Friday, June 8, 2012

On Dad and onions: A love story

Graham smooches Dad, who hds been entrusted with his Elmos. That's
 Tim and me before the Wall 'O Fame (Parsippany, NJ, February 1993).

My dad has been gone a long time, but it still makes me sad to count the years. It's easy math, really, because Graham was not even three when he died 18 years ago, just a few weeks before Father's Day.

When I think of him, as I often do, the thing I remember most was his wide grin and big laugh, a great belly jiggler often punctuated by a toss of the head and tears of joy. He was easily amused, my dad, and he did so many things that still strike me as incredibly funny.

The Big Kid, after building the Little Tykes play
gym in the cold while his grandson napped
(Sanford, NC, December 1993)
A thing you should know about Irving Warren was that, while he often splurged on us, his personal style favored frugality. He was a child of the Depression who did not like things to go to waste. He recycled office paper long before it was fashionable, painting glue on one side to make his own note pads. In addition to birthday gifts "too nice" to use and saved for special occasions that never came, we found dozens of glass jars in the garage after he died. Like the ledgers he filled with an accountant's precision, they were neatly arranged in a cabinet, each one containing different sorts of nuts, bolts, screws and nails, not to mention bits and pieces of carefully catalogued miscellany. Waste not, want not.

One night at dinner, which probably consisted of grilled steak and frozen vegetables, he inadvertently combined two of his favorite things. While intending to pour root beer into his drinking glass, he misjudged and tipped it instead into a take-out deli container full of sliced raw onions.

"Irving!" shouted my mother. "What are you doing? Irving!" My brothers and I quickly advanced from nervous silence to howling laughter. Dad just folded his hands and leaned in to peer at the foaming mess with calm acceptance. Slices of sharp, eye-watering onion were taken out a few at a time, gently tapped on the rim to let excess soda dripped off, then arranged on his plate, where he dutifully ate every bite.

I still marvel to think that this unplanned side dish did not choke him with heartburn, but the simple fact is my dad loved onion with just about everything, and this was long before the advent of Vidalias or other sweets he would have contentedly munched like apples.

I don't often need an excuse to tell this story, but I share it today as part of the international #LetsLunch food blog posting which celebrates dads. With this recollection and the ever-popular Lipton Onion Soup Mix dip in mind - it was my mother's go-to for virtually any gathering - I decided to make a dip for dad incorporating these two memorable ingredients: onions and root beer.

The splash of root beer that deglazes a skilletful of caramelized onions - I used one of my mother's favorite pans for good measure - makes this a somewhat sweet dip that stands up well to dark pretzel sticks and salty potato chips. If you'd like to make it more savory, opt for a rich stout or splash of full bodied red wine vinegar.

Root Beer Glazed Onion Dip
2 tbsp. unsalted butter
2 tbsp. olive oil
3 large garlic cloves
2 large purple onions
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
2 4-inch sprigs rosemary
Cheesecloth and butcher's twine
1/2 cup root beer soda (I used Dad's, a vintage brand he enjoyed)
1/2 cup pecorino romano, freshly grated
8 oz. container of sour cream
Pretzel sticks, ruffled chips

Sautee onions slowly to caramelize. Stop when you get
a nice layer on brown on the pan (above) - but before
the onions burn. Deglazing with root beer (below)
incorporates tasty bits into the mix and cleans pan.
Cut onions into large chunks and place in work bowl of food processor with garlic. Pulse until it is chopped to a fairly uniform coarse texture. Be careful to stop before it becomes a watery puree.

Melt butter with olive oil in skillet over medium-low heat. Add onion-garlic mix and sautee slowly. Wrap sprigs of rosemary in a small piece of cheesecloth; knot with twine then tuck into pan.

Check on mix and stir every 10 minutes or so; remove the rosemary after about 30 minutes (don't worry if a few sprigs escape). It should take about 40 minutes or more to fully caramelize, or even up to an hour if you work with a low flame and a lot of patience. Aim for the point where the onions just start to stick to the pan (above right), but be careful to not let them burn.

Pour in the root beer and, with a wooden spatula, scrape up all the lovely browned bits. Keep stirring until liquid evaporates and mixture thickens.

Remove pan from heat and allow to cool completely. Stir in sour cream, blending well, then add grated cheese and mix again. Transfer to container and refrigerate at least 2 hours to let flavors meld.

Transfer dip to serving dish with chips and pretzels - or whatever you dad would like.


  1. What a beautiful and touching post...thank you for sharing. My dad died earlier this year, and I'm struggling to write my post. I'm hoping in time I will be able to overcome the grief and crying jags, and write down my memories with grace and love as you have.

    So glad to have you as part of our #LetsLunch group.

  2. How very kind. The first Father's Day is very hard. I remember going to shop for a gift for my father-in-law and having something on an anxiety attack. Try to focus on the good advice and humor. It really does help.

  3. Love the story, and to hear about another creatively frugal dad!
    -linda (@spiceboxtravels)

  4. Jill - this is a wonderful post. It is so lovely to read all these curious stories about dads (and often food) that end up becoming indelible memories. And the onion dip sounds delicious...definitely worth a try! Thanks for sharing.

  5. What a lovely post! My dad loves root beer so I'm going to have to make this dip for him. I'll let you know what he says :). Thank you for sharing!