Click HERE to read a Sufi master story about "The Impact of Onions"

"I will not move my armies without onions"
--General Ulysses S. Grant, in a dispatch to the U.S. War Department

"I'm a strange creature, for I satisfy women, a service to the neighbors! No one suffers at my hands except for my slayer. I grow very tall, erect in a bed, I'm hairy underneath. From time to time a beautiful girl, the brave daughter of some churl, dares to hold me, grips my russet skin, robs me of my head and puts me in the pantry. At once that girl with plaited hair who has confined me remembers our meeting. Her eye moistens."
--Risqué-seeming riddle (Number 25) in the Old English Exeter Book, first made public in 1072 by Leofric, first Bishop of Exeter. The answer, of course, is "An Onion."

Can you stand another one? This one is Riddle 65, similarly ambiguous, same answer.

"Quick; quite mum; I die notwithstanding. I lived once, I live again. Everybody lifts me, grips me, and chops off my head, bites my bare body, violates me. I never bit a man unless he bites me; there are many men who bite me.

And a third? Can you stand a third? This one translated from 4th century Symphosius by poet Richard Wilbur.

I bite, when bitten; but because I lack/
For teeth, no biter scruples to attack,/
And many bite me to be bitten back.
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(Allium cepa)

"For it is every Cook's Opinion,
No savory Dish without an Onion,
And, lest your Kissing should be spoil'd
Your Onions must be thoroughly boiled:
Or else you may spare
Your Mistress a Share,
The Secret will never be known;
She cannot discover
The Breath of a Lover,
But think it as sweet as her own."
--Jonathan Swift's translation of Martial's "Xenia 18"
(which is actually about green leeks)

Native to the broad region stretching from Israel to India, the onion has been cultivated since at least 3000 BC.

Primitive man rubbed its juices on his body for protection. Sumerians wrote about it in Sanskrit. Egyptians saw in it a sacred symbol of the universe--with its 9 layers representing eternity that, peeled away, left two stem buds as the naked beginnings of new life.

In the 5th century BC, Herodotus records probably the first organized sit down strike in history when he tells of slaves refusing to build Khufu's pyramid unless they get their onions. Indeed, as mentioned in the section on garlic, onions were one of the foods sorely missed by the children of Israel after their exodus from Egypt. Their cultivation spread rapidly throughout the known world, but they did not arrive in the New World until Spaniards brought plants to the West Indies.

Columbus, it's been said, planted the first great crop in the Dominican Republican--from thence it spread to Mexico, down to Central and South America and up to North America. The Pilgrims weren't taking any chances, though. They brought onion seeds with them and planted them near Plymouth Rock.

It has been prized medicinally, for ills as various as dog bites, earaches, and stings of "venomous worms." It's been rubbed on British and Shaker heads, hundreds of years apart, to prevent baldness. It has also been regarded as a cure for warts: cut an onion in half, rub it on the wart, tie the onion halves back together, and bury them. When the onion decays in the ground, the wart reputedly disappears.

Once again, modern science ends up, to some degree, catching up with folklore. Onions contain Prostaglandin A-1, a potent agent to lower blood pressure. And their anti-bacterial qualities--wow! can completely sterilize the lining of the mouth and throat after just five minutes of chewing raw onion bits.

One last word from Roy Blount, Jr., in his "Song to Onions":

They improve everything, porkchops to soup,
And not only that but each onion's a group.

Peel back the skin, delve into tissue
And see how an onion has been blessed with issue.

Every layer produces an ovum:
You think you've got three then you find you've got fovum

Onion on on-
Ion on onion they run,
Each but the smallest one some onion's mother:
An onion comprises a half-dozen other.

In sum then an onion you could say is less
Than the sum of its parts.
But then I like things that more are than profess--
In food and the arts.

Things pungent, not tony.
I'll take Damon Runyon
Over Antonioni--
Who if an
i wanders becomes Anti-onion.
I'm anti-baloney.

Although a baloney sandwich would
Right now, with onions, be right good.

And so would sliced onions,
Chewed with cheese,
Or onions chopped and sprinkled
Over black-eyed peas:

absorbent of essences,
eaten on New Year's Eve