My Father's French Onion Soup
Saveur|Winter 2019-20
Postwar Paris had a lifelong influence on James Edisto Mitchell—both as an artist and a cook BY Shane Mitchell
Shane Mitchell

MY FATHER GAVE ME HIS LETTERS FROM PARIS.

Written with a fountain pen on onionskin stationary and folded in envelopes marked Par Avion, these formative accounts were addressed to my grandmother, and mailed during the year he studied art in Montparnasse. He was 25 then and freshly disembarked from a World War II merchant marine ship. Dad asked Nana to ship pipe tobacco and instant coffee from the States because the French stuff was “too expensive” and “undrinkable.” He spent Sundays at museums. Bought a radio instead of paying his rent. Got engaged to someone else before meeting my mother. Ate a lot of soup when dead broke.

The school my father attended, Académie de la Grand Chaumière, was anything but grand. A modest townhouse with open studios, the academy would become known for its affiliation with modernists Amedeo Modigliani, Alberto Giacometti, and Louise Bourgeois. A few doors down on the same street, his poorly heated hotel also boasted an artistic pedigree. Samuel Beckett and F. Scott Fitzgerald both lived there for a time. In 1950, Dad paid $15 a month to rent a room with a hot plate so he could cook a can of beans or heat up water for cocoa. He purchased paints and brushes from the noted art supplier Sennelier, on Quai Voltaire, and met his closest friends, two other young American artists, at Le Select on Boulevard Montparnasse whenever one of them had enough money to treat the others. On March 11, he wrote: “My eating out at dinnertime in the evening costs about 160 to 200 francs each night. That amounts to about 60 cents at the most. To save money, I eat lunch in my room. Lunch consists of a half loaf of huge-sized French bread (delicious too!), ham, cheese, sardines once in a while, an orange, and tea or coffee.”

French Onion Soup

SERVES 6 • Total: 4 hr. 50 min.

This classic French onion soup recipe is adapted from the version made by author Shane Mitchell’s father. Ask your butcher not to trim or scrape down the bones; their meat, fat, and connective tissue contribute flavor and body to the soup.

For the stock:

3 large beef marrowbones (4½ lb.)

2 large carrots (12 oz.)

2 medium celery stalks (3 oz.)

1 large yellow onion (14½ oz.),

unpeeled, halved

2 garlic cloves, unpeeled, smashed

2 small dried hot chiles, such as bird, Arbol, or Kashmiri (optional)

1 small bunch Italian parsley

1 small bunch fresh thyme

2 bay leaves

1 Tbsp. black peppercorns

1 Tbsp. kosher salt

For the soup:

10 Tbsp. unsalted butter, divided

4 large yellow onions (3¾ lb.), peeled, halved lengthwise, and sliced ½-inch-thick (11 cups)

1 tsp. sugar (optional) Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 fresh baguette, cut into twelve

½-inch slices

2 garlic cloves, peeled and halved

6 cups coarsely grated Gruyère cheese

2 cups coarsely grated Parmesan cheese

1 cup dry white wine

¼ cup dry sherry

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