--I mean something through which I could process how I felt about the show.

This morning at church, I wondered if I've taken that too far. Maybe I've forgotten how to participate in something without doing something with it.

quebec, rue saint louis 1b

I came back to the house and decided that I was going to cook French onion soup, because it's fall, and there are about a billion onions down in the cellar, and I'll likely be leaving this little francophone corner of North America at the end of the week. In the process of looking up recipes for it, my domestic urge was all but satisfied by the crunchy pictures that various food bloggers posted of their process.

I'm not going to say anything against food bloggers. I get it, and I'm not above pandering to it. The thought even crossed my mind to take pictures of my own cooking process, and post it here for you to see. For that matter, I could take pictures of the little boy practicing hockey in the cul-de-sac, or the hydrangeas blushing, or the maple leaves filtering the weak-as-resteeped-tea sunlight into  blinding bronze, or the square of sunlight warming up my Mexican blanket for the nap I'll undoubtedly take after the soup is done.

But then I thought, what if I didn't put pictures up? What did we do before we had pictures to magically turn every damned mundanity into a moment of instant nostalgia?

Well, some of us probably just let those moments stay mundane, and barely noticed them. But maybe some others wrote about them, so that people had to linger over them, if they wanted to see what the writer saw.

quebec market, abondance

  French Onion Soup (soupe à l'oignon gratinée)

There's really only one vital part of this recipe: time. You could just have onions, broth, bread and cheese, and you'd be just fine, as long as you gave it time. I put in a few more things because I had them around. But what I had the most of, this lovely Sunday afternoon, is time.

Mince a couple of cloves of garlic and douse them in olive oil in the bottom of a deepish saucepan. Turn the heat up pretty high and let them tremble in the heat until they are the color of iced tea.

quebec market, macarons 2

While you're waiting on the garlic, get between four and six onions (whatever flavor you like best) and cut them in half. Then cut them again into strips about the width of your index finger. Once you've seen that the garlic is toasty brown, pile in the onions and add a whole lot of really good salt, some white pepper (yes, black is fine, but white is classier), and a little bit of marjoram, if you have it. Turn the heat down and toss the onions around in the olive oil until they're coated. You don't really need to add more olive oil, but you can, if you want to.

While the onions are melting, slice some thick, chewy bread...the kind that is made of three ingredients or less...into thick, chewy slices. (If it's yesterday's bread and gone a little stale, so much the better.) Put the slices on a baking sheet and put it in the oven and turn the oven to broil. When the oven's about halfway to broiling temperature, pull the bread slices out. They should be toasty but not toasted, if you know what I mean. Hitting them with the cold air at this point will make them a little harder.

Now get back in there and stir the onions. If the edges are getting rosy pink, you're halfway there. Bend down and smell it--if you get the barest whiff of marjoram, then you know there's enough. If you can't smell it at all, dust the surface with a little more.

quebec market, mures

It might be a good idea to start some laundry, or go cut some flowers, or even pick up a book. (Just don't fall asleep...save that for later.) What you're waiting for is the onions to become a big broken-down mass of sweet, lifeless carbon, like a lot of Romans in the dawning hours following a night of orgy. Poke at the onions with a wooden spoon to get a feel for their debilitation. The end result you're going for is a noodle-like drape across your soup soon. The only thing you should be chewing, in consuming this soup, is your spoon afterward, in hopes of extracting whatever flavors the metal might have absorbed.

If they qualify, then turn up the heat. Now it really would be a good idea to find something else to do, because the next signal you're going for should be based on smell alone. Turn that heat up, and distract yourself; let the smell of caramelizing onions call you back to the kitchen. Poke the onions around so they don't stick to the bottom of the pan (a little bit is okay, of course); let them continue to sizzle for a bit longer, until you just can't stand it.

Then pour a quart of beef broth on top. Yes, a different kind of broth is okay, as long as you don't have a French onion soup connoisseur in the house to give you a hard time about it. Keep the heat on high and bring the whole mess to a simmer. You might add a little more salt and pepper. But no more marjoram.

While you're waiting on this, grate some cheese. Purists will, of course, brook no substitute for Gruyére. But sometimes, as in my case today, Gruyére ain't there. Use mozzarella, white cheddar, comme tu veux...but just don't use anything orange, please? Not unless you want all that nuance with the marjoram to count for naught.

Now, once your broth and onions have reached simmering point, you can do one of two things. You can proceed with the soup construction, or you can let it sit and think about itself for a while. It all depends on your hunger-to-perfectionism ratio. Today, I thought I was going to eat the soup for lunch, but some instinct pushed me to let it reach a higher form of consciousness. I ate purple cauliflower instead, leaving the heat on low under the pot, the lid left askew.

I went upstairs and took a nap in the square of sunshine falling through the bronze maple leaves onto my bed.

quebec market, la dame des fraises

When I woke up, I drank some coffee, walked outside and cut some hydrangeas to bring in, put my wet laundry into the dryer, then came back up from the basement and, after thinking it through, took one of the pieces of thick, chewified bread, put it into the bowl, and poured the steaming oniony mess on top of it. I sprinkled cheese on top, and put the bowl back in the broiler. (Yes, I'd left the broiler on all that time. That was a dangerous thing to overlook. Don't do that.)

Here's a note--if you have fresh marjoram on hand, plant a sprig of it into the cheese on top of the soup. If you've used as much cheese as you rightfully ought to, the marjoram sprig will stand tall. And when you take it out of the oven, you will feel fancy.

Also, it's a good idea to put the bowl on the baking sheet or something.

I gave the soup a couple minutes before turning the oven light on, to check. What you're looking for here is the surface of an active volcano. When that's been accomplished, you're solid. Pull that tabarnak out and slurp the living daylights out of it.


See more photos of the Québec's Marché du Vieux-Port