WORDS BY ELIZABETH BARKER & LAURA JANE FAULDS, ILLUSTRATION BY JEN MAY
1st COURSE: FRENCH ONION SOUP
LJ: When my Dad came to visit me in London we ate at Balthazar. On the morning of the day we ate at Balthazar we went to Kentish Town and one of my eyelids was swollen because I am allergic to my housemate Pearl the beagle's dander but I hadn’t figured it out yet so I spent most of the day freaking out about eye diseases. We went to the London Bridge and it was boring so we took a bus that started with the letters RV which I think stood for River which took us to Covent Garden. We were an hour and a half early for our reservation so I went into a store called the Astrology Shop while my dad stood outside the Astrology Shop doubting the necessity of its existence— personally, I sort of hated the Astrology Shop, but then I felt like, If I hate the astrology shop, then who does the Astrology Shop have left???
After the Astrology Shop we went to a pub situated in the upper corner of a Flatiron-shaped building and my dad had a Jameson’s and I drank a cider. My dad had a nice view out the window and looked out of it, watching all the people do their things and live their lives. I had a nice view of my the guy sitting next to my dad.
I spaced out and thought Cider is wine made of apples and I wished that cider would do a better job of marketing itself as apple wine but also, and probably more importantly, wished that I could hang out with my cool Jameson’s-drinking Dad on a more regular basis. I was angry with London for not being the place where my Dad lives.
We left and walked through the part of Covent Garden that is a market. It smelled like the Axe deodorant body spray factory. We arrived at Balthazar a half hour early for our booking but Balthazar were cool with it. The dining room was sprawling and noisy and I felt tiny and useless inside of it, like an ant that is small for its age. I looked around. I will never be a rich person who is from Hong Kong, I thought.
Our waitress was ugly in the purest sense of the word. She would have been well-cast as a no-nonsense peasant lady helping a cow give birth in Ireland circa 1875. Her ugliness made me think that she was going to be a really good server but she wasn’t. She was just about the brusquest person I ever met.
Dad and I shared a half bottle of Chablis and it tasted like Chablis. My dad ordered cauliflower soup and the Dover sole, which he badassly de-boned himself, much to the chagrin of the Balthazar employee whose job it was to de-bone it tableside. My order was a no-brainer: French onion soup and a Nicoise salad. It would take a hell of a lot of extenuating circumstances to have me eat at a French restaurant and not order French onion soup and a Nicoise salad. I bet even on the day I was born my infant self knew in some vague way that I would grow up to be a person who near-exclusively ordered French onion soup and Nicoise salads at French restaurants.
French onion soup is the exception to a rule: normally, I don’t have time for soup. (Another thing I’ve recently realized I don’t have time for: slicing my own pizza. You know, I wasn’t joking around when I grew up and decided not to become a pizza chef.) Ideally, when it comes to food, I just stab things with a fork and then shove them in my mouth. If the food is really good, fine, I’ll use a knife. But ideally I wouldn’t. Spoons are okay sometimes, like for yogurt or cereal. Yogurt and cereal are firm, and they don’t threaten to fall out of the spoon’s belly if you aren’t super confident and focused on the spoon’s journey from the bowl to your mouth. Don’t even get me started on pho— the dribbliest aspects of spoon usage mixed with the most labour-intensive aspects of using a knife, only they don’t even give you a knife! You could use the time it takes you to eat a third of a bowl of Pho to run, like, eight errands. I could maybe get on board with a bowl of minestrone but I’d rather eat all the chunky ingredients without the soup part. And pureed soups are just like, ugh. I grew teeth for a reason.
But French onion soup is something different. When I was a kid I went through a phase of pretty much refusing to eat in restaurants that didn’t serve French onion soup. French onion soup (or, FOS) is soup with some real backbone. It’s got a really ursine energy to it, fat and meaty and brown. One of my favorite things is when dishes that don’t have actual pieces of meat in them still have meat in them, i.e. the beef stock in FOS or greens sautéed in bacon fat. And then it’s got soggy bread in it (I really like soggy food), and a whole sweet tangle of slithery dark onion bits that sink to the bottom of the bowl like buried treasure hidden at the bottom of the ocean. French onion soup has a real “Ariel from The Little Mermaid’s grotto” vibe to it. Oh and then there’s cheese! Heaps and heaps of burnt (I also love burnt food) and bubbling cheese. If there was one soup in the world you could eat with a fork, it would be French onion.
