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Why I Love Chopping Onions

"I didn't start cooking until I was thirty-two. Until then, I just ate." -Julia Child

This weekend, I finished a book called The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry by Kathleen Flinn. It's a memoir that chronicles her decision to make a huge life change at the age of 36. When the book begins, Kathleen is an American living in London, working in corporate middle management. The very day that she returns from a vacation, her boss asks her not to come in to the office, but to meet her at a coffee shop instead. There, the boss informs Kathleen that her job has been eliminated.

At the urging of her long-distance beau (Kathleen is in London, and her guy is living and working in Seattle), she decides to cash in her life savings, move to Paris, and pursue her lifelong dream of obtaining a diploma from the most famous cooking school in the world, Le Cordon Bleu. Did I mention that she hardly speaks French?

Kathleen is one of the oldest students enrolled in the program, but historically she's in good company - Julia Child also attended the Cordon Bleu as a late bloomer. Julia's autobiography, My Life in France is one of my favorite books - a must read!

Getting a diploma from Le Cordon Bleu is neither cheap nor easy. A student must take three different programs: Basic, Intermediate, and Superior Cuisine, which collectively cost about $26,500.00. Then, one must pass a grueling final exam where one is timed to the minute and judged on everything from uniform cleanliness to the presentation of the final plate. While in school, Kathleen learns things like how to de-bone a chicken without removing the skin, how to gut a squid, and how to make puff pastry. 

In France, everyone is a food critic - not just the chefs who are her teachers, but even the lucky recipients of the meals she produces in class each day. One afternoon, Kathleen decides to give her food to a homeless man who regularly sits near the school's entrance (talk about prime real estate for the homeless!). He accepts her poached fish dish, tastes it, and declares, "Needs more salt"!

Although that scene provokes laughter, Kathleen Flinn's quest also elicits tears. The book's title refers both to the trials and tribulations of her adventure and to a practical cooking tip offered by one of the chefs explaining why people cry when cutting onions. The chef says: "When your knife is dull, you have to apply more pressure to cut the onion. This breaks down the cells of the onion and emits a gas that makes you cry. If you have a sharp knife, you'll slice the onion using less pressure. Et voila! - mo more tears."

Pascal has very sensitive eyes, and even when using a sharp knife, onions make him cry. I must have "eyes of steel" because I can chop mounds of onions and shed nary a tear. Although privately, Pascal is quite the romantic, he is not one to share his declarations of love publicly. One of the most romantic things he ever said while in the company of others was while cooking at a friend's apartment in Paris. It was 1998. We were all working in the kitchen together, and naturally, I was chopping the onions. "Do you know why I love Charlene?" he asked his friend, "Because she never cries while chopping onions."  I know it's silly, but to this day, when I'm in the kitchen with Pascal, I always volunteer to chop the onions. It's one of my little ways of reminding him how much I love him.


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