The Allium genus includes some of my favorite purveyors of flavor, including garlic, shallots, leeks, scallions, and onions. It is hard to imagine cooking without these fragrant, vibrant plants. And in fact, no one has ever really had to, because wild members of the allium genus grow worldwide. That’s why, even though onions as we know them arrived in the Americas with European explorers, we still ended up with Native American words that refer to a place where wild onions were causing a stink: the Potawatomi word checagou, which means “place that stinks of wild onions,” and the Menominee word shika’ko, which means “skunk place,” which actually referred to the smell of the wild onions. We’re not sure which of these words was the derivation of Chicago, but the point is, there were a lot of wild onions growing here long before domesticated onions made it over with European settlers.

Of the 325 species within the allium genus, onion is probably the most widely used today. Its antiquity makes it hard to pinpoint its origin, and scholars disagree on its starting point, but let’s just say “the Old World,” because it was somewhere around Central Asia or the Middle East or maybe even the eastern Mediterranean that it first came into use.

Fortunately, with the rise of civilization, onions became easier to track. The Sumerians were writing about them in cuneiform around 3000 BC. Mesopotamians loved onions. Hammurabi considered onions so important that, in his famous code, he stipulated a monthly ration of onions for the poor. They were most commonly sliced and eaten raw on bread. (Mesopotamians considered onions to be virtually a panacea—and they actually weren’t far from being right. Onions are antibiotic, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, contain a powerful antioxidant that also acts as a sedative, and can lower your cholesterol. Definitely strong medicine.)

The Egyptians were great onion eaters, and the onion is the plant that appears most often in Egyptian art. (They didn’t just eat onions; when preparing a corpse for burial, Egyptians used small onions to replace eyeballs in mummies.)

The man on the street in ancient Rome was addicted to raw onion on bread for breakfast, and while the Romans viewed onions as largely for the average to low-class citizen, the cookbook author Apicius, who wrote for the wealthy, used onions in his sauces.

China loved and loves onions. The “three strong-flavored seasoners” of Beijing-style cooking are onions, garlic, and ginger.

Appreciation of onions was widespread in England by the 1200s at the latest, and by Elizabethan times, onions and leeks were the most popular vegetables in England. So it’s not too surprising that the British brought onions with them to the New World. The first known planting of the introduced Eurasian Allium cepa was in Massachusetts in 1648. Even though the Americas have numerous varieties of wild onion, it is the Allium cepa that has become the dominant onion in the United States, and indeed throughout the Americas.

©2009 Cynthia Clampitt
This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in
Hungry Magazine.


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Filed under culinary history, Food, Geography, History, Nutrition

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