January 20, 2013

I’ve been thinking a lot about happiness.

French onion soup | Blue Jean Gourmet

For the last few years, I’ve read Fahrenheit 451 with my eighth graders; though written in 1953—making it a tough sell at first—the novel’s themes continue to be resonant on a personal and political level.  Every year, the kids get into it.

From the political angle, there’s plenty to cover regarding censorship and totalitarian regimes, China and North Korea and the Arab Spring, revolution and the power (and danger) of knowledge.

From the person angle, take the question that one character (Clarisse) asks another (Guy Montag) very early on in the book: are you happy?  The question serves as the inciting incident of the plot, and forces Montag to view his life with a new set of eyes.

In order to answer the question “Are you happy?,” we must first, of course, define what we mean by “happy.”  We may even have to decide whether or not happiness is what we’re after.

In this recent article from The Atlantic, author Emily Esfahani Smith explores the writings of Viktor Frankl, well-known Jewish psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor who wrote extensively about his experience in Nazi death camps.  (He was the only member of his family to survive.)  Frankl is famous for arguing that man’s attitude need not be dictated by circumstance, and that making meaning, rather than pursuing happiness, is life’s ultimate goal.  Happiness, Frankl argues, “can not be pursued; it must ensue.  One must have a reason to ‘be happy.’”

Which brings me to the question of where we derive meaning.  In our culture, I would argue, meaning and self-worth are equated with achievements, with successfully reaching our goals, with what we do.  There is, of course, nothing wrong with accomplishments and goals—believe me, I’ve worked on my fair share—but the trouble comes when our entire identities, our sense of self-worth, our meaning, our measure of happiness, becomes solely dependent on them.

At least this is proving true for me.  There is a limit, I’m finding, to my project-based identity.  In a recent interview from the podcast “On Being,” John Kabat-Zinn said that he thinks about the experience of having children as equivalent to having tiny Zen masters parachuted into our lives; they show us things we never knew were there.  This has proven true for me.

My “achievement girl, I-will-do-all-of-the-things!” identity is totally threatened by the idea that “Nishta” might actually be something other than, beyond, or regardless of what I do or don’t cross off of life’s “to-do” list.  That there is an essential self underneath the kinds of things we list in bios or on resumes or holiday newsletters: the kinds of things that will someday be written in our obituaries when we die.

I’m with Frankl on the idea that we have the power to create our own meanings, regardless of circumstance.  But I’ve realized that I have been living as if the things I do are equivalent to the person I am.  But if I look back to Fahrenheit 451, Clarisse changes Montag’s life not by virtue of any grand thing she does, but simply out of being who she is.  And when Montag begins to create his own meaning for his life, instead of simply accepting what’s been given to him, an electric aliveness–dare I say happiness?–emerges for him, despite some truly harrowing circumstances.

At their most powerful, books (or art in general) can force us to access and question the way we live.  Which is why, of course, totalitarian regimes like the one in Fahrenheit 451 tend to want to burn them.

adapted very slightly from the Tartine Bread cookbook

As I always do when I want to invoke good cooking “juju,” I used Jill’s grandmother’s cast iron Dutch oven to make my soup.  A coated enamel pot would also work well; just make sure you’ve got at least a 3-quart capacity to work with.  The onions will cook down, of course, but you’ll have a hard time stirring in the beginning if your pan is too small.

caramelized onions for French onion soup | Blue Jean Gourmet


4 large yellow onions, peeled & sliced ¼ inch thick
1 ½ quarts (6 cups) chicken stock, preferably homemade
1 ½ cups dry white wine
1 cup heavy cream
2 T unsalted butter
1 tsp. salt

half a loaf of day-old, crusty bread, sliced ½ inch or thicker
5 oz. Gruyere, thinly sliced

Combine the onions, cream, butter, and salt in the pan of your choice and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft and growing translucent, about 10 minutes.

Adjust your heat so that the onions and cream come to a slow boil.  Spread the onions as best you can along the bottom of the pan and turn up the heat just a bit; leave the pot alone until the bottom layer of onions begins to brown, about 5 minutes.  Add ½ cup of the wine to deglaze the bottom of the pan, stirring with a wooden spoon to scrape up the browned bits.  Repeat this process twice more, cooking the onions without stirring for about 5 minutes so that they brown, then deglazing with another ½ cup wine.  In the end, the onions should all be deep caramel in color.

Pour in the stock and bring the soup to a simmer over medium heat.  Cook for at least 15-20 minutes to infuse the broth with onion flavor; I let mine simmer longer, to reduce the liquid a bit.

In the meantime, preheat your oven to 400°.  Lay the bread in a single layer on a baking sheet and toast until dry, about 15 minutes.

When ready to serve, ladle the soup into heatproof bowls or ramekins, filling almost to the rim.  Top with a piece of toasted bread and layer generous slices of cheese on top of the bread.  Transfer the bowls to a baking sheet and bake until the cheese is bubbly and brown, 20-30 minutes.  Serve hot.


1 Comment »

  1. I just wanna click “like,” that’s all. And, have you read An Altar in the World? I think you’d enjoy it if you are thinking of these things.
    PS thanks for the letter. Always a good day when those arrive!

    Comment by Emily — January 26, 2013 @ 7:47 pm

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