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All You Need to Know About Onion Soup

By John Gould / September 27, 1996



Had you asked, I could tell you all you need to know about onion soup. For the good of mankind, I'll tell you anyway. In 1953 I was in Germany on an errand for Uncle Sam, and at the Railway Station Hotel in Tbingen I enjoyed an onion soup that they told me was the specialty of the place.

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It was my birthday, and the respected editor of the Swabian Tageblatt was deigning to take me to lunch. In Germany, lunch puts on 14 pounds a week and is never a moment for business. We Americans say, "I'd like to buy Union Pacific; can we lunch and discuss this?" In Germany they lunch to eat, and then go somewhere to talk shop. I was to enjoy the signal honor of a front-row seat for the opening of a Tbingen Onion Soup.

Tbingen is quite the place. It has all manner of industry, but is best known as the seat of a university founded in 1477. I had been shown about the institution, even to the dungeon where the naughty students were deposited to reflect on their error and reflect and reflect. If it could be moved, I'd buy it and give it to Harvard Law School.

Then we had lunch. The hotel sits by the train tracks, and several trains whooshed past as we ate. The onion soup deserved close study and got it. While we ate and ate the proprietor brought the guest book for me to sign. It was a big bound book, and as I fully expected, it began many centuries ago and had space to oblige many more. I flipped the pages and time rolled back. On an early page was the signature of somebody named George Gordon Lord Byron, who must have stopped on his way somewhere for onion soup. I signed the book on its first blank page and returned to my onions.

At home in Maine a couple months later I told my resident cook about this soup, and overdid it until she asked me why I didn't use my miniature brain and bring back the recipe. And I also refreshed my memory of profligate Lord Byron until I was satisfied he could well have been at Tbingen on day and date of said book. Early 1800s. Do you suppose he, too, visited the masonry where the unruly Tbingen students were punished? Also, is it not something to consider that I have taken onion soup in the very same dining room as Lord Byron? Every time I encountered onion soup after that, I forced the subject into the conversation and would slyly mention Old George Gordon as my onion-soup friend and she would ask me again why I wasn't bright enough to get the receipt.

In this way I had many chances to promise her that when we toured Europe I would take her to Tbingen and stick her in the dungeon. We have lived well in that sort of conjugal hilarity. But we did go to Tbingen.

It was again birthday time for me, and an October day turned to onion soup. In 1966, trains were still passing and the hotel was in business. The new proprietor told us he had changed nothing, and his onion soup was after the same recipe for which the inn was famous. The soup, he said, was hundreds of years old, and yes, certainly, he'd be delighted to write the recipe to go to Amerika! Eat while it's hot, he said, and he'd write full instructions.

Now is always a good time to explain again about eating in Germany. It is both a delight and a business. In tradition, there is no such thing as a quick lunch or fast food. If American influences like McDonald's have prevailed, it has happened since I was there and against every German principle. For those in a hurry, don't intrude. "Wir haben Zeit" (we have time) is a good thing to say to your waiter, as it tells him not to trot about and is a compliment to the kitchen. A waiter is a Kellner, and there is a little-used feminine form, but you never call a waiter Herr Kellner. The dining public confers this honor. You assume that your waiter, however low on the pole, is the head waiter, or Ober Kellner, and you call him Herr Ober. This pleasantry does not offend him, and your every wish is his command.

Then, with dessert, he will disappear. When you wish to pay and leave, little matter how much later, he is never in sight. Yours is the next move, and if you plan to visit Germany you should memorize this: "HERR OBER! Bezahlen, bitte!" He will not come until you call. I think you might spend the night. But say that, and he will appear instantly with your check and shake hands with you when he holds the door for you to leave. Wunderbar!

At Tbingen railway hotel the new owner told us he had never seen the ancient guest register, knew nothing about it, and sincerely hoped the previous owner had deposited it in the community archives. He would find out. That's the latest I have on George Gordon, the onion-souper.

For a different onion soup do this: Forget about French onion soup.

Tbingen Onion Soup

4 big onions (about 2-3/4 lbs.)

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons flour

3 cups chicken stock or bouillon

1 cup finely chopped vegetables (carrots, celery, peppers, etc.)

1 cup evaporated milk

lemon juice, pepper, salt, parsley flakes

Peel, thinly slice, and chop onions. In a soup pot, saut onions in olive oil until limp. Stir in flour. Add chicken stock or bouillon, then the finely chopped mixed vegetables. Simmer 40 minutes. Add evaporated milk and heat through. Add lemon juice, pepper, and salt to taste. A few parsley flakes.

If a wastrel joins you for soup, it might be Byron. Feed him; they did in Tbingen.