Ode to the Onion: An Essay

As I begin to make this evening’s meal, I’m struck by how many times I have started out these recipes with “one medium onion, chopped.” So I hope my readers will permit me to post something that’s not a recipe review, but something that’s more like an essay. Oh wait, it’s my blog. I can do what I want 🙂

As I was saying, I seem to be going through a lot of onions these days: Large sweet onions from the farmer’s market, misshapen red and yellow bulbs from the CSA, and perfectly round yellow onions from Meijer’s. The funny-looking CSA onions taste just as good as the ones that passed inspection for the store. I wonder at what point in our society we ended up insisting on perfect-looking vegetables?

Every summer from 5th grade until I graduated high school was spent weeding onions on my dad’s farm. My three sisters and I had so much fun. Fun, you ask? Why yes. We would spend hours under the hot sun wearing jeans and farmer hats (before Ashton Kutcher made them cool, although I don’t think that Ashton has any with seed company names on them) swinging our hoes and making up songs. We came up with several additional verses to the diarrhea song. We would take turns singing theme songs so that the others could guess what show it went to (upon further reflection, I think we watched entirely too much TV during the school year).  In addition to this fun and all the Kool-Aid and water we could drink, we got paid minimum wage. Another fun activity was talking about how we would spend our money at the end of the summer. A new bike? A boom box? (this was the 80s). School clothes?

My dad would admonish us to think about saving it. He would tell us about Domingo, the immigrant who used HIS onion weeding money to put 7 kids through college. They became doctors and lawyers. Yes, but they probably got scholarships because they are a minority, a younger, smart-ass version of me would counter.

When I got to high school I would sometimes be asked to work evenings and Saturdays on the grading line. This consists of standing on big wooden boxes while onions or potatoes go flying by on a conveyor belt from either storage or the dump truck into either storage or a large semi truck. As the onions and potatoes flew by, we were supposed to pick out the rocks, clumps of dirt, misshapen ones, potatoes that had green spots (sunburn), and occasionally the rotten potato that oozed through our gloved fingers. That was a bonus because then you could throw it at the cute temporary help or your sister to see if green, yellow, or even pink slime was inside.

From time to time people in rickety cars would stop and bashfully ask if they could pick up any seconds. My dad would usually look them in the eye and offer a bag of the “firsts” that he had set aside because my mom had told him that morning that he needed to remember to bring a bag of potatoes home for supper. The lesson imparted to me, implied, was that you don’t give people in need crap. Years later when I worked for a relief and development organization I would wish that other people had learned that lesson, as friends of mine worked in Katrinaland sorting through BM-stained straitjackets and expired yogurt. You also don’t brag about your generosity to others, even your spouse, as I observed when my mom would light into my dad asking how he could possibly forget to bring home the potatoes for dinner three nights in a row.

My years on the farm are longer ago than I care to admit, but once in awhile I am reminded of them when I go to pick up my share at the CSA. I usually stop on the way home from work, and the first time I asked one of the owners where the U pick peas were she was pretty surprised. She gave me that look that said “city slicker, you do realize it’s dirty out in them thar fields, right?” OK so I was in a skirt and high heels. But heels wash off, I wanted some fresh peas! Over the summer the U pick has been one of my favorite parts of the CSA.

These are just some of the memories and thoughts that might come to you if you slow down and enjoy the process of cooking. Just grab an onion, slice up and down to loosen the skin, peel, and chop. Chop. Chop.


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