A BITE OF ONION

A BITE OF ONION

Many years ago, I watched The Lost Boys (1987). I thought it was a great movie: a not-so-serious American vampire flick with the day’s cool actors, Kiefer Sutherland, etc and the good guys winning with style in the end. It was an era of what some might call “modern classics” of the genre – Fright Night (1985), An American Werewolf In London (1981) and so on. It was also kind of the decade of Star Wars (episodes IV to VI: 1977, 1980, 1983). Anyway, I’m no film historian or critic. I was just young and thought those were cool movies. Actually, I still do.

 

There was just a very short scene in The Lost Boys where the unexpected big hero, the mysterious and grumpy grandpa, bites into a whole raw onion as if it were an apple. I don’t know why it is, but 28 years on that image remains so vivid in my mind. Whenever I think of that movie it’s invariably the scene I visualise first.

 

Perhaps the thought of biting into a raw onion traumatised me more at that time than the possibility of vampires biting and feeding on people. Or it could be I was trying too hard to make sense of what eating an onion meant in the context of the movie, because unlike garlic it wouldn’t have anti-vampire properties. That character had presumably made a habit of eating whole raw onions, and not only that, he’d also known all along that the town they lived in was infested with vampires. What did it all mean? And how did onions connect all those dots?

 

Maybe that act just intrigued my so deeply why anyone would do something like that when there are perfectly good apples and pears around. In any case, I think it turned out to be a really good thing I didn’t go into film criticism. With plot, character and what-not analysis like this, I’d have been awful at it. The stuff of short careers.

 

Earlier this year in March, the then Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott ate a raw onion, skin and all, while visiting a produce farm in Tasmania. He was quoted by the local newspaper as remarking, “Better than any other onions I’ve eaten in a long time.” (I wonder if he does this sort of thing regularly). His onion-eating ignited both praise and ridicule from his countrymen, which says two things to me: (a) it’s really tough being the PM when not everyone likes everything you do or trusts your motivations and intentions, and (b) eating whole raw onions is still not a common thing to do, which is why it’s newsworthy, the PM and all besides the point.

 

I think the other famous “person” – well, character really, although a character has to be played by a real life actor/person right? – who tried to eat a whole raw onion was George Costanza (played by Jason Alexander, the actor) in the American television sitcom Seinfeld (1989 to 1998). In that show, the character George was never the mainstream sort anyway, shall we say, and so for me it took away from the impact of raw-onion eating.

 

There have been a number of people since who’ve taken on the challenge of eating whole raw onions, and you can watch all their home-made videos on YouTube. You may wonder what the big deal is, don’t we eat raw onions all the time in burgers, salads and so on? While that’s true, you’ve also got to concede that in the case of one attempting a bite into it, many raw onion rings do not a whole raw onion make!

 

Onions are cultivated all over the world, and are used by everyone from every ethnic, religious, and socio-economic background. It’s no surprise then that onions figure well back in time to ancient history. The ancient Egyptians worshipped the onion, believing that its spherical shape and concentric rings symbolised eternal life. Ancient Greek athletes believed onions lightened the balance of their blood and so they ate a lot of it – imagine the odours at that first Olympics! The Romans rubbed their gladiators down with onions to make their muscles firm. And in the Middle Ages onions were used to barter and given as valuable gifts.

 

Onions pack a punch and are typically sliced, chopped or diced and used together with other ingredients in many dishes. Or they can be used as the main ingredient, eg. French onion soup or onion chutney. Onions can be baked, sauteed, grilled, boiled, fried, roasted, braised, and of course eaten raw. Besides using onions fresh, you can also pickle them. Dehydrated onion is used in granulated or powder form – they’re truly versatile.

 

And because of its strong, pungent smell, onion juice has been used as a repellent for moth and biting insects. Apparently pouring boiling water into a pot of chopped onions, letting it cool down, and then spraying that onion-water onto garden plants increases their resistance to pests – this would be a good tip to try for those keen on gardening, or who enjoy growing their own vegetables and fruits at home.

