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Omnipresent Onion

By Audrey Stallsmith

allium cepa


"My boy," said Caderousse sententiously, "one can talk while eating. And then, you ungrateful being, you are not pleased to see an old friend? I am weeping with joy." He was truly crying, but it would have been difficult to say whether joy or the onions produced the greatest effect on the lachrymal glands of the old inn-keeper of the Pont-du-Gard.

Alexandre Dumas--The Count of Monte Cristo

A recent e-mail going the rounds suggests that onions, not mayonnaises, are really the culprits in many food poisoning incidents.  But studies done at Cornell contradict such a notion--since those experiments prove that onions, garlic, allspice, and oregano actually kill bacteria instead.  The researchers even posit that residents of hot countries--where food is more likely to spoil--prefer spicy recipes because those are less likely to make them sick.

But onions do lose some of their bacteria-killing potency after they have been cut for a while.  And I seem to recall some problem with the green type a few years back.  So we can conclude that, although onions could make you sick, they are probably less likely than other foods to do so.

The dubious e-mail also suggests that they might soak up viruses in a sickroom.  I'm skeptical about that too, since cut onions--like apples--will darken due to oxidation.  So the ominous shade doesn't necessarily mean they are pulling nasty things out of the air.  I'll stash that idea in the "I guess it wouldn't hurt to try it" file!  As long as you don't mind sacrificing an onion to the experiment.

There are plenty of more tasty things you could do with it.  Onions have been around virtually as long as man, since they "cropped up" in either Asia or the Middle East at least five thousand years ago.  And--being cheap and easy to store--have proved especially popular with the underprivileged. 

The Israelite slaves, after starting for the promised land, yearned for "the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick."  (Numbers 11:5)  The Egyptians, in fact, revered the allium whose rings within rings struck them as a symbol of eternity.  They sometimes even took their oaths on an onion, as we would on a Bible.

High in Vitamin C, that vegetable has often been the chief protector standing between the poor and scurvy.  The workhouse boys in Dickens' Oliver Twist got "three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week, and half a roll on Saturdays."

Miguel de Cervantes writes in Don Quixote that "I had rather munch a crust of brown bread and an onion in a corner, without any more ado or ceremony, than feed upon turkey at another man's table."  And, for many in those days, bread, onions, and beer were the only food groups!

The vegetable's common name derives from the Latin unio ("oneness or unity").  It was sometimes also known as "poor man's treacle."  Although treacle refers to molasses these days, it once meant an antidote to a poisonous bite.  And onions have often been laid on the skin to draw out stingers from bees and other hostile insects.

Due to that pulling power, the vegetable (sometimes roasted first) has also been applied to the chest for croup, to aching ears or heads to draw out pain, or to tumors.  But most of us would prefer to eat our onions, which is a good idea too, as their nutrients reportedly prevent blood clots, lower blood sugar, and raise levels of good cholesterol--as well as helping ward off cancer. 

A syrup made from the juice supposedly calms coughs, while an onion skin tea rinse perks up your hair.  The red types also contain quercetin, which helps relieve allergies.  And the sulphur gas from freshly chopped onions will make your eyes and nose run--which can break up congestion.

If you would rather avoid all those tears, some have suggested chilling the onion before chopping it, holding matches between your teeth, or keeping a flame burning nearby to draw away the fumes.  Since some of those solutions sound dangerous, I'll probably just stick with the idea that a good cry always makes you feel better--even if it's an artificially stimulated one!

Allium cepa image is from La Botanique Mise a La Portee de tout le Monde by Nicolas Francois Regnault.