Onions, members of the lily, or allium, family, are one of the oldest known cultivated vegetables and are among the world’s most popular vegetables, with nearly 50 million tons grown annually. Average per person annual onion consumption worldwide is about 13.7 pounds of onions; in the U.S. it is about 18.6 pounds, while Libya has the highest consumption with an astounding 66.8 pounds.
Our word "onion” comes from the Middle English “unyun”, which in turn comes from the French “oignon”, ultimately deriving from the Latin "unio", meaning one or unity, because an onion grows as a single bulb.
Ancient names for the onion in Sanskrit, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin are apparently unrelated, showing that onions have been cultivated independently in many far-flung places as far back as prehistoric times.
Here’s how to ask for an onion in:
Onions grew in Chinese gardens as early as 5,000 years ago and they are referred to in some of the oldest writings from India.
Sumerian text dated to about 2,500 B.C. tells of someone plowing over the city governor's onion patch.
The Mesopotamians, who built the ancient city of Ur about 2,100 B.C., left accounts of onions being grown in gardens.
Frugal Egyptian peasants adopted the onion to relieve the monotony of their diet, often eating them raw. Egyptian onions were said to be large, white and mild.
The Pharaoh Cheops paid for labor on the Great Pyramid in onions, garlic, and parsley.
Egyptian mummies set out for the afterlife with a stock of onions carefully wrapped in bandages, looking like another little mummy.
Ancient Egyptian leaders took an oath of office with their right hand on an onion.
As early as the building of the Pyramids, the onion was a part of the basic rations for sailors because it helped to prevent scurvy during long voyages without fresh foods. Army quartermasters valued it for the same reasons.
In ancient Egypt, the onion symbolized eternity because of its circle-within-a-circle structure. Paintings of onions appear on the inner walls of the pyramids and in the tombs of both the Old Kingdom and the New Kingdom.
The onion is mentioned as an Egyptian funeral offering and is depicted on the banquet tables of the great feasts. Frequently, a priest is pictured holding onions in his hand or covering an altar with a bundle of their leaves or roots.
During their desert sojourn, the ancient Hebrews wept for the lack of the onions they became accustomed to eating in Egypt. In Numbers 11:5, the children of Israel lament the meager desert diet enforced by the Exodus: “We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic.”
The onion was an essential part of the diet of the Greeks and the Phoenicians.
The Greeks used onions to fortify athletes for the Olympic Games. Before competition, athletes would consume pounds of onions, drink onion juice and rub onions on their bodies.
By the first century A.D. many varieties of onion were known: long, round, red, yellow, white, both strong and mild types.
The Romans were passionately fond of onions, which they pickled in honey and vinegar. Because one of its virtues was to stimulate thirst, the Romans ate onions throughout the meal.
The Franks are said to have eaten onions as avidly as they drained tankards of beer.
The Romans ate onions regularly and carried them on journeys to their provinces in England and Germany. They believed the onion would cure vision problems, induce sleep, and heal mouth sores, dog bites, toothaches, dysentery and lumbago.
Pliny the Elder, Rome's keen-eyed observer, wrote of Pompeii's onions and cabbages, before he was overcome and killed by the volcano's heat and fumes. Excavators at Pompeii found gardens where onions had grown: the bulbs had left behind telltale cavities in the ground.
The Roman gourmet Apicius, credited with writing one of the first cookbooks (which dates to the eighth and ninth centuries A.D.), included many references to onions.
In France, above the Loire, butter and onions rule; in the south they are more likely to be eaten as a vegetable than used for its flavor in cooking. Onion tart and onion soup are typical dishes of northern France.
In Paris, there is said to be a religious sect of Worshippers of the Onion, duly registered with the authorities.
A French Soubise sauce, made with onions and often thickened with rice, is named after an 18th-century prince of the Soubise family. The sauce was usually served with lamb or mutton.
In French cuisine glazed (or caramelized) onions form part of several classic garnishes: Bourguignonne with glazed onions, fried mushrooms and bacon dice,
Nivernaise with glazed onions, carrots and turnips, braised lettuce and boiled potatoes
Bourgeoise with glazed onions, carrots and bacon dice.
The first Pilgrims brought onions with them on the Mayflower, and onions were eaten at the first Thanksgiving dinner. The colonists planted bulb onions in 1648, as soon as they were able to clear the land.
Native American Indians used wild onions in a variety of ways, eating them raw or cooked, as a seasoning or as a vegetable, in syrups, as poultices, for dyeing and even as toys.
George Washington enjoyed onions cored, stuffed with mincemeat, and baked like apples.
During the Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant sent an urgent message to the War Department: “I will not move my army without onions.” The very next day, three train loads of onions were on their way to the front.
Men eat 40 percent more onions than women, so cook with lots of onions to make your man happy. (according to the USDA)
During the Middle Ages onions were worth so much that they were used to pay rent and were given as wedding gifts.
On one trip, Captain James Cook refused to sail until each man in his crew had eaten 20 pounds of onions, because he knew that their high content of vitamin C would prevent scurvy on the long voyage ahead.
The onion was an ancient symbol of eternity because of the concentric circles that it contains. For this reason, Russian and other orthodox churches are designed with onion domes, a bulb-shaped dome with a pointy top.
Turkish legend has it that when Satan was cast out of heaven, garlic sprouted where he placed his left foot, an onion where he placed his right foot.
Countless folk remedies ascribe curative powers to onions: An onion under the pillow is thought to fight off insomnia; and chewing a raw onion sterilizes the mouth and wards off colds and sore throat. During World War II, Russian soldiers applied onions to battle wounds as an antiseptic.
“Mine eyes smell onions: I shall weep anon.”
“An honest laborious country-man with good bread, salt, and a little parsley, will make a contented meal with a roasted onion.
“Why is it that the poet tells
The smell of coffee freshly ground;
“It was for bringing the cook tulip-roots instead of onions.”
“For this is every cook's opinion,
“The onion is the truffle of the poor.”
“The onion is the most favored food that grows.”
“I will not move my army without onions.”
“Onions can make even heirs and widows weep.”
“Let first the onion flourish there,
“Onion skins very thin,
“When the onion has three skins, winter will be very cold.”
“Life is like an onion.
“I crawled into the vegetable bin, settled on a giant onion and ate it, skin and all. It must have marked me for life for I have never ceased to love the hearty flavor of onions.”
“It’s hard to imagine a civilization without onions.”
“It’s probably illegal to make soups, stews, and casseroles without plenty of onions.”
“Few sandwiches are better than thinly sliced onions on good buttered homemade bread as a snack or accompaniment to other food.”
“The onion and its satin wrappings is among the most beautiful of vegetables and is the only one that represents the essence of things. It can be said to have a soul.”