 

Onions are part of the Allium family – monocotyledonous plants, ie. plants whose seeds typically contain one embryonic leaf – which includes garlic, leek, chives, scallion, shallot and so on. They are rich in sulphur-containing compounds that account for both their pungent odours and health-promoting effects.

 

Studies have shown that regularly eating onions can help increase bone density, and therefore give us strong and healthy bones especially as we age. So it appears that the message is to have onions in our daily meals and increasingly so as we get older.

 

As part of the Allium family, onions have good antioxidant content and anti-inflammatory properties, and so could help against problems like rheumatoid arthritis or allergic airway inflammation (the way garlic does). Studies also repeatedly show onions to lower the risks of some cancers , eg. colorectal cancer, laryngeal cancer and ovarian cancer, even when consumed moderately, ie. once or twice per week.

 

Yet other studies suggest that onions can potentially improve blood-sugar balance and control, as well as help prevent bacterial infections, eg. tooth cavities and gum disease. Some studies associate regularly eating onions with benefits for one’s cardiovascular health, eg. protection for the heart and blood vessels, although it’s still not conclusive whether it’s all due to onions, or if it’s because onions are part of an overall healthy diet rich in vegetables and fruits.

 

But what can you do about all that crying that chopping onions infamously causes? When an onion is chopped, a gas (the onion lacrimatory factor, or LF) diffuses through the air and quickly reaches the eyes where it activates sensory neurons and create a stinging sensation. Our tear glands in turn rev up, trying to dilute and flush out the irritants with tears.

 

The old school way to counter the LF is to cut onions under running water, or better still while they’re submerged in a basin or big pot of water. Another tip is to refrigerate the onion before cutting it, because refrigeration reduces the enzyme reactions that result in the LF. You can also have a standing fan nearby to blow the LF away from your face and eyes. And there’s the “muscle” way of building your natural resistance to LF – chop more onions more often. Finally, there’s the efficient way of buying a fancy all-in-one “slicer-dicer-and-anything-elser” kitchen gadget that’ll do the job quickly, neatly and tearlessly.

 

Coming back to grandpa in The Lost Boys, well maybe he just liked eating whole raw onions, nothing more to it. And why not? He was the stereotypical disagreeable, creepy, mysterious grandpa character afterall, who didn’t appear much on screen but everytime he did it had purpose and impact. And as it must, the movie ended with our heroes surrounded by the gore from the vampires they’d just killed, with grandpa having the final say, “One thing about living in Santa Carla I never could stomach: all the damn vampires.”

 

And so here at Sofresh, how much onions do we supply to our clients? I honestly couldn’t say: there’s just tons of it that keeps coming in and going right out again. One thing I’m certain of though: grandpa would be happy here, we never have vampire problems.

 

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2 Comments

  1. Ben,

    It never ceases to amaze me the ginormous efforts that you put into amassing the huge amount of materials in writing about the various types of fruits and vegs in your Blog and your literacy skills in putting them all together, no less your present piece about the onion.

    Here’s something frivolous about ‘green onion cakes’, which much to the disgust or perhaps delights of the Shanghainese who allegedly invented the greasy pastry, have become the adopted food of Edmonton in the Province of Alberta, Canada. While the issue concerning whether the Edmontonians can “claim” them as their own remains contentious, what is indisputable is that Edmontonians have a relationship with them that you will not find elsewhere. Cheers, have a hot greasy onion cake you Edmontonians while you are freezing in sub-zero temperature.

    Weel done Ben, very weli written as usual.
    Uncle Eddie

    Reply
    • Thank you for your very kind comments Uncle Eddie, and also for the tidbit about green onion cakes. They actually sound yummy to me, especially when imagining eating a steaming, freshly cooked one in freezing temperatures. Cheers!

      Reply

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