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Dinner of a lifetime

(article, John Grossmann)

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Forty years ago, I ate a dinner that stands out as my first great meal. 

No matter that, nowadays, I can’t recall my entrée. Nor do I remember the name of the restaurant. But I know that I blistered the roof of my mouth early in the meal. 

I burned it eating a dish that remains the glowing center of a seminal food experience — and yet, since then, I’ve eaten this dish at most a handful of times, and cooked it only once.  

A great meal? Most assuredly, for I see now that it marked a kind of culinary Continental Divide. Before that meal, I was, like most Americans born in the Eisenhower era, essentially naïve about food. And so was Gail — then my girlfriend, today my wife of 35 years. That dinner, however, brightened the winter of our freshman year in college. 

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="French onion soup blistered his mouth — and opened his eyes."]

Consider the cupboards in our childhood kitchens: no olive oil, no garlic. Gail’s father despised onions, which never crossed the threshold. Her mother loathed mayonnaise, and employed few spices. 

Gail graduated from high school without eating a single bite of Chinese food. I remember glutinous, ho-hum Chinese in those days — chop sueys and lo meins — as the alpha and the omega of my ethnic dining experiences. And countless June Cleaver meals at our family table. 

A home-ec major in college, my mother cooked rump roasts of beef for Sunday dinner, and emptied many a can of Campbell’s cream of mushroom or cream of celery soup into tuna-noodle and green-been casseroles. Those were the salad days of Big Industrial food, when the Jolly Green Giant was synonymous with vegetables and TV dinners weren’t a punch line. It was before the nation discovered a food world beyond Wonder bread and Maxwell House and ravioli in a can — and well before quiche ruled, and then didn’t (remember when real men didn’t eat quiche?).   
So that winter meal marked a culinary awakening for both of us. The day started as a bit of an adventure — my first baby step, as it were, outside the United States. A college friend asked if we wanted to join him and his girlfriend on an up-and-back ski trip to Montreal. Gail wasn’t much for skiing, but a day trip to Montreal seemed like a good idea, so we joined Tom and Sandy. We departed Hanover, New Hampshire, where Tom and I then resided, early on a Saturday morning. 

The good news: We made great time. Tom and Sandy dropped us off downtown mid-morning and continued on to the slopes. The bad news: It was Easter Saturday. We discovered much of the city closed as tight as a bottle of Molson Ale. 

Gail and I made do, walking for hours and getting off our feet by ducking into a movie theater to watch a really bad Dick Van Dyke movie called '"Cold — thankfully about quitting smoking, not food, for at least it didn’t put us off our feed. Or our assigned task: While Tom and Sandy skied, we were to find a spot for dinner.  

And so, long before Yelp, we walked and walked, peeking in windows, looking at posted menus, searching for a restaurant that would fit our student budgets and informal attire. We settled on a bistro, but I’m sure neither of us even knew that was what we’d selected. We chose it for its half-curtained windows, red-checked tablecloths, chalkboard menu specials, and affordable prices. 

Though perhaps, as in Paris, we might have dined equally memorably at any number of bistros, another restaurant might not have featured a couple in the corner who, seemingly enjoying their meal, disappeared between courses behind different upraised sections of a newspaper. We’d never seen that while eating out on a Saturday night in America.  
The foreign land and language helped set the stage. As I remember it, Sandy and I, mustering our best high-school French, did the ordering. A bottle of wine — no, surely it was a carafe — made us feel very grown-up, and helped to take off the chill of the day. The bistro proved a warm, evocative haven, visually enhanced by the fogging of the windows, which our periodic, poetically licensed retellings of the meal attribute to the arrival of at least two earthenware crocks containing soupe à l’oignon, which loosed a luscious steam when we began spoon-wrestling with the cheesy caps. Impatiently, I put spoon to mouth too quickly.  

Was the term “comfort food” even in the lexicon back in 1970? Regardless, Gail and I were comforted by this classic combination of rich beef stock, sweet, slow-simmered onions, and oozy, nutty Gruyère cheese. Gail thinks her meal moved on with crabe au gratin. What did I have? Surely not the confit de canard or moules à la marinière — both well beyond my limited culinary horizon. Maybe the coq au vin or the boeuf bourguignon. 


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But it didn’t matter; the bistro had already won me over. Having ventured far from home and my limited, white-bread version of home cooking, I discovered in that crock of onion soup a depth of flavors and texture, a hearty, heady, appetizer of a lifetime, a bottomless bowl that whetted my appetite for an unknown world of food experiences.  

Discovering that I could travel the world by eating its varied cuisines was a revelation. Realizing, a few years later, that I could do so in my own home was an even greater joy — and one that I’ve shared with my family and closest friends for decades, while becoming a decent self-trained cook. In fact, if I’ve got the time and the energy, I’d always rather create a meal than eat out.  

Years later, on a return visit to Montreal, Gail and I, by then married for several years, tried to find the bistro, scavenging our memories for familiar streetscapes as we again walked and walked the streets. If only we’d saved a matchbook. 

We never found the restaurant. My best guess is that it stood in a part of the city demolished for a new highway. And that’s maybe just as well. Accordingly, there was no second meal to overlay upon the first, to detract from its jewel-box memory.  

p(bio). John Grossmann is a freelance writer living in Mountain Lakes, New Jersey. He has written on food and restaurants and chefs for many publications, including Cooking Light, Gastronomica, and Saveur. His work was included in Best Food Writing 2007, and he was a finalist in the food-journalism category of the 2010 Le Cordon Bleu World Food Media Awards.

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