How To Eat French Onion Soup
- 2,847 words (if poetry, lines) long
- 6,000 words (if poetry, lines) long
- 1,312 words (if poetry, lines) long
Writing metaphors! They're not just for breakfast anymore! In fact, they're what's for dinner. Also lunch for the next three days, because we cook in quantity.
So on Wednesday John and I had our first Cooking Date of the year. We made French onion soup and insalata caprese. It was all a spectacular success, and, as implied above, I've had leftovers to eat every day since then.
Today at lunch I sat down with a freshly broiled toast-and-cheese top on a rewarmed crock of our awesome soup, and, apropos of nothing extraordinary, I finally figured out how to eat the dang stuff.
Pause. Rewind. Replay a Wednesday night in Metairie, Louisiana circa 1988. Maybe it was a Sunday, I don't know. Once a week, or maybe just once a month--memory is hazy here--a group of neighborhood ladies got together to sing barbershop harmony. They had hopes of founding a brand-new Sweet Adelines chapter. Mom met with them and brought me along, and this was when I first got pegged as a baritone. (Yes: I was a Type A at the age of 12.) But where I'm going with this trip down memory lane is down the road from the neighborhood home in which we rehearsed to the local Ruby Tuesdays for late night appetizers. Where I always, always, always ordered the French onion soup.
And I always made a mess trying to get through that toast-and-cheese lid. And Mom and all the other grown-ups enjoyed great and gentle amusement at my exasperated expense.
It's not simple! A spoon isn't sharp enough to get through that thick swiss cheese. And even if it was, the toast is floating; you can't very well slice it with a knife and fork. There's no leverage. Best I managed to do was poke at the edges of the cheese until I had a hole through which to sip the broth down to a less perilous surface level, such that mangling the toast and cheese no longer caused catastrophic overflow.
Even John asked the question when we sat down to dinner: "Now how do I eat this?" "I have no idea," I told him. "You just muddle through and make a mess. It's why I put the soup crocks on plates."
But today at lunch, I got it. If you just let the soup crock sit, all patient-like, until all components are cool enough to eat without burning your mouth, the soup will have soaked into the toast and softened it up. Then you can push... not too hard... very very gently... at the cheese-topped toast with the edge of your spoon, until it gives way. The cheese will try to glue it together, but once the bread breaks, the cheese will stretch thin and you can bite through it when you eat the broken-off bite of bread.
After that, everything's much easier.
So this was my discovery. And I thought, "That's another metaphor for writing, isn't it?" (Yes. I know. Everything's a metaphor for writing. Shut up, I'm making a point, it's an effin' marvelous point, it's bloody brilliant. Because I say so. Hush.) Of course I thought that. I was in the middle of my writing day, and I was trying to figure out how to get my mental spoon through the thick cheese topping that was keeping me from going deeper than babble draft into anything.
The plan was to spend a good hour moving an unfinished short story closer to submission-ready. Only I didn't know which one. "First Breath" was done and out the door (though it may yet see further revisions pending an ongoing conversation a colleague and I are having about its worldbuilding details). "Lambing Season" also hit the slush again yesterday. A number of stories are in the post-critique "almost perfect, but not quite" stage, but none felt... permeable, if you know what I mean. None felt accessible. I spent half an hour going through my files, looking for some half-baked idea from a freewriting exercise that might spark itself into a full-blown story. Nothing went ping.
Finally I latched onto a "scene" from the Daily Story Idea yWriter file. It had to do with sentient, human-sized Ants coexisting with humans. One of them goes into a coffee shop and orders a cappuccino. As story ideas go, this one was light and fluffy and funny and nothing at all like "First Breath," and it amused me to read it. I had no idea what to do with it, though. I didn't even know what to call it. ("The Ants Go Marching Latte-ward, Hurrah" is very much not a working title. It's an "I have to call this something and I mustn't take it too seriously this early in the game" sort of for-now title.) I set the timer for another half hour and attempted to figure it out where this thing was going.
I pasted that ridiculous excuse for a working title at the top and printed out the not-yet-a-story. Then I read it again, letting its broth soak in and soften things up. Then I got out a pen and began making notes as tentative as the spoon's assault on the toast-and-cheese. "Barista shouldn't be too enlightened; anti-Ant prejudice shouldn't all be big bad boss's." "Would Ant use mandibles for speech? How would Ants speak?" "What barista thinks but doesn't say parallels what Ant doesn't say but telegraphs with her antennae." Several of those notes put together became a solid story development idea, like a nice big bite of toast that lets you finally get your spoon into the soup. And after that, everything becomes much simpler.
Really, everything about writing that looks scary and impossible tends to seem less so once you take that first nibble. But then, isn't that the case for most scary and impossible tasks?