The Periodical Pickle
As I was digging into the history of the onion, I was amazed at all the different and weird ways onions have been used throughout time. Onions are a pungent vegetable with a lot of character, so it’s no wonder that strong opinions and strange properties have been associated with the onion. Even my Great Aunt Mary would tell me the secret behind her verve and longevity was her beloved pickled red onions!
1. Combat and Competition
Onions have long been associated with strength. In Ancient Greece, soldiers and athletes ate an onion-heavy diet because onions promoted power and vigor from the gods. Not only did Greek Olympians consume lots of onions (raw, cooked, even juiced!), they also rubbed onion paste on their bodies. Roman gladiators were even massaged with onion juice before entering the Coliseum “for strength!”
But we don’t need to look all that far back in history to see onions used for strength. In the Civil War, onions were not just a staple in the soldiers’ diet, but onion juice was commonly used as an antiseptic to treat gunshot wounds and powder burns. When he ran out of onions during the war, General Grant sent a cantankerous memo to the War Department in Washington declaring, “I will not move my troops without onions.” Grant was immediately sent three railcars full of onions.
2. Alliums for Ailments
From the Egyptians to the Elizabethans, onions have been used to treat all sorts of ailments throughout history. The Romans believed onions could treat a wide range of illnesses and perhaps the most fascinating accounting of this was written by Pliny the Elder, a famous Roman naturalist and philosopher living in 1st century A.D. He described 27 ailments that could be treated using onions, from vision problems to scorpion stings to dysentery! Pliny wrote, “The cultivated onion is employed for the cure of dimness of sight, the patient being made to smell at it till tears come into the eyes: it is still better even if the eyes are rubbed with the juice.” I imagine those Ancient Roman patients said they were cured just to avoid further treatments!
In 6th Century India, onions were deemed helpful for the heart, joints and indigestion. In Elizabethan England onions were used to soothe blisters, hemorrhoids, and many other health issues. You can still find claims online today about onions curing hemorrhoids.
In more recent times, science has shown that onions are extremely good for health as a potent antioxidant and nutrient-dense food. One unusual benefit of onions that surprised me came from a 2002 study (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12126069/) that tested onion juice as a topical therapy for baldness. And it worked!! Which begs a question for those of us who are hair-challenged: is it more attractive to have a full head of hair, even if it stinks of onions? Or should I just go bald?
The vast array of other proven health benefits of onions are too many to list here (perhaps in a future post).
3. Onions as a Fertility Test?
The Ancient Egyptians used the onion as a fertility test for women.According to the Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus (the oldest known medical text in Egypt), an onion would be inserted into the woman’s vagina and if her breath smelled like onions the next day, it indicated she was fertile (we don’t recommend relying on this as a form of fertility test, or even trying it…)
Can you imagine paying your rent with onions? At times, onions were so valuable, you could do just that. During the Dark and Middle Ages in Europe, onions were more valuable than coins and could be used as a form of currency.
Even though here at Boone’s we love onions, we wouldn’t go so far to say they inspire love-making. But believe it or not, onions have been considered an aphrodisiac and virility-booster throughout history. And now science is backing that up. Various studies have shown that eating onions (or onion extract) enhances testosterone in male humans and rats. So bring some Boone's for your next date!
In Ancient Greece, onions played a powerful role in protecting against spirit possession, maladies, and the evil eye. To this day, it is a Greek New Year’s eve tradition to hang onions by the front door and wake up the children by tapping them on the head with an onion. This is said to bring growth, rebirth, prosperity, and luck in the year to come.
 “Testosterone in Males as Enhanced by Onion (Allium Cepa L.)” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6406961/
In the 1st millennia B.C. (that is, after 1,000 BC), onions became ubiquitous in the written records of human history. This allows us to understand the remarkable importance and popularity of onions in early civilizations. The Israelites described onions in the Bible and the ancient Sanskrit text on Ayurveda, the Charaka Samhita, promoted onions as one of the most important remedies for heart, joint, and digestive illnesses. Alexander the Great brought onions from Egypt back to Greece in the 4th century B.C. It was believed that strong food produced strong men and Alexander the Great made sure his armies were eating a diet high in onions for fortitude.
