A farmer harvests an onion in a painting in the Ancient Egyptian Tomb of Neferherenptah (ca. 2310 BC)

A farmer harvests an onion in a painting in the Ancient Egyptian Tomb of Neferherenptah (ca. 2310 BC)

The common onion (Allium cepa) is one of the oldest known cultivated vegetables: indeed, the onion goes so far back that now Allium cepa is known only as a cultivated vegetable. As with the cow, the actual wild version of this organism has been lost (although there are other edible allium species around the world which go by the name “wild onion”). Common onions probably originated in Central Asia: the oldest archaeological evidence we have of onion farming puts the vegetables in Ancient Egypt 5,500 years ago, in India and China 5,000 years ago, and in Mesopotamia 4,500 years ago, however it is likely that they were grown as a crop long before then. Onions are in the most ancient Chinese and Indian texts and likewise they are in the oldest chapters of the Bible. The classical civilizations of Greece and Rome were heavily dependent on onion cultivation. When Rome fell, onions became a staple of the medieval diet. Emmer wheat, bitter vetch, and bottle gourds have come and gone from fashion, but the onion is more popular today than ever. There is a huge bowl of them in my kitchen right now (and I cook them into pretty much every savory dish).

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Onions are easy to grow in many different types of soil in many different ecosystems. They are also easy to store all winter and plant from seeds or bulbs. They can be dried or pickled for long term storage. They can be cooked in every conceivable way, or just eaten raw. Clearly humankind has an ancient relationship with onions and they have kept us alive in many a jam (myself definitely included).

An onion field...hmm, not much to see here...

An onion field…hmm, not much to see here…

Indeed, onions are such a bedrock part of human culture, that we don’t too have much to say about them aside from boilerplate comments about their tear-inducing properties (which are caused by sulfenic acids released when onion cells are damaged). The ancient Egyptians thought of onions as sacred, and made them a part of funeral ritual and a symbol of the cosmos, but subsequent generations have become distracted by flashier vegetables, and pay the ancient onion little tribute (although I suppose there are arguments that onion domes, my favorite architectural flourish, are a sort of homage).

Onions (Wayne Ferrebee, 2002, oil on canvas)

Onions (Wayne Ferrebee, 2002, oil on canvas)

I was hoping to feature some onion-themed deities or deep and troubling myths about these edible bulbs, but I haven’t really been able to find too many (although the satirical website is messing up my ability to search for material). So, instead of citing ancient literature or art, here is my own tribute to Allium cepa. This is a small oil painting which I made back in 2002. It pays tribute to the modest but very real visual beauty of onions. I painted the three main colors commonly available (after looking through all the bins for the right subjects for my still life like a crazy person). The painting makes me smile and it reminds me fondly of all the chili, curry, Chinese food, pasta, and porridge I have eaten which would have been thin and bland without this amazing vegetable. Hooray for onions!