The power of onion soup.
The French cafe was in the basement of a once stately townhouse in a row of stately townhouses that boardered Rittenhouse Square. Above the basement, in what would have been the grand parlor, there was now a fashionable boutique artfully displaying European designer clothes. A dressmaker occupied the second floor and, under the mansard roof, two small apartments coveted by children of socialites and the better off students from the nearby art college Clare attended. One of her professors had taken her to the cafe. Since it turned out to be a short distance between her school studio and my debilitating waitress job she deemed the cafe to be the perfect place to meet after we completed our day.
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A tarnish plaque permanently fixed to the cafe’s gated door informed patrons that it was once the house’s service entrance. The exposed brick walls inside brought a chilly dampness only slightly cured by a smoky fire in a small fireplace by the bar. The one brass chandelier and a few wall scones barely cut through the darkness. But the tables were covered in white linen and the wooden chairs were comfortable. A few lucky diners scored a place on the plush red leather banquette running beneath the high front windows. Just inside the entrance stood a narrow mahogany desk behind which an imposing middle-aged woman, her brown hair always swept up into a tight chigone and her severe dress softened by silk floral scarves, scrupulously doled out the tables and menus.
It was generally after ten p.m. when I arrived to meet Clare and the dining room was usually down to a few habitual customers. The hostess hovered solicitously about a handsome old woman who always occupied a center table toward the back and wore a fur pillbox hat that Clare identified as real leopard. A man who could have been a famous actor but probably wasn’t lounged in the banquette’s corner drinking cognac, watching everything, and writing in a little notepad. Several loud university students often crowded around the marble topped bar where the aproned bartender never cared to speak to anyone.
The lone waiter brought over the house’s red wine as soon as we settled at the table, the first carafe freely given even to underaged teenagers. A few minutes later he returned.
“Mademoiselles?” His tipsey joviality always made him seem balanced on a pin.
“Onion soup,” we said, the only listing on the menu we could afford when added to the price of more wine.
“Bon appétit, Mademoiselles!” Our waiter sang when he delivered the soup and another carafe.
As with all first embraces, the flavor of the soup lingers through the decades. It could be due to nothing more than the initial experience of a dish central to a foreign cuisine. Indeed, it was excellent, the Gruyère-encrusted slices of bread a luxurious plump cap over onions melting into a strong beef broth, a taste we had never known before. Perhaps it was simply the intoxication of finally be on our own, out late with no commands to be home. The cafe being French helped, of course, a thorough example of the country’s mythic chicness instilled in us by our high school language teacher, art, movies, books, and most of all close readings of each monthly issue of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.
But I believe this is the truer possibility and impossible for Clare and I to have articulated at the time: we were so certain that the cafe, our bowls of soup, and the carafes of wine would uncouple us from our parochial youth. There was much we could learn in the presence of the imperious hostess, the woman in her leopard hat, the possible actor, the surly bartender, and mirthful waiter. We didn’t know what, only that we couldn’t think of another place where we felt so remarkably unlike our girlish selves.
By the end of that year I would start leaving Philadelphia for good. In many ways, Clare would begin her slide downward. But before all that, we sheltered almost every night in the cafe, mapping a futures so sure to be full of wonder and promise. Soon, we would voyage out and everyone would recognize us as the considerable women we longed to be.
I’ve decided that, instead of giving the recipe for onion soup, it would be more instructive and fun for you if I found the original episode of The French Chef where Julia Child walks you through the steps. As always she pokes in many useful tips, such as how to sharpen knives and chop all the onions you’ll need. One favorite part is when she mistakenly grabs vermouth instead of olive oil. And then there’s her instructions about how to make canned soup so wonderful everyone will think you labored for hours on end just for their enjoyment. The soup is very easy but the episode is made longer with annoying commerical interruptions. So I also give you a shorter lesson by Julia and Jacques Pepin. The soup is a little different (a lot of red wine) and quicker to brew.
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