After Rome conquered Greece, the onion became a staple in the Roman diet. The oldest surviving cookbook, originally titled De Re Coquinaria and attributed to the 1st century A.D. Roman gourmet, Marcus Gavius Apicius mentions onions over 100 times! It is fascinating to peruse (check it out here: https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/29728/pg29728-images.html)
The Romans introduced the onion to the rest of Europe, from Italy to Spain, the Balkans, Central Europe, and England. Excavations of the destroyed city of Pompeii revealed a complex network of onion production, as confirmed by many Roman historians. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe entered into the Dark and Middle ages where the main sources of food for entire populations were beans, cabbage, and onions. During that time, the onion was heavily used as both food and medicine, and was often more valuable than money!
With the Renaissance and the new trade routes in the Age of Exploration, onion cultivation was spread around the world as Europeans planted onions everywhere they went. According to some records, onions were the first vegetable planted by the colonists who invaded North America. But onions weren’t new to the indigenous North Americans; many indigenous peoples had been foraging wild onions for centuries, perhaps millennia. Interestingly, the name “Chicago” has been traced to an Algonquin word shikaakwa (also seen spelled cigaga and che-cau-gou) meaning “skunk weed place” because so many wild onions grew in the area.
Today, onions are grown and eaten around the world more than any other vegetable! It is one of the only truly global ingredients. So next time you slice up an onion, remember you are part of a long tradition and worldwide culinary practice.
Can you imagine a world without onions? It makes us cry just thinking about it! The onion has played a critical role over the course human history, not only in food, but also in medicine and religion. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, onions are part of our DNA as humans.
The origins of the first onions remain a mystery with many layers. Many archaeologists believe wild onions grew native to central Asia, while other research suggests onions grew first in Iran and West Pakistan. Paleoarcheobotanists* have discovered traces of onions in the remains of human settlements dating back to 5,500 BC in China, Egypt, and India. This geographic range shows the onion was widespread by then, so it’s likely that prehistoric humans were eating wild onions thousands of years before that!
The first archeological evidence of onion cultivation has been traced to Ancient Egypt around 3000 BC, making it one of the earliest cultivated crops. And it’s really no wonder they became a popular crop back then; onions could be stored for long periods, added much-needed flavor to otherwise bland foods (long before spices were widely available), and grow well under all different conditions.
While many cultures used onions as food and medicine, the ancient Egyptians took their admiration for onions to another level. It’s not an overstatement to say that onions were revered in ancient Egypt, holding deep spiritual power and meaning. Researchers believe the round shape and concentric rings symbolized eternal life to the ancient Egyptians. Onions were depicted in paintings on ancient pyramid walls and used in religious and funerary ceremonies. They were even a part of mummification! In one extraordinary example, the preserved mummy of King Ramesses IV was buried with onions in his eye sockets. According to researchers at the Global Egyptian Museum, “The king's eyes were replaced by artificial ones made of small onions, a unique case in mummification. In addition, each nostril was covered with the skin of an onion; it is possible that onions were used for their well-known antiseptic qualities.” Wow!
The oldest written recipes, carved on clay tablets dating to 1730 BC Mesopotamia, are full of onions. For example, one of the “recipes” that’s been translated from the ancient Akkadian language reads, “Meat is used. You prepare water. You add fine-grained salt, dried barley cakes, onion, Persian shallot, and milk. You crush and add leek and garlic.” That’s almost all the alliums in one dish!
For my next post, we will pick up on the history of the onion with its proliferation around the ancient world in the 1st millennia B.C.
* What the heck is a paleoarcheobotanist? These are archeologists who specialize in the study of ancient plant remains and investigate the ways humans have interacted with plants throughout time. Sounds like a very cool job!
Did you know Boone’s is in an incubator!?
No, we are not a baby chicken. We’re a fledgling food business in a food incubator!
So what is a food incubator? A food incubator helps new food entrepreneurs develop their businesses, build assets, and achieve benchmarks towards business stability. It may be run by a nonprofit or a for-profit business.
Being part of the “Alchemist Kitchen Incubator Program” over the past year has been awesome. With the support of the Incubator, I have launched my business and been able to meet many goals for my business along the way. Boone’s was one of a handful of new, local Sacramento food businesses that were in the inaugural group and now we have grown to ten businesses in AKIP.
Jacob Sacks is the coordinator of the incubator program. With his steady, loyal, good-natured demeanor, he is a supportive and calming ally to all of us. Jacob has been an important part of the Boone's journey. When I have a small success or get over a hurdle, Jacob shares in my excitement. He helps motivate me through the slumps and slogs, through paperwork and logistical details. Jacob is great at steady prodding when I need it. He is always there for me to bounce ideas off. If I’m stuck on a question and Jacob also doesn’t know the answer, he has a network of other people and organizations who can usually help. There are so many things to learn when starting any business, and it’s especially tough as a solo entrepreneur. So it’s critical to have a team on your side.
