Anatomy of a Shoestring Onion

You always start with the onion: sliced into slivers, longways, with some butter in the bottom of the pan. This is all that’s needed to make the whole house smell divine with that sautéed, caramelized scent that moves like the holy spirit through bodies and homes, a revival of sorts. An awakening. It stings, then wraps you up in its richness.

I didn’t realize what kind of bulbous potential an onion possessed until within the past couple years, during which I turned twenty-one. To a certain extent, liking onions makes me feel like an adult. How very refined of me to know how to apply onion appropriately in my cookery. Six years ago, however, you’d be at risk of physical harm if that ingredient was anywhere near my food.

Children typically are not of the onion persuasion. I think there are few who actually go out of their way to request it in dishes and can appreciate how it amplifies a meal purely based on olfactory effect. Teenagers are even worse because they are so passionate about so many things that it loses impact. Did I really dislike onions at fifteen, or was it dramatic overhaul from years without legitimate taste buds for them? Reflecting back, I wonder. Twenty-two year old me realizes there may have been years that I failed to capitalize on onion potential because of stubbornness.

Regardless of my questionable teenage angst, there is a severe emotional difference between an onion cooked and an onion raw — these are not mutually compatible changes of state. Onions repulsed me, but if they were incognito cooked and buried under layers of flavor, I’d suck it up, and eat them. Raw? Go to H-E-double hockey sticks and get that bugger away from me. Pizza is an exception to this difference. Onions always ruined pizza. Always.

Unfortunately, I comprise only one-third of my household, and thus my vote is always never enough within our family democracy to sway decisions in my favour. My father, caught between two women, promotes compromise at every chance. This also does not sway decisions in my favor. Onions are a pearly example of this. We Fergusons love our food, pizza in particular; it holds permanent, rent-controlled residence within all of our hearts. We are Pizza Connoisseurs. Just ask us about Marks vs. Pontillos vs. Salvatores vs. the local oven fare, and we’ll give you a comprehensive report. Be that as it may, opinions of what toppings should adorn a pizza are diverse. My mother’s opinion, for ever, and more ever, has only ever meant onions: raw, string, sautéed — onions 4 lyf. Forget pepperoni. Heck, even sauce. All she needs in order to be happy is an onion. I spent my childhood trying to avoid this pestilence, and that woman ordered it on our pizza.

Dad would always solicit compromise: onions on half, since Theresa just had to have them, and the option of just adding them post-delivery to just her piece was simply not feasible. (The logic still escapes me — ordering them as a topping cost more and adding them to one piece was much simpler than trying to evade them on multiple, but oh well.) And she never ate more than two pieces, so the leftovers were always tainted, and somehow unavoidable. Often it was impossible to tell which half suffered from the pox and which was devoid; it all depended on the pizza joint. Some places used the shoestring onions, some the little diced squares. The shoestrings were the worst. They were limp and long, like some sneaky tapeworm, but hiding the crunch of a spinal cord. To the untrained eye they looked like shredded cheese, and since the pizza place would often sprinkle the onion liberally on top of the cheese, before the pepperoni, the two would melt together, creating an impossible and revolting pizza conglomerate. At least the little squares could be picked off, if I was actually desperate enough for pizza to sink so low as to sit there for five to seven minutes disdainfully removing every trace of onion and the cheese it touched (I usually was).

And so, quite frequently,  — enough to scar memory — I would investigate the whole pie. I would locate a safe piece of pizza. I would relish what I was about to eat. I would take an unsuspecting bite, good god, gag, wail. Whole piece ruined, like freaking Nam, watching out for land mines. And mother, halfway through her piece already, would say something infuriating, such as: “Oh, yeah, I don’t think this piece has any on it actually, want to trade?” or: “Just pick ’em off.” …because it’s soooo easy to locate one’s tapeworms and just remove them. Once you step on a land mine you can’t spawn a new leg. Humans aren’t starfish, okay. The onion taste would linger. The recoil would still shudder through me at every anticipatory bite that followed, fearful I had missed one (and I usually had). To this day I’m still quite wary of Mark’s liberal interpretation of fractions during topping application.

Thinking back, probably the worst part was the surprise of it all — finding that horrible taste and texture in something so coveted. I was easily wooed by the dulcet aroma of (what should have been) a soft, chewy, doughy piece of puffy pizza…and would sink my teeth through tapeworm vertebrae.  And now, all these years later, my old taste buds have sloughed off, leaving me with new ones that delight in onion. I’m that person who pleas for more onion. I’m turning into my mother, so the tastebuds were only a matter of time. I have caught myself thinking, “Mmm, you can never have too much onion!” which is something I have definitely heard her say in the past.

There’s just something really satisfying about slicing the bulb into crescents, sizzling it up in the skillet, simmering till translucent… it’s more than just feeling adult. It’s also weird realizing the extent to which I channel my inner parental unit. And it snuck up on me, too. It wasn’t instantaneous — “OOOoh, onion! …wait…WAHHH I’m my MOTHER!” It snuck up on me. Having learned to adapt to onion avoidance and cope with inevitable encounters, eventually I started to care less. It was mindset, but was also entirely contingent on that biology of renewing tastebuds, a webpage “refresh”. It’s hard to say which spawned the other. Chicken and the egg I suppose.  


I’m trying to get my act together outlining…writing is hard. In the meantime, you’ll have to settle for the above. I wrote this as a midterm for a non-fiction workshop I took almost a year ago now.  I’ve also made a few revisions (and removed the cuss words, because I’m older and wiser). Don’t expect this kind of quality every time :p