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onions and garlic

27 april 2016

Martha Jay notices something in her lively and lucid global history of onions and garlic that has always bugged me. Recipes and cooking advice often (at least in Britain and America) recommend some way to mitigate the flavor of onions, garlic, and their allium allies. But why would you want to do this? If you think that onions and garlic are nasty, there is a very easy solution: don't cook with them. If you like them, bombs away. American recipes in particular are so squeamish about garlic that it's usually good practice to throw in half again as much as called for.

Onions and garlic are notoriously smelly; "worse," their smell persists in the body after you've swallowed them and brushed your teeth. As I often note, I'm hyposmic and don't mind the odor. And anyone in a longterm or even quite temporary relationship has probably eaten the same onions and garlic as the person they want to get close to, and thus in theory shouldn't even notice. Yet the stigma of onions and garlic persists in the popular imagination. As Jay notes, one factor is social class. Onions and garlic are foods of the poor – or rather, staple foods for the poor, garnishes and flavorings for the rich. If you have to subsist on alliums, you chronically smell of them, so poverty takes on a characteristic onion aroma.

Alliums are a truly global food. Though the varieties on the market today are mostly Old World varieties, there are New World wild garlics that were important in Native diets – one of them, ramps, has recently become a treasured foodie item. Allium canadense is a wild garlic native to Texas, said to be edible; but you have to distinguish it from Nothoscordum bivalve, crowpoison, which is toxic (at least, I suppose, to crows).

As soon as humans kept records of food, alliums started to appear. Jay includes images of cuneiform tablets from ancient Sumeria that mention garlic, onions, and leeks. Onions were plentiful in ancient Egypt, one of the amenities that the Israelites regretted after the Exodus. Homer mentions onions, and Jay mentions that an allium may have been the "moly" that protected Odysseus against the charms of Circe. Chaucer's Summoner eats "garleek, oynons, and eek lekes." The only character in Shakespeare who mentions eating both onions and garlic is Bottom the weaver (104), which fits the class connotations of alliums, Bottom being a rude mechanical. And at that, Bottom only eats them by implication; his opinion is that he and his fellows should leave off eating them before curtain time, so their dialogue will be sweet.

In fact, Shakespeare's few other references to onions are all about their power to evoke tears, and his few other references to garlic all about bad breath – except for Hotspur, who says of the phony magician Glendower:

I had rather live
With cheese and garlic in a windmill, far,
Than feed on cates and have him talk to me
In any summer-house in Christendom. (Henry IV, Part 1 Act 3, Scene 1)
"Cates" are delicacies; garlic the reverse. We're back to class associations that fix garlic firmly at the non-U end of the continuum.

That said, foods have the perpetually renewable potential to cross from lowest to highest or back again, or coexist in gourmet and peasant registers simultaneously. Jay retells the story of how French onion soup made its way from bottom to top of the scale overnight, when King Stanisław of Poland stopped at a rude French roadhouse and was so enamored of the rustic soup there that he introduced it to the court of Versailles. Jay includes the recipe.

My father would not eat onions or garlic – claimed he couldn't digest them – but I don't seem to have inherited his aversion. While he wouldn't eat them in vegetable form, onion and garlic salts and powders, for flavoring, were a common feature of his spice rack, as they'd been of my grandmother's. You could chart my life, if that appealed to you, as a trajectory from dehydrated and pulverized alliums to the real deal. Learning Chinese cookery as a young adult led me to fresh garlic, till then something I had thought of as hopelessly exotic. I relapsed a bit a decade ago when I started to use minced garlic out of jars, a product that gains in convenience and shelf-life what it loses in flavor. But my own son laughed convenience "garlic" to scorn and has gotten me back in the ranks of the fresh.

However little fresh alliums figured in the whitebread/Slavic-immigrant cuisine of my childhood, like Martha Jay I now can't imagine a day when dinner doesn't start with chopping an onion, and usually mincing some garlic beside it. Shallots (really just a cultivar of the common onion, says Jay) and scallions (the spring-onion, early-picked form of other common cultivars) make frequent appearances, as do leeks; and several kinds of chives grow in our garden. We haven't had as much luck growing onions or garlic. They don't form bulbs well. Jay suggests a reason why: ordinary "long-day" cultivars need 14-hour day lengths. In Texas we get 14-hour days only between mid-May and mid-July, leaving a narrow window for onions (and those are arid months here, so you need quick-growing cultivars and tons of water to pull it off). Paradoxically, the sun-dependent common onion grows better in climates that might not get as much sun as Texas provides, but offer the longer summer days of northern latitudes.

Jay, Martha. Onions and Garlic: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2016.