The other day, my wife came home and said “ I went to a café for lunch. We had French Onion Soup, but it was terrible. No where near like the one we had in Paris.”
Now the French Onion soup that we had in Paris was something else. We were on the way by train from Brussels where the airport had been bombed, to our home in Switzerland. We had stopped half way between stations in Paris for lunch. There was a lovely restaurant, with tables on the footpath, and beautiful soup, with cheese and bread, and a glass of white wine.
So when my wife commented on the soup, I said “I might make some!’ I got out our wedding present of Julia Childs’ “Mastering French Cooking”, and look at the recipe. It was long! It took about an hour of simmering and stirring the onions before adding the wine and stock. But then came the stock! Making beef stock for the stew was going to take five hours! I went to the butcher, bought some meat, collected the other vegetables for the bouquet garnet, and filled the pot with water. Simmering for 4 hours. Then came the slicing of the onions, cooking in butter, and then caramelizing them.
But the result was amazing. I was transported back to Paris on that March day.
But here’s the thing. I was ‘in the zone!’ Something mystical grabbed me as I read the Julia Childs book, and experienced myself, transported to in the French countryside where the making of this soup is a normal part of ordinary life.
I had experienced something like this some years before, when I discovered that making a curry is not just about ‘getting some meat and adding curry powder’, but that there is an infinite variety of kinds of curry powder, made up of lots of different spice combinations. What fun it was, making curry with mortar and pestle, and the right choice of spices.
Now my friend Nigel, a Francophile, had told me about this ‘ethos’ of French cooking: from the storing of duck in goose fat, to the making of different sauces. But at that time I had not ‘got it’, but more to the point I had not been ‘got’ by it!
But now, starting with the making of the French Onion Soup, I have been got! To think that people can open a packet of dried, French onion Soup and then just add water. No!!!
So what has ‘got me?’ First the simplicity. French onion soup I made from the simplest of ingredients, that anyone will have, just hanging around. Bones, carrots, herbs, parsley, leeks, onions, cheese, bread.
These ingredients are sort of ‘just there’. It’s not as if I had to go to get anything special, except the bones for the beef stock, and even then we used ‘dog bones’!
But the taste! What a sublime taste can come from such simplicity. I love it.
Then the next ingredient is time! It is not a very concentrated time, but a long time. The soup (apart from about a half an hour’s time with the onions) can be made while attending to the rest of the house: cleaning, chatting, going into the garden to get flowers. The making of the soup happens around a day’s activities. The luxury of such time is like the luxury of a five day cricket match!
This experience reminded me of ‘Babette’s Feast’. It felt religious, because I was in a place where everything seemed to fit together.
This experience reminded me of when a Eucharist that really ‘clicks’: the memory of the past, and how great the soup was, the being really caught up in the making of the soup, over the course of a day, the connection with s bigger world called ‘French Cooking’ that was opened up to me, in the concrete action of actually cooking something French and the simplicity of the ingredients! All of these elements also go into connecting me with God, in Christ. I am reminded of what has been, and how other Eucharists have been occasions of love, or celebration or forgiveness.
I am reminded of the time it takes to enter into the world that is disclosed by the Eucharist (especially over Holy Week and Easter). How I am called not to worry about how long it is taking, but to ask myself ‘where am I up to with God, now?’
I am reminded of the simplicity of the elements that go to make up a Eucharist. Just bread and wine and reading and prayer: mix, together with attention, for a delicious meal!
And last, the complexity and beauty of the taste that results, when shared with loved ones.
I’m hooked. How this connection between being Christian and making French Onion Soup will work its way out, but it has certainly worked its way in!!