Alliums well that ends well – The History of Onions

One of the first events of my life that made me realize that my passion for food ran a little bit differently from most other folks was when I was a kid in fifth grade. It was a cold winter day, and my younger siblings and myself had just come home from a marathon session of sledding. While my brother and sister migrated to the instant cocoa packets, I went to the fruit cellar and picked out an onion, brought it upstairs, and placed several slices of it (along with a smear of yellow mustard and a slice of cheddar cheese) upon toasted bread.

It was heaven.

It also earned me several stares that implied that it was best if I never admitted I was related to my siblings.

So, yeah, I have a bit of a soft spot in my heart for onions, also known as Allium cepa.

Apparently I am not alone. When you think about all of the major cuisines in the world, a member of the onion family is bound to play a pivotal role. Leeks, garlic, elephant garlic, chives, shallots, Welsh onions, Chinese chives as well as the typical bulbed onions we see everyday at the grocery store (all of which belong to the genus Allium) can be found in nearly every corner of the globe. Although I have no evidence to support this claim, I would not be surprised to learn that onions are the most popular food on this planet.

It is claimed by some that many food historians believe that onions had originated either in central Asia or around what is present day Iran and Pakistan long before the era of recorded history. Best estimates have said that cultivation occurred as long as 5000 years ago. The economic impact of the vegetable is instantly recognizable. They were easy to grow, and could be raised in many different climates. They were less perishable than other foods of the time and could be transported over long distances without fear of spoilage. And they could be easily dried or pickled, allowing their shelf life to last far into the cold winters. Onions were a near requirement to have on hand.

The Egyptians recognized this about the onion, and evidence of this veggie abounds in tomb paintings, inscriptions and documents. Ditto for Ancient Greece and Rome. And once again, nearly all of Europe, including the British Isles, have the Romans to thank for introducing the onion to their cultures.

However, it is important to note that onions were seen as very much as a “lower class” food. Probably thanks in large part for the odor it carries, the rich and powerful tended to avoid the onion, or cook it enough so that it lost it’s pungency. The Egyptian priests avoided it, and the Brahmans and Jains of India were forbidden to eat it. But The Code of Hammurabi, the ancient law of Mesopotamia, provided for the needed by dictating that a monthly ration of bread and onions would be given out, a ration that comprised the mainstay of the peasant diet.

From Europe, the onion was introduced into the new world, although wild varieties did grow in Native America.

Likely due to it’s pungent nature, the onion was often used for medicinal and spiritual purposes. Olympic atheletes of ancient Greece consumed large quantities because it would “lighten the balance of the bloodˮ. Roman Gladiators were rubbed down with onion juice to “firm up the musclesˮ. In sixth century India onions were used as a diuretic. During Colonial times in the U.S., a slice or two of wild onions was thought to be a cure for the measles.

The onion has had a long and eventful history, and it’s unlikely I can do it justice by spending only three recipes on it. But I shall try. Meanwhile, grab a toasted onion sandwich and see what we can learn.

UPDATED: To fix an issue noted by the language police.

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