I find that just about any topic related to food is the secret sauce of social interaction. At a loss for words or in need of redirecting a prickly conversation? Mention restaurants, culinary prowess, equipment reviews, fitness fueling, intolerances, recipes. To that end, boy have I got grist for you.
It occupies The Core of an Onion by Mark Kurlansky, the noted author who has delivered histories on cod, salt, oysters, salmon, milk, and frozen food, with a deep dive on lobsters in the works. In those and in dozens of his other nonfiction writings, Kurlansky proves his worth as a masterful researcher.
He is at his best when he weaves little-known detail into cohesive narrative, graced with wordplay designed to elicit a reader’s smile. In focusing his attention on the species Allium cepa, Kurlansky means to appreciate the fullness of its “limitations and even bad habits.” The onion bulb can produce a flower, left on its own. But its abilities to spew sulfuric compounds and induce tears have caused mankind to both reject and embrace the humble vegetable.
Brahmins and Hindu widows circa 600 B.C. avoided onions because they contained “the quality of darkness,” leading to ignorance, lewdness, and fear in those who took a bite. Hippocrates prescribed onions to prevent pneumonia, and Olympic athletes in ancient Greece regarded onions as a superfood, pounding them by the pound. Throughout the centuries, various cultures tagged onions as sexual enhancers, cough suppressants, insomnia cures, threats to piety, scurvy inhibitors, and harbingers of the peasant class.
We learn more nifty factoids: The origin of the Welsh onion, a variety long treasured in Chinese cooking, has nothing to do with Wales. The name might be related to the German welsch, which means “foreign”; during the Han Dynasty, the Chinese came to love and cultivate the “foreign onions” whose seeds may have been brought from India. During World War II, the Red Army used onions as an antiseptic for wounds. It is illegal to enter a movie theater in one Tennessee town if you consumed any onions in the previous four hours. Using onion skins to dye Easter eggs dates back to the 13th century. Most of the Bermuda onions found on the island of Bermuda are now imported.
As Kurlansky’s onion story unfolds in the first few chapters, though, the narrative shows signs of strain. It is only a “guess” that forebears of the wild cepa onion “seem” to have been cultivated in Iran or western Pakistan or Tajikistan or Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan, because no wild onions are there now. The hedging compounds: “most likely” … “it is not certain when” … “if the legend is to be believed” … “some suggest” … “it is possible that” … “the origin of this is unclear but” … “it is appealing to think that” … “it may trace back to” … “even if this story is apocryphal…”
Google sleuthing pretty much dismisses Ulysses S. Grant’s alleged “I will not move my troops without onions” message to his government during the Civil War, but that doesn’t stop this author from including it “according to legend.” Even the phrase “know your onions” gets second-guessed. In addition to being an expression of the firm grasp on a field or trade, the idiom could be a nod to grammarian Charles Talbut Onions, fourth editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.
Fortunately, conjecture dissipates as Core delves into historical ways of preparing its main ingredient. Kurlansky says his interest is partly a fascination with the people behind the recipes: “Writing cookbooks was one of the few highly respected careers open to women and so the brightest and most capable women were drawn to it.”
Where some Amazon reviewers of this book are flummoxed by the seemingly imprecise directions for sauces and tarts, I prefer to view these old recipes and snippets of corresponding food commentary as witness to our culinary advances and retreats. Measures were expressed via what was at hand—a glass, a penny loaf, a knuckle of veal, a “pretty many blades” of mace. Westerners’ early onion soups were thickened with almonds or pureed legumes and turnips and potatoes or eggs—not floats of French bread and cheese.
Goose fat yields to lard, butter overtakes lard, pickled things cut the fat. Perhaps creamed onions will come around again. This is the stuff recipe nerds dine out on.
Yet the featured recipes for onions either caramelized or fried are easy enough to follow, and celebrate two of the more glorious ways to enjoy them. From the father of modern French cuisine, Georges Auguste Escoffier:
Cut into rings a half centimeter thick, season with salt and pepper,
cover with flour and fry in hot oil.
Not every recipe requires carbon dating. Recent, more user-friendly renditions are offered, including an onion focaccia and James Beard’s onion sandwiches. In all those selections, the heart of the Core is apparent. Kurlansky celebrates how we treat the onion, and how it treats us.
The Core of an Onion: Peeling the Rarest Common Food—Featuring More Than 100 Historical Recipes
by Mark Kurlansky
Bloomsbury, 240 pp., $28
Bonnie S. Benwick, formerly of the Washington Post Food section, is a freelance editor and recipe tester. You can find her on Instagram and Threads: @bbenwick.