A red onion on cutting board with peppercorns and vegetables

You may ask why I should choose to reflect on the lowly onion.

So pale and strong in its commonplace role in the kitchen. It marches forth into stews and soups alongside routine bedfellows of celery, carrot, and spuds. We barely give onions a second thought as we shop and chop and cook. Yet, they were once of prominent importance and played a role in love and war and cuisines of the ages. Not always so mundane were these tender, translucent orbs of pungency.

Onions run deep in our agricultural journey.

Onions grow wild across the globe, and it is said that we have been consuming them since we were hunting and gathering. Once we settled down, somewhere around 5000 BC, we began planting onions in earnest in far-flung places that are now Pakistan, Iran, and China. Almost simultaneously across the globe, we domesticated onions for our pleasure and our palate. They were easy to grow, stored well, and could be dried and preserved with ease.

Did they domesticate us?

We carried them with us across our conquests and ocean journeys; they became part of our cultural and culinary heritage. We revered them for their strength and vigor! The Greeks fed pounds of them to their athletes training for the Olympics. Roman gladiators massaged onion juice into their loins before battling in the arena. Egyptians believed they held holy powers, and thus King Ramses IV was entombed with onions placed gently in his eye-sockets. The Israelites lamented their absence during their exodus from Egypt, and the Pilgrims carried them on the Mayflower.

Have we homo sapiens been their mode of transport and fecundity across the globe? Perhaps we have unwittingly been their slave of destiny.

We eat and grow quite a lot of them.

Onions are a member of the Allium genus—one of 700 species such as leeks, garlic, and shallots. They are the third largest vegetable crop grown in the US. Every person in America consumes on average 22 pounds of onions each year. Worldwide we grow over 100 billion pounds of onions from China to South America and everywhere in between.

Organic fresh produce now represents a full 14% of the produce category, and onions are a delicious part of this growing trend.

Onions are good for us—especially if they’re organic. 

The powerful onion is rich in vitamins, minerals, and high in antioxidants. They inhibit troubles like fungal and bacterial growth; they help soothe allergies and asthma. Their juice harbors mild antibiotic properties, and they were used prodigiously during the US civil war to treat gunshot wounds.

Studies show organic onions are 20% higher in flavonoids than their conventional cousins. Why you ask should we give a fig about flavonoids? They help reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease, asthma, and stroke. May we all eat organic onions!

They make us weep; they make us cry.

cooking cutting cutting board hands

Photo by mali maeder on Pexels.com

Onions have a defense system like no other. Once you cut or bruise the precious skin, the membrane breaks, and they emit something akin to skunk venom. Their odoriferous spray hits the nose and the eyes which water uncontrollably, yet without emotion. This then is a way to keep animals and prey away from eating the precious orbs. But not me!

I harbor fine memories of onions past.

I was once in old Jerusalem and ate a raw halved onion alongside fresh garbanzo hummus. It was a hot afternoon; its solemn bite offset the creamy mixture as I dipped flatbread. I watched old men mix vats of warm garbanzos, tahini, garlic, and lemon and savored the onion.

I remember the caramelized onion gratin once served by a Swiss chef in Alt-Provence, France. It was enveloped in a pastry of pure French butter, and the flavor, sweet and rich, piqued my sensibilities as I sipped rosé in the afternoon.

When I was a sprout of a girl, my grandmother would serve great bowls of pickled onions—

German style. They were brined and tart and surrounded by great cubes of pink trembling ham. The dish was a perfect accompaniment to a thick slab of rye bread slathered with butter.

Onions have escorted and enhanced so many delicious meals in my life, and I never fully appreciated their contribution, history, and charm.

Some have waxed poetic.

It’s time to conjure up Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to The Onion.”


luminous flask,

your beauty formed

petal by petal,

crystal scales expanded you

and in the secrecy of the dark earth

your belly grew round with dew.

You make us cry without hurting us.

…and the fragrance of the earth lives

in your crystalline nature.”

agriculture blur close up focus

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

When you take up your knives and instruments of the kitchen, consider the onion. Let us not take it for granted for all it has given us and the pleasure it promises in the future.

Don’t miss Max Fletcher's classic “Tears of an Onion” from 1938! 

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About The Author

Melody Meyer's picture

Melody is the Vice President of Policy and Industry Relations for United Natural Foods (UNFI). In this role she is responsible for communicating and educating all stakeholders on critical organic issues. Her Blog www.organicmattersblog.com covers a range of organic and sustainable food issues.

She is the executive director of the UNFI Foundation which is dedicated to funding non-profit organizations that promote organic agriculture  www.unfifoundation.org. Melody serves as Secretary of the Board of Directors for the Organic Trade Association www.ota.com.

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