More than you ever wanted to know about onionsBy Sharon Brown (Sharran)
January 3, 2010
I don't know who I thought I was hiding from when I donned my bonnet and wrapped that bandana around my face. There were only a handful of people who lived up my holler, and chances are they couldn't even see me out in the garden anyway. But just in case they did, they would never know it was me, I thought. I did not like the scent of onions and for some reason, I did not want anybody to know that I had to gather them. When my mother fried liver and onions, I thought I might have to leave home. I didn't want to live in a house that smelled of onions. I could smell that odor for days afterward, the scent got in my clothes, in my hair, in my nose and simply would not go away. I vowed that when I grew up, I would never ever have a thing to do with onions. Several years later, when I began my studies in ancient cultures, my opinion of onions took on a whole different direction. Here are some things I learned about that stinky little vegetable.
According to the Greek historian Herodotus, nine tons of gold were spent buying onions to feed the builders of the pyramids, so popular was this vegetable in ancient Egypt. Much to the amusement of the conquering Romans, the Egyptians even offered the onion bulb as a sacrifice. As far back as the Bronze Age settlements, traces of onion remains were found alongside fig and date stones that date back to 5000 BC. Archaeological and literary evidence, such as that found in the book of Numbers (11:5) suggest that the cultivation of both onions and garlic took place about two thousand years later in ancient Egypt. There is some strong opinion that the workers who built the Egyptian pyramids may have been fed radishes and onions.
So enthralled were the Egyptians with the onion, they buried Ramesses IV with onions in his eye sockets. They believed that the strong scent of onions would bring breath back to the dead. Greek athletes ate large quantities of onion to lighten their blood. The gladiators of Rome were rubbed down with onion, the belief was that it firmed up their muscles. During the middle ages, people used onions as a form of money, and would give onions as gifts. It was also used as a charm against evil spirits and the plague during the middle ages. Finally, the onion was introduced to North America by Christopher Columbus on his expedition of 1492.
Allium cepa grows well in rich garden soil. It is cultivated worldwide and may have escaped cultivation in some places. It is a perennial herb rising from a bulb. The plant can grow as high as 4 feet, and has four to six hollow cylindrical leaves. The greenish white flowers bloom in June and July, and they grow in globular solitary umbels, about a half inch across on a long hollow cylindrical stalk.
Onions continue to be very popular around the globe. They are available fresh, frozen, canned, pickled, powdered, chopped and dehydrated. I cannot think of another food that is quite as affluent as the onion. I have not found even one culture that does not use onion as either a food in itself or as a seasoning. For such a small plant, and one that I avoided like the worst plague when I was little, it surely did weave itself into everybody's taste palette. Not only has the onion held its own in the food world, so has it been of great interest in the world of medicine.
Over the years, there have been various claims that onions have successfully cured one disease or another. Those cures have ranged from the common cold to heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, and various other diseases. Onions contain chemical compounds believed to have anti-inflammatory, anticholesterol, anticancer and antioxidant properties. None of these claims have ever been proven scientifically. However, there seems to have been some success stories on the effect of onion as a remedy for skin surface problems, such as infections and boils, or in the healing of incisions. Claims have been made that scar tissue can be greatly reduced through the use of onion on the skin surface.
Sulphur compounds give onions and garlic their sharp flavor and aroma, which folk healers thought were indications that the juice of the plant could prevent infection. They are certainly rich in vitamins, including thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2) and vitamin C. Native Americans used the juice from the onions as a spring tonic, and it has been said that frontiersmen knew that a sure way to locate Indian encampments in spring was to follow the heavy onion scent that clung to the area.
I always cried when I gathered onions. Cells are broken when they are sliced, and that allows enzymes called alliinases to break down amino acid sulphoxides and generate sulphenic acids. Sulphenic acids are unstable and rearrange into a volatile gas called syn-propanethial-S-oxide. The gas diffuses through the air and eventually reaches the eye, where it reacts with the water to form a diluted solution of sulphuric acid. This irritates the nerve endings in the eye, then tear glands produce tears to dilute and flush out the irritant.  When cutting onions, it is best to do so under running water.
So you see, onions made me cry, and onions smelled terribly bad, and I was the one who had to gather them and bring them in from the garden. In my little world, I cared how I smelled, and I did not want to smell like onions. When Mom fried onions, it seemed that I smelled like onions for days. I could smell onions from houses that I passed, when they were being fried for the evening meal. The scent would be in the air whenever Dad mowed the grass, I could smell those things a mile away, and I could not possibly go around smelling of onions! So it is no wonder that I covered myself from head to foot seeking a way to avoid the scent of the onions I had to gather.
My mother said: "It's hot outside, you don't need all those clothes on today, you're just going out to gather onions."
My grandmother said: "Honey, take that bonnet and that bandana off, your hair'll just be a sweaty mess if you go out like that."
Aunt Bett said: "Well, you dressin' up like a scarecrow today, little 'un? I do b'lieve you're gonna have to grow a little before you can scare away anything."
And my silly dog Pepper barked and ran away when she saw me with a bandana over my nose.
OK, for the sake of honesty, I realize now that it irritated my mother terribly when I walked in to dinner on onion days with that bandana across my nose. I am a mother, so I know how she must have felt.
Now that I think about it, the year of the bandana might have taken place at the same time I was a fair Indian princess. It was the year I wanted a horse for Christmas, too, but couldn't talk Uncle Dock into letting me have his old mule. Maybe I watched too many Saturday westerns and confused bandanas with head bands that held feathers in place in my hair. Who knows? At the time it seemed to be the right thing to do to keep the odor of onions out of my nose. There was nothing I hated more on a beautiful spring day than the scent of onions, or to come home from school and smell them cooking in he kitchen. My opinion about that has never changed, and my collection of bandanas has only grown in proportion to the assorted colors of hats that adorn my hair these days. I still do not like the scent of onions, but I happily eat them in salads and soups. I sure am glad I didn't grow up in Egypt all those years ago.
Magic and Medicine of Plants, The Reader's Digest Inc., 1986
Photos come from Plant Files, thanks to Dave for the thumbnail, Revlar for the bloom, and Farmerdill for the group of brown skinned onions. The red onions photo is from Wikipedia's Public Domain.