Ode to the Onion

| December/January 2001

  • Photography by Anybody Goes

Revered by ancient people, this edible bulb is full of health benefits.

Rachel Albert-Matesz is a freelance nutrition journalist and healthy cooking coach from Toledo, Ohio. More than 180 of her articles have appeared in national and regional magazines and newspapers.

Onions have been held in high esteem throughout recorded history and used in nearly every cuisine around the globe. They are one of the oldest known vegetables, probably among the first cultivated crops, are easy to grow, do well in a wide range of soils and climates, are less perishable than many other vegetables, and grow wild in many regions of the world. Food historians estimate that people have been sowing and reaping onions for at least 5,000 years and that our ancestors feasted on wild onions for thousands of years before the invention of farming.

Ancient onion lovers

The onion’s legacy can be traced back to 3500 b.c. in Egypt. An inscription found on one of the great pyramids, built in 2500 b.c., details the amount of silver required to purchase onions, radishes, and garlic to sustain the laborers and their motivation.

Onions were not only eaten, but also worshipped, depicted on banquet tables, and offered on the altars of the great gods. To the ancient Egyptians, onions symbolized eternal life (note the onion’s structure of circles within circles), and were customarily included in funeral offerings. Pharaohs were buried with onions attached to various body parts, perhaps to ward off evil spirits in the afterlife. Onions were used to alleviate more than 8,000 ailments.

A Greco-Roman denominator

The Greeks esteemed onions. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food,” and he counted onions as a medicine. The first-century physician Dioscorides used onions therapeutically. Greek athletes reportedly ate pounds of onions, drank onion juices, and anointed their flesh with onion liquid prior to competing in the Olympic games.

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