In May, the Alchemist Incubator took the huge step of renting a shared commercial kitchen. So Boone’s operates out of a large kitchen shared with other new food businesses. Besides the benefit of subsidized (lower) kitchen rental rates, the shared kitchen has really increased comradery and information-sharing among us. More on the shared kitchen in another upcoming post!
I highly recommend aspiring entrepreneurs join an incubator if given the opportunity. However, be careful as not all are the same. Some are for-profit and require sharing a percentage of business profits. As with anything, before you sign on the dotted line, make sure you know what you are getting into. I feel very lucky to have the support of Alchemist CDC!
For more info, visit: https://alchemistcdc.org/incubator/
I love pickled red onions for many reasons!
Last year, my partner and I hosted two young transgender women from Honduras while they applied for asylum and acclimated to life in America. They had just been released from ICE detention when they flew to Sacramento to live with us. The ladies had been through so much, having walked from Honduras to escape violence, and very little was familiar to them. But when I brought out a jar of my pickled red onions for one of our first meals together, their faces lit up. They excitedly spoke in Spanish too fast for me to comprehend, but I didn’t need to understand the words to know that this was a food they both knew well. They started showing us photos on their phones of various Honduran dishes with pickled red onions, talking longingly and passionately about their favorites. From then on, I had a team of in-house onion tasters!
Pickled red onions connect people from around the world because they are a very cross-cultural food. This is another reason I think pickled red onions are wonderful!
Here are some other examples of pickled red onions from around the world…
In both northern and southern Indian cuisine, pickled red onions are served alongside roti (flatbread), tandoori dishes, and many other meals. They are called sirka pyaz or sirke wale pyaaz in Hindi. Often the red onions used are a small baby onion. They are made with white vinegar, sugar, beet (for more vibrant color) and a spicy pepper. Some recipes add more interesting ingredients like ginger, cloves, and even cardamom.
In Scandanavian cuisine, pickled red onions (picklad rödlök in Swedish) are very common, as are many pickled foods. According to Swedish celebrity chef Niklas Ekstedt, “A Swedish feast cannot be without pickles.” The standard vinegar pickling solution starts with a super strong vinegar called ättika. The general Swedish rule for pickling is 1-2-3: 1 part ättika, 2 parts sugar, and 3 parts water.
In South America, there are many variations of pickled red onions, or cebollas encurtidas. They seem to be particularly ubiquitous in Ecuadorian cuisine where red onions are pickled in a variety of ways, with vinegar or lime juice. In Ecuador, they use a special type of red onion, called cebolla paitena, that is actually a red shallot. I’ve heard the flavor described as more between a garlic and an onion. This multi-bulbed allium has over the years been replaced by the more common red onion and there is now a concerted effort in Ecuador to bring back the traditional cebollas paitenas.
Pickled red onions accompany many Middle Eastern dishes, where sumac is often added to give extra tartness and lemony flavor. In Egypt, where onions were first depicted as a food in tombs 5300 years old, pickled red onions (basal mekhalel) are common. Throughout Central America, pickled red onions (cebollas en escabeche) are a condiment found on most restaurant tables. And, of course, pickled red onions accompany dishes across the spectrum of classic and “New American” foods, like BBQ, soul food, hamburgers, sandwiches, and salads.
Wow, these are just some of the cuisines where pickled red onions are found! Now that we live in a globalized world with so many fusions, the possibilities for pickled red onions are endless. Please send me a note if you have had pickled red onions with a type of food not mentioned!
She always had a giant jar of pickled red onions in the fridge and she’d put them on everything. She’d say the key to her good health was her long brisk walks and those special red onions. As a kid with a pretty stifled culinary curiosity, I had no interest in trying them despite Aunt Mary’s overtures.
After Aunt Mary passed away at the age of 90, I was sorting through her stuff and came across her old well-loved Joy of Cooking cookbook. Flipping through the pages, looking at her little notes in perfect cursive, a clipping fell to the floor. It was the recipe for her marinated red onions! I had to make them.
Wow, I couldn’t believe how good those onions were! All those years I rejected them, thinking onions were gross. They quickly became a staple on my dinner table, and I started tinkering with the recipe and sharing with friends. Eight years later, I began this venture, Boone’s Red Onions. Our Classic variety is a variation on my Aunt Mary’s old recipe. I think we’ve got it perfected and I hope you agree!