Onions, Garlic and Shallots

When early man first discovered that flavors could be added to that bland, tasteless glob of matter that they ate to sustain life, one of the very first plants to be gathered and soon thereafter cultivated for the purpose of having better tasting food and to add to and improve other foods to make them taste better, was the onion. From the earliest consumption of wild onions and thereafter the widespread cultivation of onions, their use spread among peoples and cultures around the world, and as society developed, it become next to impossible to find a people or a country where the onion was not consumed in one form or another.

The onion has been cultivated as a food crop for over 5,000 years, dating back to Central Asia. These areas also saw the early use and cultivation of the onion's close relatives and partners in food crime, garlic and shallots. In China, onion also became popular and cultivated on a large scale in the same time frame - around 3000 before the Common Era. Onion varieties first popular in China were the bunch onions, similar to today's green onions or scallions, with bulb onions being introduced not until perhaps 2500 years later, when along with garlic they were brought in from India.

Beyond their use in cooking, onions have had additional places in world cultures, imbued with symbolic meanings and religious connotations. Perhaps the quality of onions and their pervasive use around the world developed in part due to this, as they have over and over throughout history been given the best fields for planting and rendered the best of care
Onions, Garlic, Shallots
and resources in their cultivation. Some societies have immortalized the onion in works of art and various religions have used the onion in various rituals, even using it in herbalistic and shamanistic medicine. Vedic writings from ancient India say that onions were grown in "the gods' best fields". Evidence from the same basic time frame demonstrate the popularity and importance of onions in ancient Egyptian society and culture, as onions were found to have been depicted in hieroglyphics and in the decorations on the walls of pyramids. When the mummy of Rameses IV was unearthed, it was found to have onions in its eye sockets. Onions reportedly were placed in tombs as food for the journeys of the deceased into the "next world", and Greek historians have written that Egyptian laborers were paid in "black radishes, red onions and garlic."

But yet, there are in history civilizations that saw instead the evil side of the onion, considering the plant taboo and even the possessor of evil powers, and some societies have even seen the onion banned, in part due to the effect it has on the breath. Contrary to that, however, the ancient Egyptians believed the passage of the odor of the onion through the body to be a sign of good health, and in women, of fertility. The Greeks also believed in the power of the onion to promote health and virility, and their athletes and soldiers were not just provided onions to eat, but they were expected to rub onion juice on their bodies. In Roman times, an interesting dichotomy developed, as onions were a food staple of the poor, resulting in distain and contempt among the elite for those of lower classes who reeked of onion or of garlic, which was thought far worse, even being called "more poisonous than hemlock" by the poet Horace. As the Romans spread throughout Europe, however, they brought with them the onion and the other edible alliums, immensely increasing their popularity to new lands.

Many allium crops including onions, garlic, and especially the leek were to find a home in the fields and gardens of Britain, as their hardy nature helped them flourish through cold, hard winters, and in France, onions became associated with sexual potency. An immense French trade in onions and garlic developed, and for hundreds of years, French onion sellers were
Onions In Ancient Egypt
Lekue Silicone Springform Loaf Pan
seen not just in the western continent, but also throughout much of Britain, amongst them purveyors of onions cycling from one British town to the next.

However, by the 17th century, both culturally and religiously onions and garlic and their close relatives began to lose some of their exalted stature. Believers in the "Great Chain of Being" saw bulb vegetables as inanimate objects at the lowest level of existence, and society's elite, while continuing to enjoy haute cuisine with cooked onions, garlic, shallots, leeks, and the like, they ultimately saw the consumption of such vegetables in their raw form as a vulgar and lecherous practice of the lower class, and ultimately as a taboo. Eventually, they were reduced to a stature of peasant food, unsuitable for middle or upper classes in any form.

That taboo grew, and for as long as three hundred years the disdain for the odors associated with onions and garlic and their kin controlled, and throughout "modern" Europe and the new nations of North America, and even into Asia, those odors were not tolerated in polite society, and the consumption of such wonderful vegetables, previously honored and appreciated, were now thought to be a mark of socially inferior members of society. Stronghold, however, remained the areas of the Mediterranean, where people of that region remained strong and dedicated in their pervasive use of onions and garlic, and also in France, where it would have taken a lot more to remove from the cuisine such wonderful elements as the onion, as garlic, as the shallot. They remained, then and forever, integral parts of French cooking, even among the aristocracy. Admittedly, there was a brief time when Parisian snobs bit into the anti-onion/anti-garlic soup, but that lasted not long. In Spain, there developed mixed beliefs, but the prevailing thought mirrored an old saying loosely translated as "A stew without onion is like a dance without music".

Why did the pervasive usage of onions, garlic and the like remain stable, and actually expand, over centuries, in countries such as France, Italy, and the like, while in other parts of the world - Britain, Northern Europe, North America, Asia - their usage declined, based so much on elitism rather than on taste or changing appetites? In his great book "Onion", author Brian Glover posits that it had much to do with the rapid pace of industrialization and movement to big cities in parts of the world, leaving behind and in the past many such elements of regional, rural, peasant cooking styles.

But, by the late 20th century, cooking with onions and garlic and shallots and their relatives increased dramatically across much of the world, particularly in North America and Britain, due to factors that include the realization of the substantial health benefits of the inclusion of such ingredients in meals on a regular basis and of the migration into such areas of large numbers of people from those "other" regions where the use of such ingredients never, ever waned. As the world of food was turned on its ear, by the last quarter of the twentieth century, the odor of onion and garlic became not a taboo to be disdained, but rather the mark of sophistication and trendiness.

Today's family of onions, the alliaceae order, contains more than 300 varieties, though not all are edible, but all of which do feature a similar characteristic, that pungent odor that is due to the release of allicins that on one hand produce unstoppable eye-watering, and that on the other, for the edible varieties, that produces that unmistakable taste that transforms and intensifies the flavors of dishes the world over.

See Installment Two: The Magic Bulb: Garlic Then and Now
Installment Three - Shallots - Coming Soon
Unless otherwise stated, quotes are from "Onion", by Brian Glover ©2001 Anness Publishing

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