Since the beginning of civilization, onions have been an important part of our diet. Once believed to be a lowly vegetable because of its pungent taste, the onion has emerged as a favorite ingredient in many recipes. Onions add flavor to an otherwise bland dish and turn an average meal into an elegant dinner. Onion lovers around the world have found that this versatile vegetable can be grilled, sautéed, pickled, boiled, baked, fried... the list is endless!
The history of the onion is an interesting story. The onion is believed to have originated in Asia, though it is likely that onions may have been growing wild on every continent. Dating back to 3500 BC, onions were one of the few foods that did not spoil during the winter months. Our ancestors must have recognized the vegetable’s durability and began growing onions for food.
The onion became more than just food after arriving in Egypt. The ancient Egyptians worshipped the onion, believing that its spherical shape and concentric rings symbolized eternity. Of all the vegetables that had their images created from precious metals by Egyptian artists, only the onion was made out of gold.(1) What a prestigious honor for a vegetable with such a humble beginning!
The popularity of the onion eventually carried it into ancient Greece where athletes consumed large quantities because it would “lighten the balance of the blood”. After Rome conquered Greece, the onion became a staple in the Roman diet. Gladiators were rubbed down with onion juice to “firm up the muscles”.(2)
As onions expanded into other areas of the world, they continued to be more than just food. During the Middle Ages, physicians prescribed onions to alleviate headaches, snakebites, and even hair loss.(2) Onions, valued as both medicine and food, traveled with the Puritans who settled in the New World. It’s possible that onions were served at the first Thanksgiving!
Today, onions continue to be an important part of our diet. The National Cancer Institute has reported that onions contain antioxidants that help block cancer and appear to lower cholesterol.(3) Apparently, our ancestors weren’t too far off in believing that the onion is much more than a lowly vegetable.
1. Mara Reid Rogers, Onions: A Celebration of the Onion through Recipes, Lore, and History, Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., Copyright © 1995, p. 6
2. Tanya J. Fell, Director of Public and Industry Relations, Onions Historically Healthy, National Onion Association, Greeley, Colorado
3. Jean Carper, Onions - Their Place in Your Diet, Onion World, February 1991, p. 24