Jacques Pépin Teaches You How to Make James Beard’s Famous Onion Sandwich

Wor­ried that hol­i­day enter­tain­ing may put you in dan­ger of over­spend­ing?

Pre­serve your bank account and those joy­ful fes­tive feel­ings by serv­ing your friends onion sand­wich­es.

We assure you, they come with the utmost of culi­nary pedi­grees.

Esteemed chef and cook­book author Jacques Pépin hap­pi­ly demon­strates the sim­ple recipe, above, con­fid­ing that it was a favorite of his late wife’s.

Every­thing tastes bet­ter when cooked with love, even if the chef’s not doing much more than slic­ing a cou­ple of half moons from an onion and slather­ing bread with mayo.

(If you’re aller­gic to either of those ingre­di­ents, try swap­ping them out for radish­es and but­ter.)

Pépin cred­its his old friend, James Beard, “America’s first food­ie”, with the recipe. It caused a sen­sa­tion when Beard pub­lished it in 1965’s Menus for Enter­tain­ing.

He revis­it­ed the sub­ject in 1974’s Beard on Food: The Best Recipes and Kitchen Wis­dom from the Dean of Amer­i­can Cook­ing, while unabashed­ly fan­boy­ing over the hum­ble veg­etable in its many forms, from tiny pearl onions to “big del­i­cate Bermu­das and the enor­mous Span­ish vari­ety that are in sea­son from fall to late spring:”

Just the oth­er day I was enchant­ed to receive a box of these giant gold­en globes, per­fect­ly matched in size and con­tour, that flour­ish in the vol­canic soil of Ore­gon and Ida­ho. They make absolute­ly superb eat­ing. I love them raw, thin­ly sliced, with a ham­burg­er or cold meats or in a hearty, fla­vor­ful onion sand­wich.

The day my gift box arrived I hap­pened to have some slight­ly stale home­made bread, about two or three days old. I sliced this very thin, but­tered it well, cov­ered it with paper-thin slices of Span­ish onion, sprin­kled them with some coarse salt, and pressed anoth­er slice of bread firmed on the top—and there was my sup­per. I can eas­i­ly make a whole meal of onion sand­wich­es, for to me they are one of the great­est treats I know…

Delight­ful! But hold up a sec. The New York Times’ Tejal Rao, reports that Beard, who had a “rep­u­ta­tion for chron­ic, unapolo­getic pla­gia­rism” appar­ent­ly “lift­ed” the recipe from cook­book authors Irma and Bill Rhode, his one-time part­ners in a New York City cater­ing com­pa­ny:

It was basic but con­fi­dent, and it came togeth­er with inex­pen­sive ingre­di­ents. It was so good that you could eas­i­ly eat a dozen, and so sim­ple that it bare­ly required a recipe. You glance at the direc­tions, feel­ing a lit­tle sil­ly rolling the sand­wich­es in chopped pars­ley, a cru­cial step that makes the sand­wich, and that Irma Rhode said came from Beard. You’d make it once, and then the dish would be com­mit­ted to mem­o­ry — as James Beard’s onion sand­wich.

Sand­wich­es of History’s Bar­ry W. Ender­wick digs even deep­er, truf­fling up a remark­ably terse onion sand­wich recipe in Mat­tie Lee Wehrley’s The Handy House­hold Hints and Recipes, from 1916.

Inter­est­ing how Ms. Wehrley takes care to note that the Toast­ed Cheese on Bread pub­lished direct­ly below that Onion Sand­wich is a recipe of her own inven­tion.

It appears we all bor­row from the best. Sure­ly, there’s no rea­son not to get cre­ative and make that onion sand­wich your own.

You could start by vary­ing the ingre­di­ents…

Soak some slices of red onion in cold water for 5 min­utes to take away their raw bite.

Exper­i­ment with pumper­nick­el or dark rye.

Chop up a blend of win­dowsill herbs for that showy, savory edge.

Or y’know, buy an onion, a bagel and cream cheese as sep­a­rate com­po­nents, assem­ble, and boom!

As Beard remarked, “Design­ing hors d’oeuvres is not dif­fer­ent from design­ing sets and cos­tumes … Food is very much the­ater.”

Basic Onion Sand­wich (serves one):

Remove the crusts from 2 slices of bread or cut them into rounds, reserv­ing the scraps for a more involved recipe requir­ing bread­crumbs 

Spread may­on­naise on the face of both pieces

Remove a thin slice from the thick­est part of a sweet onion and place atop one of the pre­pared slices

.Sprin­kle with sea salt and top with the oth­er slice of bread.

Spread may­on­naise around the perime­ter of the sand­wich, and roll in the chopped herbs.

(Can refrig­er­ate for up to 6 hours before serv­ing)

Relat­ed Con­tent 

An 1585 Recipe for Mak­ing Pan­cakes: Make It Your Sat­ur­day Morn­ing Break­fast

A Stun­ning, Hand-Illus­trat­ed Book of Mush­rooms Drawn by an Over­looked 19th Cen­tu­ry Female Sci­en­tist

10,000 Vin­tage Recipe Books Are Now Dig­i­tized in The Inter­net Archive’s Cook­book & Home Eco­nom­ics Col­lec­tion

David Lynch Teach­es You to Cook His Quinoa Recipe in a Strange, Sur­re­al­ist Video

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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