What French Onion Soup Taught Me About Eating Well
In the winter of 1988/89, I lived and worked in Oxford, England, so we skipped over to Paris for the week around New Year’s Eve. At the breakfast room in our budget hotel—the long-gone Hotel de Nevers on the Rue de l’Abbé de l’Epée—we met another young American couple, from Alaska, and we decided to spend New Year’s Eve together.
That evening, we took off across town to the Restaurant Chartier, an inexpensive Grand-Boulevard Brasserie; however, when we got there, the Alaskans noticed that the restaurant did not take credit cards. While we had cash, the other couple did not, and they were leaving the next morning. (This was in the days before cash machines on every corner.)
So there we were on New Year’s Eve, left out in the cold and getting turned away from restaurant after restaurant. We were hungry, desperate, and cranky when we finally wandered into a high-end place that had some available tables. Clearly, if we were going to eat, we were going to have to shell out some major francs.
We were not prepared for the cost of the meal, which, of course, turned out to be both exorbitant and mediocre (likely the reason the restaurant had tables to spare). I remember silently thinking that we should have simply treated the Alaskans to a good, solid meal at Chartier; it would have been half the cost of the under-enjoyed overpriced meal we each ended up buying for ourselves.
The next morning, the Alaskans slipped a note under our door, leaving us their address and bidding us farewell; they left well before breakfast and we never saw or heard from them again. Sometimes I wonder if they remember that New Year’s Eve the way we do: as a missed opportunity for something truly memorable. After all, we had been in Paris on New Year’s Eve.
The next day, looking for a meal that might help us get back on budget, we drifted into a little café near our hotel on the Left Bank and ordered Soupe à l’Oignon Gratinée, the classic French onion soup, for our meal. While I cannot remember what was on the menu of the fancy dinner we ate the night before, I’ll always remember how fortifying, satisfying, and warming this soup tasted, and how gladdening it was to know that you could get so much joy out of something so humble.
I now enjoy it almost every New Year’s Day to celebrate the life-affirming truth that dining well doesn’t have to mean dining expensively—a lesson I’ve learned again and again in France, and which I bring to life every day.