The Fanatic's Ecstatic, Aromatic Guide to Onions
Illustrated by: Marian Parry
Published by: Prentice-Hall, 1981
Copyright © Marilyn Singer 1981

The Fanatic’s Ecstatic, Aromatic Guide To Onions, Garlic, Shallots And Leeks



What would civilization be without the onion?

A French Chef

Pick up an onion.  You are holding a universe in your hand.  You may not realize that, but an Egyptian living four thousand years ago would have.  In ancient Egypt, the onion was considered, and possibly worshipped as, a symbol of the universe–round and layered in concentric circles, as the Egyptians pictured it.  Looking at an onion–or a head of garlic, a leek, a bunch of chives–is like looking at the history of the world.  So have another look and let’s time-travel.

The onion and its relatives were born approximately five thousand years ago, probably in the Mid-East or the Mediterranean region.  Moslem legend says that when Satan left the Garden of Eden in triumph after Adam’s fall, onions sprang up in his right footprint, garlic in his left.  Whether or not that’s true, garlic, leeks and onions are mentioned in the oldest of written history–Assyrian and Babylonian tablets,  Egyptian papyri, Chinese books–as well as in ancient paintings.  In Sumer, where writing was perhaps born, archaeologists unearthed a tablet bearing a citizen’s complaint against the ishakku, or local bureaucrat, who took everything for himself, as politicians are sometimes wont to do.  “The oxen of the gods plowed the ishakku’s onion patches, the onion and cucumber patches of the ishakku were located in the gods’ best fields.”  Chives also most likely came from the Mid-East; they were introduced to China at least two thousand years ago. And shallots, a form of aggregate onion also known as Allium ascalonicum, which have never been found in the wild state, may or may not have come from Ascalon, a city in Judaea where they were cultivated.  However, they probably date back to the beginning of the first century, A.D.

All of the early civilizations used the alliums medicinally–something we’ll get into in a later chapter–but onions, garlic, leeks, and all had other important uses, too.  The Egyptian pyramid-builders (and, in the fact, the Egyptian populace in general, except possibly for the priests, although they too probably indulged) ate onions as a wholesome, inexpensive, stamina-providing food.