Ciara played loudly over the speakers behind the line at the Chili’s where I worked as a waitress. Clad in my jeans, slip-resistant Skechers, and a black shirt (that hid everything I spilled on it), I waited by the salad dressing station for my fajitas to come up so I could run them to the table. A server nearby sang along to the music, and as one of the other waitresses passed behind me, she smacked my rear hard, a new annoying habit she had that week to startle all the employees who weren’t giving her their 100% undivided attention.
I recovered and then turned my attention to the tray in front of me, which now held a sizzling, smoking cast-iron skillet of beef, onions, and peppers. I loaded up with tortillas and pico de gallo, and I hoisted the tray over my shoulder and took it to the table, where two very sweet older ladies waited to split the fajitas. I did what I was trained to do – I set down plates, tortillas, and the fix-ins. Then I did the one thing I was trained not to do: I picked up the cast-iron skillet by its handle without making sure, first, that there was a chili-pepper patterned potholder over it.
The pain was instant, and I dropped the skillet back onto the tray and drew my hand away. I was at work, they were older ladies, I couldn’t curse in front of customers. But I WANTED to. I placed the potholder on the handle and quickly transferred it to the table. I warned them it was hot (no shit). And then I scurried away to the kitchen to investigate the burns on my hand and whine to my manager.
I did a long stint in food service, and I became closely acquainted with foods that require immediate action so that they are served with the proper level of performance and spectacle. Like the Greek restaurant I worked at in Norfolk. We served saganaki, a fried goat cheese that is served sizzling (again in cast-iron), and which one must take the table quickly, douse with brandy, light on fire, yell “Opa!” and then extinguish with a squeeze of lemon juice.
My first time doing a saganaki, I hurried to the table. I poured a generous splash of brandy on it, and lit it. The flame came at me like a wall, and when I yelled “Opa!” my voice quivered. I felt like a stunt woman. I set the cheese down, shaking, and went away. When I got to the kitchen, a fellow server began picking at my bangs. “You burnt your hair,” she said. When I went back to check on my customers, they asked if I was okay. “That was the biggest flame we’ve ever seen here,” they told me. My tip was a little bigger than it should have been. And when I got home, my roommate had to trim the burnt ends from my bangs and my eyebrows.
It never struck me that they were related, but as it happens, I have never eaten the fajitas at Chili’s. And I don’t think I would ever order them. Likewise, I’ve never eaten saganaki. It just sort of lost its magic for me, though I performed the table-side saganaki trick many more times before I left that job.
This week, my students have been writing their Culinary Anthropology essays, in which they trace their particular food histories and distill them into a belief statement or an essay that follows the form, “I once was ________, but now I’m ________.” Many of them are writing about how they became picky or adventurous eaters. It strikes me that I could write similarly: I believe in not eating a food once it has burned you. Or maybe “I once was unafraid of foods, but now I know their hidden dangers.”
I did, however, venture into the forbidden territory of those dangerous foods on Sunday when we made slow-cooker French onion soup. At the first job I ever had, Ruby Tuesday’s, we served French onion soup that was spooned into bowls, draped with a few slices of Swiss cheese, and then set under a broiler for a few minutes to melt the cheese. The bowl came out extremely hot, and I burnt myself on more than one occasion serving that soup to customers.
Nonetheless, I bolstered my courage and gave French onion soup a try because Amanda loves it so much. And I have to say, what once burnt me and annoyed me, what I always silently wished customers would not order, is now a food I find comforting, rich, and delicious. And thanks to the slow cooker, it’s also incredibly easy.
Julie’s French Onion Soup for Two
Recipe from Not Your Mother’s Slow Cooker Cookbook; wording adapted
1 1/2 teaspoons unsalted butter, cut into four pieces
1 1/2 teaspoons flavorful olive oil
1 large or 2 medium-size onions (we used one yellow and one red)
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons dry white wine
2 cups homemade Beef Broth or one 14.5 ounce can high-quality beef broth
One or two 3/4-inch thick slices rustic white bread (we used homemade sourdough), cut small enough to fit inside the rim of the soup bowl (one slice per serving)
2 teaspoons Cognac
Freshly ground pepper to taste
About 1/2 cup shredded Gruyere cheese for each serving (could also use Swiss)
1. Combine butter and oil in slow cooker, turn on High, and cover. Let it melt/heat while you slice the onions.
2. Peel onion and then slice in half lengthwise, then slice it thinly into half-moons. You’ll end up with about 2 heaping cups of onion slices. Add them to the cooker, and reduce the heat to Low. Sprinkle the sugar and salt over the onions, and use two forks to toss the onions to coat. Cover and cook on Low until the onions are dark brown and caramelized, but not burned, 10 to 11 hours. They will cook down to a fraction of their original volume, and most of the liquid will be evaporated. If you are home, stir the onions once or twice, but no more (or cooking will take longer).
3. When the onions are done, add the wine and broth. Cover and continue to cook on Low until hot and aromatic, 1-2 hours longer.
4. When ready to serve, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Put the bread slices on a baking sheet and bake until dry and toasted, 10-15 minutes. Remove from oven and increase temperature to 400 degrees.
5. When ready to serve bowls, stir the Cognac, pepper, and more salt into the onions. Pour soup into ovenproof bowls and place on baking sheet. Drop a bit of the shredded cheese into the soup. Top each bowl with bread pieces. Pile the rest of the cheese on top of the bread. Return baking sheet to the oven and bake until cheese is melted and browned, about 10 minutes. Serve immediately.