The misunderstood onion is the multiple personality disorder victim of the culinary universe. Is it yellow, red, or white? Spanish, pearl, or cocktail? One minute a flavor enhancer and then quickly a breath altering son of a bitch. Sometimes a taste bud joy bringer and oft times a tear jerker this mood changing bulbous veggie staple is a well known in kitchens throughout the world. People are often compared to these versatile ever popular alliums. “He is a complicated Person, with as many layers as an onion.” Indeed concentric in nature the royal onion is as complicated as a vegetable can be. “An onion a day keeps everyone away” That man was so ugly he could make an onion cry.” “ A cat has nine lives but an onion has seven skins.“ “An onion by any other name will never be a rose.” Okay, I made that last one up but you dig what I‘m saying.
Ranging in size from tiny pearls to giant softballs the onion can in fact be peeled one layer after another. A staple in nearly every culture despite having an essence so peculiarly strong and venomous it rivals the skunks ability to cause one to pinch their nose shut tight. It can turn ones breath into a date breaking whiff of “please don’t call me ever again.” Alfalfa was turned away by Darla on occasions when he had recently indulged in scallion chewing. It has a unique ability to coax salty droplets of liquid from our tear ducts which are normally saved for more emotional occurrences. Only the slightest provocation of cutlery piercing its flesh brings teardrops scampering down our cheeks in a sometimes uncontrollable frenzy. This audacious vegetable permeates our olfactory senses in an all out assault that challenges the garlic’s long standing reign as king of tasty but offensive vegetables.
The reason these bulbous alliums make tears come to our eyes is because of a chemical reaction that is much too scientific for me to memorize. Suffice to say the onion contains amino acids in the sulfur family that gets released into the air. These guilty gasses travel up into the air and rub their irritants into our eyeballs prompting the tear ducts to come to our aid and flush out the acrid acid with a tear or two. I have heard many methods that “really work”. Keeping your mouth open will indeed work for a while because you will inhale the noxious fumes into your lungs via your oral cavity, but eventually so much gas will enter the atmosphere you will still tear up and have onion breath on top of it. Other methods such as running water, cutting near a flame or on the back burner of a stove produce even less successful results. Keeping something in your mouth is the same principle of an open mouth but for the less disciplined of us. The only real advice I have on this is to keep the onion as cold as possible or keep a small fan blowing away the fumes as you slice, dice, mince, or chop.
Once past the tear inducing cut up stage the onion performs its intended task, the enhancement of flavor to almost any dish. In Cajun cuisine they call the onion and its often present partners peppers and celery the Holy Trinity of cooking. It is the basis of nearly every soup an stew in the world, it adds umpf to pilaf, zing to zucchini and pop to popcorn shrimp. Its in sauces and sides, dressings and dinner entrees, salads. In appetizers and entrees, starches and sides, veggies and meat combos. Fried in rings or just bloomin it makes solo appearances and it even has a starring role in cocktails. Yes the onion has a many faceted personality and it brings tremendous flavor enhancement to just about any dish. With a presence so pronounced in the culinary world you may think it deserves a birthday celebration all its own. Only problem is, we have no idea exactly when that would be.
Some botanists say it was born in Iran and Pakistan, others argue it is originally from Central America, but the omnipotent onion seems to have been around forever. Many anthropologists believe it was used by our cave dwelling ancestors, so a birthday would be next to impossible. They have seen evidence of onions in ancient Egypt where they believed it potent aroma could bring the dead back to life. Perhaps until the first unfortunates soul tried shredding the much more aggressive horseradish which may very well have the ability to awaken the non living. The onion made its way into Bible passages as well. The book of Numbers has the Israelite children lamenting of a diet filled with leeks and onions as they traveled the desert. The Romans, Greeks, and Indians all recognized the healing power of the vitamin rich veggie. The Olympians of ancient Greece fortified themselves with onions before their grueling events. Even the Middle Ages showered glory on these globes of culinary prominence. The three main foodstuffs of that era were cabbage, beans, and onions. Sounds more like weapons of mass stinkation. The magnificent onion was believed to have incredible medicinal properties curing everything from mouth sores to insomnia. I can only assume the happy sleeper was in bed alone! These special kitchen necessities were even taken on board the Mayflower, adding a special flavor enjoyment to the first Thanksgiving. It was one of the very first botanical treasures planted by the pilgrims on American soil.
Yet with all of this, still no mention of a birthday celebration for the used and abused reigning king of culinary staple foods. This then has become my New Years resolution for 2013. I will do everything in my power to raise awareness of the injustice we have bestowed upon this essential aid in recipes around the world So I am asking you to join me in wishing the fabulous culinary workhorse, this noxious bulb, this fortune bringing, tear coaxing stench maker of the vegetable kingdom a very happy birthday the very second after the ball drops in NYC. Don’t cry for me Argentina, just slice me a few of those birthday onions to have with my champagne. Happy Birthday you many layered edible gem you……PEACE