Sweet Tears

Published Summer, 2009
Edible Portland

Of all the edible bulbs in the lily family, more than 500 are onions. And of that 500, a mere ten deserve a place on our plates. The rest are too bitter--or too pretty as flowers--to eat. Other palatable memers of the extensive allium species--garlic, shallots, ramps, leeks and chives--may be more refined, but it is difficult to imagine an ingredient as deliciously versatile as the humble onion. So astringent in its raw form as to cause crocodile tears to well up in the cook's eyes, when slowly roasted or sauteed, an onion couldn't be sweeter.

Cultivated since prehistoric times, onions are propbably native to central or western Asia. Ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Romans and Greeks believed oinons had curative powers and their use during that time is well documented. Along with chickpeas and garlic, onions made up the bulk of the food rations that fortified 100,000 laborers who built the Great Pyramid of Cheops around 2900 B.C. In the Middle Ages, onions were as valuable as gold and became a symbol of eternity, owing to their spherical layers within layers. Later buildings were crowned with onion-shaped towers--now irrevocably linked to Russian and Eastern European architecture--in hopes that they would last forever.

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