‘Life,’ Carl Sandburg says, ‘is like an onion. You peel it off one layer at a time, and sometimes you weep.’ Carl, being a poet, was the sensitive type. You’d better believe that when Chuck Norris peels an onion, the only crying comes from the onion. But Chuck’s iron-jawed impassivity isn’t a trait I personally seek to emulate (though one is naturally curious about the type; did you know that when Chuck goes to a feminist rally, he leaves with a freshly ironed shirt and a sandwich?) I freely admit that both life and onions have occasionally brought me to tears.
Especially onions. Julia Child thought it hard to imagine a civilization without them, but as a seven-year-old I vigorously disagreed. What a wonderful world it would be, I felt, if onions weren’t in it: trees of green, red roses too, but nary an onion for me or for you, as Louis Armstrong might have sung. But in real life every rose has its thorn, every silver lining its cloud and every kitchen its onion.
Launching a personal vendetta against so prevalent a vegetable proved an ambitious task for a child barely at the age of reason. Had I been a little older, possessed of more life experience, perhaps I would have chosen beets or eggplant as the enemy. They’re much easier to tackle. For one thing they aren’t served all that often, and when they are, you can spot them a mile away and begin evasive maneuvers well in advance: not hungry… could I please have only a little… I think I have a stomach ache… But onions insinuate themselves into everything: spaghetti, soup, meatballs, grilled cheese sandwiches. You name it, you can — and for some reason people always do — put onion in it.
Onions are full of subterfuge. There you are, virtuously digging into your boiled spinach, when out tumble the transparent, sautéed chunks, freezing you with horror; or helping yourself to a generous portion of salad when you get that sixth sense that something is watching you — sure enough, a sliced onion peering up evilly from beneath a lettuce leaf. And then no sauce can ever be taken at face value. Trust, but verify, as Ronald Reagan said; a delicate investigation with the tines of the fork may ferret out suspicious lumps. Nothing but dessert is safe.
But sadly the anti-onionist is frequently obliged to go without. It’s quietly suggested to the young recalcitrant that dessert will only be served to those who do not spend the majority of their meal meticulously screening their food for trace quantities of onion and segregating contaminated elements into a small tailings pile on the side of the plate. But principles are principles. If you’re willing to eat your onions just because there’s strawberry cheesecake for dessert, you’re clearly not convicted of the righteousness of your cause. Your true anti-onionist will take principle over dessert any day of the week.
Inauspicious though these beginnings were, I got over the hate part of my love-hate relationship with the onion eventually. A number of factors were involved, including French cuisine (where onions take on a buttery, milky, anxious-to-please mien it’s hard to be really angry with) and the short-story author O. Henry. I recall puzzling over his story ‘The Third Ingredient’, in which just-fired Hetty spends her last few cents on beef before heading back to the brownstone (then a dwelling for the impecunious) to make a hot, savory stew, get a good night’s sleep and face the job market in the morning. But alas, the potato sack is empty, and so is the onion bag. She convinces a lovelorn, equally broke neighbor to contribute two potatoes, but onion they have none.
The inadequacy of an onionless stew preys on Hetty’s mind as the plot builds and the beef simmers. ‘There’s certain things in life that are naturally intended to fit and belong together,’ she muses. ‘One is pink cheese-cloth and green roses, and one is ham and eggs, and one is Irish and trouble. And the other one is beef and potatoes with onions.’ Finally, stepping out into the corridor for some reason, she is stopped dead in her tracks by the sight of an onion, a ‘pink, smooth, solid, shining onion as large around as a ninety-eight-cent alarm-clock’, walking down the corridor clutched firmly in its owner’s hand. The violins start wailing up high, and both Hetty and the reader know just one thing — that onion is predestined for her stew. But how will the mysterious workings of Providence make it happen?
You’ll have to read it. The point brought home to me, though, was that there are people who really, really love onions and find them irreplaceable in both the universe and stews, and that it is possible to sympathize with their sentiments without necessarily sharing them. But sympathy soon leads to empathy, and I was forced to conclude, after some cautious culinary experiments, that Hetty was right: a stew needs an onion. It fills in the gaps between the flavors.
I still objected to its texture and sharpness, but I noticed that when its essence was released into a recipe, it infused a certain affability, a smoothness, a je ne sais quoi into proceedings, like Chuck Norris dealing with a feminist rally. There’s the beef declaring she doesn’t need a man, and the peppers using unladylike language in order to sound tough, and the red wine remarking loudly about the pay gap and declaring she can do anything white wine can do and do it better — and then in strolls the onion, exuding relaxed suavity, cigar smoke and can-do attitude. Instantly everyone feels better. Potshots still fly, but all in good fun; the lemon zest languishing in the corner perks up, the peppers clean up their act and the beef realizes she doesn’t have to prove anything — she’s filet mignon, and she’s got this. The unifying onion paradoxically makes each personality shine. We go from cutthroat competition to dazzling dinner party. It’s a wonderful world.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s June 2021 World edition.