When a person is down – in general, in trouble, or in mourning – friends say things like “take care of yourself,” and by all means I agree, take care. But how? Some friends say this in summary, a tag line at the door. Wearing winter coats and tying on scarves, they hold you by the arms and look you in the eye. Take care of yourself. Some mean please don’t fall off the edge, others mean stop taking care of others, and the most well-meaning and practical wish you to actually take care of yourself. Physically. As in eat carrots, get sleep, drink more tea.
Good advice, and like most healthy ideas, easier said than done. The unfortunate eating started before my father was even gone, first in a hospital at three a.m., where a meal of M & M’s does not seem like a bad thing. My mom had asked me to find her a Hershey bar – so I wandered noiseless halls for a vending machine, which I found, but without Hershey bars. I studied the candy through the glass – B6, C8, D4 – to decide what substitute would be best. Three Musketeers wasn’t right, Twix too fussy, and Snickers – a bit heavy before sunrise. M & M’s might last us all night, while we watched Dad sleep and snow fall through the dark, one chocolate bite at a time.
By the next evening people filled my mother’s living room, bearing crumb cake and cookies and eager, oversized pies. It was then that I made the ludicrous decision to eat no carbs in that house, no matter how many chocolates, rye breads or Bundt cakes filled the counter. It is worth noting that I’m generally one with the carbs, and most days I require Saltines and brown sugar and oatmeal. But here I was sure that without structure, I’d mindlessly eat through the days and in a week, the fog would lift and I’d regret it. No, I would not comfort myself with the good stuff, and under that dazed plan I found I didn’t even mind the parade of cousins and friends plowing through said good stuff. Annoyed at being shooed out of the kitchen – take care of yourself, don’t do anything! – I contented myself with a pile of breadless corned beef, salty black olives, and sliced cheese.
A few days later we were driving home, and just above the sadness I sensed a small triumph – I had not given in. No cookies, brownies or bread had passed my lips. Aha! Grief meant losing, but not losing control. I stared at winter roads for hours, thinking I miss Dad already. But I will not have to buy new jeans.
Back home, I quickly succumbed to baguettes, then bagel chips, and then biscotti, all brought by friends – until eventually I found myself standing in the kitchen on the phone, nibbling idly at a friend’s turtle brownies while my mother recounted her meeting with the bank. You can make a pretty good dent in a 9 x 13 brownie pan when you’re on the phone, believe you me. This would not do.
I opened the fridge and realized it was empty. Kind friends had delivered all sorts of temptations, but it held no real supplies. A quick trip to the store felt good and routine; filling the shelves felt even better. By the time I was melting butter I knew the answer, and it had nothing to do with jeans. Rules and sadness don’t mix, and being stuffed and served by well-meaning friends, no matter how well, is only part of what you need. In my kitchen, alone with a soft black dog and a blue pot of onions, I could think, and cry, and laugh and dab my eyes over soup. That is doing whatever you need to do, and taking very good care of oneself.
French Onion Cider Soup
2 small onions, thinly sliced
1 Golden Delicious apple – peeled, cored and diced fine
1-2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon flour
16 oz apple cider
1 quart (32 oz) chicken broth
1/2 cup white wine
salt & white pepper
sliced Gruyere (or other Swiss cheese)
In a large pot, melt the butter over medium-low heat and add the onions and diced apples. Stir briefly to combine, then cover to let ingredients steam, about 5-7 minutes, checking and stirring occasionally. Remove cover and stir mixture frequently, until onions are deep golden brown and apples soften completely, almost disappearing.
When mixture is a deep golden brown (bottom of pan will also have browning) turn heat to low, then add flour and 1/2 cup of the apple cider, stirring constantly to form a sticky, combined mixture.
Add chicken broth, white wine and remaining apple cider to the pot, deglazing browned pan and stirring onion-apple mixture into broth. When onions have broken up into the broth, partially cover soup and simmer on low for about 20 minutes, or until golden brown, slightly reduced and thickened. Season with salt, white pepper and nutmeg to taste.
Preheat broiler. Place oven-safe soup bowls (2-4, depending on portion size) on a rimmed sheet pan.
Place thick chunks of crusty bread (toasted is even better) in bottom of oven-safe soup bowls. Ladle warm soup over bread to almost, but not quite, fill the bowl. Top with slices of Gruyere cheese, allowing a slight overhang. Slide pan with soup bowls under hot broiler to melt cheese. Watch carefully – cheese will frequently melt, brown and bubble in less than a minute. Remove carefully from oven, and serve.
Soup (minus bread and cheese) serves 2-4 and keeps, refrigerated, for several days.*
* this is a good soup to make ahead, as flavor only deepens the next day. Re-warm soup before assembling the bread and cheese bowls, then ladle and serve as directed.