It always starts with an onion. Glance at any recipe, and chances are that 90 percent of them will start with an onion, diced. In other words, the drudgery of it all, and the aromatic exuberance start here, with an onion.
And so I will start with an onion, too. Grab one out of your larder; slap down a cutting board; hone a knife or whatever you do to get ready to cook. Cut an onion.
Often, this small act is all you need to get settled in for some serious time in the kitchen. Cutting an onion is the stretch that loosens us up for any number of gratifying dishes that lie ahead.
Alliums were mentioned in records as far back as 3200 BC in Ancient Egypt, and have been extensively cultivated since at least that time. It is safe to say that the human experience has been steeped in onion vapors. Many a child has built memories on an onion put to fire. You don’t find it in the canon of philosophy, but conversations the world over have certainly begun over the table, tinged heartily with the bulb’s humble stink.
Michael Ruhlman buys onions every time he goes to the store because “not having an onion in the kitchen is like working with a missing limb.” I agree. Even when there’s nothing else to work with, you can coax an onion to do some standing, little browned bits of it clinging in butter to the bottom of a pan. Most nights, I could wrap that aroma up around me like a blanket and get to work.
My mother is Italian; my father, Eastern European. Onions were a foundation. On any given night, an onion was the first thing to signal a coming feast. And so it stands to reason that my grandmother, when trying to impart all good womanly knowledge, started with how to fry an onion.
When I was 19, I moved to Hungary for a spell. The cuisine of the Carpathian Basin is filled with a requisite amount of onions, and I ate my fair share in my years abroad. I lived in a youth hostel on the banks of the Buda Hills that we inhabitants affectionately called “The Ghost”. At the Ghost, frying an onion entailed standing on a chair in the closet because that’s where the outlet was located.
A friend and I came in from a steely cold late afternoon, and I invited him over for dinner. He swung by his room for a guitar and sat in the chair singing Dylan songs while I got to work chopping and frying into the folksy, frilly, Hungarian night. Dinner was almost ready, and he got quiet with that greedy, lusty look in his eyes that meant he was hungry.
“Tell me a story,” I said.
“What kind of story?” He asked. He had two different colored eyes, and he always looked right at you when he talked.
“An important one,” I said. “One that’s in your heart.”
He strummed for a few more minutes looking out the window and contemplating. Then he told me the story of Saul the Traveler. The story goes something like this:
Saul the Traveler was an adventurer who took pleasure in the everyday stuff. He loved food and slept soundly every night and made love often. One day, he met someone in his travels who told him of a country where they had never heard of onions. Saul was astounded. He decided then and there to load up a cart and head over to introduce the poor country to the delights of the onion. He traveled for many days and nights, and went straight to the king upon entering the land. He recounted onion’s many virtues, and told the king that he would cook him some onions right away. The king was skeptical, but Saul persisted and told the king he was so sure the onion would delight him that he’d want to trade the weight of the onions for an equal weight in the kingdom’s valuables. The king ate the onions with gusto.
Saul left that day with a cart full of gold.
Upon returning home, a greedy trader heard of Saul’s success and wanted the same kind of fortune for himself. He filled up a cart with garlic, and headed to the allium-deprived kingdom. This traveler, too, cooked up the alliums and asked that if the king loved them, he would fill his cart with the most valuable thing in his kingdom.
The greedy trader went home that day with a cart full of onions.
He finished the story as we sat down on the floor to eat. We had a cheap bottle of Egri Bikavar—Bull’s Blood—between us. The onion hung heavy in the air.