The history of food is becoming more and more popular as (naturally) time goes on. In a world where fusion cuisine reigns King, multiculturalism and globalization are at the tips of tongues, it makes sense that we would attempt to understand the origins of our respective cuisines.
It’s well-known that onions aren’t typically enjoyed by themselves. While their flavor is a staple of most kitchens, the vegetable (or fruit? or bulb?) is merely an additive to a more-than-likely complex meal in most cases and thus, not given the credit that it is undoubtedly due. Perhaps some of the best examples of onions soaring to the heavens of potential are a nice onion soup, or even a “blooming onion” from an over-priced and not-so appetizing Australian chain.
The history of food tells a very different story of the onion, however. Thankfully, this vegetable that ultimately “makes us cry every time”, gets a current opportunity to shine in our memories of yesteryear.
The word itself comes to us from it’s Latin root “unio”. When compared to the Spanish word “uno”, it becomes clear that the meaning of onion is simply “one”. But, “why ‘one’?”, one might wonder (yes that was on purpose). Think unity, union, one.
The onion has long been a symbol of unity, because it is composed of many layers (and lines, of course), but is still confined to one single vegetable. One union-ous bulb, if you will.
It stands that great civilizations have come to revere the onion as a magnificent symbol in this way. After all, what society doesn’t wish to be unified in harmony?
The Egyptians, perhaps the inhabitants of the most revered and studied ancient civilization of all time, were so fond of this symbol of unification, they actually took oaths and pledges while one hand was placed upon an onion. For those of us today who take vows and words of sincerest meaning with hands over sacred books, we need no analogy to understand the importance of the onion in Egyptian society.
Later, the Byzantine Empire made unique architectural history with their onion-shaped domes. It seems as if the Egyptians weren’t the only tremendously successful civilization with an affinity for a particular vegetable. These domes eventually made their way into architecture all over the Middle East, Russia, Asia and everywhere in between. These buildings are truly pieces of art that are highly revered around the world for there iconic design.
In Medieval Times, otherwise known as the Middle Ages, onions were so valuable that they were often used as bartering tools to pay rent, acquire other foods and goods and were even given as wedding presents. In a developing culinary world, the vegetable was truly a symbol of sustenance. During this time of widespread health concerns and turbulent ways of life, the onion came to mean much more than mere societal unification. It ultimately began to embody a source of nourishment in the age that experienced Roman-Persian Wars, the Hundred-Years War, and let’s not forget, Black Death.
In the American Civil War, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman‘s troops were in a bad way. The top of the list of goods they demanded from the Government’s rations cabinet? Onions. Turns out that not only did they serve the troops in the form of a culinary staple, easily formed into an array of field foods, but the onions also doubled useful as an antiseptic for wounds. In this way, onions can be credited in part with salvaging the continental United States in the dead center of sectionalism and its associated tribulations.
In short, the history of the onion is a long and interesting one that encompasses far reaches of the globe. At first glance, everyday objects that seem to have little to offer in terms of historical significance are often the ones with the richest of origins and timelines.