Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Library Bar House Soup: Swiss Onion Au Gratin

Frequent readers of this blog will know that I spent 7 of the best years of my life attending Michigan Tech for undergrad and graduate school, and that I post recipes of U.P. favorites here from time to time, including pickled eggs, pasties, fishbowls and nisu (or pulla).   My friend and classmate Lee has been after me for years now to post another local favorite, the house soup from the Library Bar in Houghton.

Swiss Onion Au Gratin

The Library Bar in Houghton was a favorite place of MTU students in the 1980s.    It was owned by Jon Davis, a onetime MTU student who moved there and never left.  Whenever I think of him, the word "bon vivant" comes to mind....



In addition to his famous bar, which he conveniently named "The Library" (so students could tell their parents they were at "The Library" studying and it would be okay), he also was the man behind the Guts Frisbee league and also a winter road rally called the "Press On Regardless" or POR.  By the time I got to meet him, the Library was at it's pinnacle of popularity.  Jon was easing into retirement at this time, but occasionally you could find him behind the bar in those days. I can remember a night I spent perched on a barstool there, down in the dumps for reasons unremembered now, but Jon cheered me up like a good bartender can, with equal parts listening and encouragement and beer.  They had a great menu back then....excellent pizza which was all you can eat on Sundays for $5, and good sandwiches too, like the "James Beard" Reuben and the "BTO" which was what he called the best sandwich on the menu that no one ever orders but I did.   It was a bacon tomato onion sandwich.   The menu then looked like a book.   The place had red carpeting on the walls and a 1970s vibe and a low ceiling upstairs with a sign that admonished you to "Watch out you might get hit Ontonagon".   There was a guitar player named Gary Tunstall that played singalong songs like "Piano Man" and "American Pie" that the whole bar would stand up in unison and put their arms around each other and sing along in the pre-karaoke era.    Jon sold the place and the bar burned down in the 1990s and has been reincarnated as a microbrewery, and it's not the same as it once was anymore.   Jon passed away in 2007, but his memory lives on every MTU Winter Carnival during the Jon M. Davis Memorial Chili Run.   During the all nighter snow statue building, Jon would show up in a van and hand out cups of hot Library Bar chili to students throughout the night.   The MTU Alumni Association carries on this fine tradition to this day.

Another tradition is the house soup at the Library.  It is still Swiss Onion Au Gratin.  I've never seen this soup anywhere else ever, and I am not sure if it was a Jon Davis invention or something that came later, but it is still served today at the Library.   A taste of it takes me back to my student days for sure; it's a "must have" for MTU alums, along with a pickled egg from the B&B and a fishbowl drink at the Ambassador whenever we visit Houghton.  One of my sorority sisters worked at the Library and got the recipe for the soup, which I've scaled down here to make a smaller pot.   Whoever invented the recipe, my hat goes off to them because it's pure genius for a restaurant...costs nearly nothing to make and is a great way to use up stale rye bread.   I like to use double the onions the original recipe called out (just half them if you want the original quantity).  Also, don't be tempted to use real chicken stock or anything....this recipe needs the salty boost of soup base.    And definitely make your own rye croutons because they are so delicious.   In a pinch, I suppose you could use the Gardetto's Rye Chips.   Another note: over the years, I've found that soup base varies in concentration, so taste yours after adding the water and add more if it needs it.   I like Penzey's Chicken Soup Base, but also" Better Than Bouillon" will work.

Swiss Onion Au Gratin Soup
Serves 8

4 medium onions, diced
1 T. butter
1/4 c. chicken soup base
5 1/4 c. water, divided
3 T. white wine
1 t basil
1/2 c corn starch
2 c. whole milk

Croutons
1 pkg. cocktail rye bread (or stale rye bread cut into cubes)
Garlic powder
Shredded Swiss Cheese (for topping)

To make the croutons, heat vegetable oil (about a half inch depth) in a frying pan until hot.  Cut cocktail bread slices into quarters and fry in hot oil until crisp.  Sprinkle hot croutons with garlic powder to taste.

In a large dutch oven, saute onions in butter until soft.    Add soup base and 5 cups water (taste here to determine if more soup base needs to be added).   Add wine and basil and heat through.   With the remaining 1/4 c. water, make a slurry with the cornstarch and add to the soup, heat until thickened.   Whisk in milk and heat through.

Top bowls of soup with croutons and Swiss cheese.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

I grew up in Hancock, I loved the old Library! Rb2 and the Epicurean were my favorites.

Christine Manninen said...

Remember the Bagel Special?!

CandyG said...

I'm from Calumet and went to Michigan Tech in the early '70s. The Library was our place to go -- Sunday night pizza buffets ($5 all you can eat) and peanut shells on the floor. The best ice cream drinks (dangerous) and good times always. Thank you for sharing the recipe for my favorite Library treat!

BrianG said...

Thanks for sharing. I was always a big fan of the Library's red (beef) chili. It seemed to disappear after the fire and rebuild. Since then I've seen a white chili on the menu, but not the red chili. Would you, or someone else reading this happen to have that recipe?

Cynthia said...

I'll try to track it down.

Sally Heidtke said...

Ah, the Bagel Special! Bagels were exotic cuisine to me in the late 70's/early 80's, coming from Iron Mountain! We actually ALMOST stopped at the original Library on what ended up being the day it burned down, but we were passing through before it opened. Thanks for the memories! Such an iconic place.

Unknown said...

I loved seeing this recipe shared. That was the soup I always ordered when eating at the Library Bar. It was delicious. We moved south to the Menominee area and now I can make that soup and enjoy it again. Thanks for sharing.

Amy Leat said...

I am so happy to have found not only this coveted recipe by a recoup of the memories. I worked at The Library in the days that Jon was turning it over to the new owners. The JB Reuben is one that I have brought my sons up on and yes, The Epicurean was one of my favorites too. Glad to know my memories are still shared with so many who fell in love with the Keweenaw and no matter where they are now still hold it close to them. Heikii Lunta forever!!!

CandyG said...

Amy Leat, will you share the JB Reuben recipe? (I loved Jon's menus)

Alan Kalis, '71 said...

They had 10 cent beer between periods at the Dee in the late 60's - if you could get in the door - place was always jammed. Summer of '69 they opened the kitchen in the basement and had the best pizza in town, or world. Their ground round would melt in your mouth with a bun from Kwast bakery. Dont't remember the soup then, but my friend makes the recipe now and its great too.