The French onion soup I ate at Balthazar was the best French onion soup I’ve ever had. Guess what it had loads of in it??? No! Seriously! Guess. Just guess. Just come up with a little guess in your head. Try to think of the number one ingredient that could make the most soul-warming and nostalgia-inducing food imaginable even MORE soulful and evocative. Your hint is… Christmas.
Okay! You give up. It was CLOVE. I wanted to curl up and fall asleep inside that clovey bowl of soup like a puppy in a velvet dog bed. It made me wish I was a little kid again, when all you have to worry about is which is your favorite kind of soup and the answer to some really easy math equation and your parents are always there and they keep you so safe and they love you so much and you’re not embarrassed about loving them back, which is cool. They own a house and a couch and a television and a million other things and you can use all their shit for free; in fact they want you to. You can curl up under a blanket and lie on their laps, and you’re watching either Frasier or Entertainment Tonight and it would be snowing out, but you wouldn’t have to leave the house unless you wanted to and even if you did it would be in a car that your mom already pre-warmed up for you so all you have to do is run from the house to the car and you can just sit and chill inside the cozy hot car while she scrapes the ice and snow off the windows with a scraper. If I could take that feeling and turn it into a taste it would be that clovey French onion soup, ideally accompanied by a glass of Beaujolais, because what can I say? I grew up.
LIZ: I ate my French onion soup at Taix, which is a French restaurant in Echo Park. I hardly ever go to Taix anymore but when I first moved to L.A., about 11 years ago, sometimes my friends and I would hang out in the lounge with these dudes who lived in our building. The dudes were all older than we were and musicians; they were in a semi-big-deal rock band in the late-'90s/early '00s, the kind of band that would get played on heavy metal/hard rock radio, if heavy metal/hard rock radio still existed today. I low-level-worshipped them because they'd devoted most of their lives to being in bands and I'd never really known anyone like that, and it all seemed very brave and glamorous. Their couch was a row of seats ripped out of their band's old van, and one time when the glasses were all dirty Stephen drank his wine from a measuring cup, and their cutely degenerate lifestyles seemed glamorous to me too. I used to refer to our building as Grunge Melrose Place, because our lives entwined and sometimes shit got sordid, and also because the building was disgusting and falling apart and we were all kind of slackers who loved complaint rock. I can't remember why Taix was the dudes' spot of choice, but I do remember going to see Matt and Mike's band play in the lounge one Friday night. They did a cocktail-jazz version of "War Pigs," and at the "Satan laughing, spreads his wings" lyric, they all flapped their arms like they were birds/Satan and their arms were wings. Cute move.
But yeah, my soup. I went to Taix on some sort of weekday: I'd been writing work stuff in the coffee/ice cream shop across the street and on the walk home I decided What the hell and headed over to the Taix lounge and sat at the bar. Nearly everyone else in the lounge was a guy in his 50s and 60s, drinking post-work beers and chatting up the bartenders. On the bar were pencils for Keno, and the stereo system was playing Edith Piaf or some other melancholy/whimsical music to remind you that you're in a French restaurant that's very earnest about its Frenchness. I got a $4 glass of riesling and it was perfectly un-sweet. And then my soup arrived and it looked like this:
Here's the part where I'll reveal that I was totally incompetent in my food journalism on my trip to Taix. I can tell you that the broth was vaguely winey, like it was made with the wine I was drinking, and that the cheese was overwhelming in a mostly enjoyable way. Each time I'd go to take a spoonful of soup, I'd start twirling the cheese around my spoon and get hypnotized by the twirling and just keep it going, twirling twirling twirling twirling. And each time I'd stop twirling and bring the spoon to my mouth, the very good-looking bartender would walk by at the exact moment that I was disengaging from the soup and trying to negotiate the strands of melted cheese stretching from the spoon to my mouth. It was little embarrassing but I didn't care. I was in another place. I'm not all that nostalgic for when I used to hang out at Taix with all those guys when I was 25 and 26, but I liked the feeling of sitting there at the black-leather bar and lazily recalling lots of moments I hadn't thought about in years. And then I got caught up in the idea that there are all these spaces you can go to trigger the memories you'd never retrieve on your own. It's kinda like tourism: visiting a place and taking what you need from it in a way that's both cheap and naive. It's unadventurous but cozy and maybe the easiest way to practice emotional manipulation on yourself. I'm into it. I want more.
So anyway. Post-soup, I headed to the bathroom and took selfies for five hours. The Taix ladies room is gorgeous, all pink-and-gold wallpaper and golden lighting and fake pink flowers and stupid pictures of Paris. I like my shirt so much.