As American As Pickled Onions?
This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for June 10, 2021, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.
Sunday I pickled two more jars of onions, making a total of seven or eight jars since I began “pickling” about a month ago. I couldn’t find my mother’s recipe box, so I made up a recipe from memory and imagination. I finally did find the recipe box, and it turns out I was right-on except for skipping the six-hour soaking process. Since my recipe is quicker, I’m staying with it.
It is somewhat obvious that the onion is one of my favorite vegetables, and I especially like pickled onions. For those of you not well versed in either the horticultural or the culinary world of onions, let me explain how one of my favorite vegetables differs from others of its ilk.
Onions are in the same family as leeks, Greek (green) onions, shallots, scallions, chives, and garlic. Shallots and green onions do not pickle well; shallots are too tough-skinned and green onions get too mushy. I know nothing about scallions and chives, and I would run from pickled garlic. The onion, called “die Zwiebel” in German and “la cebolla” in Spanish, has always been King of the “Allium” family, a genus of “monocotyledonous” flowering plants. That puts it in the lily family. Never knew all these years I was eating pickled lilies!
Wild leeks, called “ramps” in North America, were often a main part of the peasant’s meal in Shakespeare’s England. Elizabethan peasants ate them raw and cooked (as leek pottage), along with rye or barley bread. In one of Shakespeare’s plays presented in the Globe Theater, a character in the play remarks about the horrible “leek breath” of the groundlings (the poor peasants who stood in the “pit” to see the play).
Wild leeks, which the English peasants ate, had a taste somewhere between onion and garlic. Leeks grew wild and therefore were available free of cost, whereas onions, considered more “sophisticated” food, were quite expensive at London food markets.
I’ve never eaten a leek in my life, but as a child growing up in Lee County, Texas, I ate onions, fixed one way or the other, every day. Since my mother was the cook in our family, onions were prepared according to her Wendish-Texan traditions, and pickled onions was her tour de force. My father, who was German rather than Wendish, loved onions, too, but not pickled.
Schwaebischen Zwiebelkuchen (literally “Swabian onion cake”) was a kind of pie made with onions and bacon and was served with a local wine. The Swabian ethnic group in the Black Forest, where my father’s ancestors came from, invented this delicacy. I have never been able to determine whether my father was “Swabian” or not, but his forebears came from where that group lived, an area famous for making wine, peasants being good wine makers.
It was very common throughout Germany for serfs and peasants to eat onion sandwiches. No doubt onions were not as expensive in Germany as they were in England.
So , I ask myself, where did my great love for pickled onions, as well as other pickled vegetables, come from? Well, strangely enough, Germany is not one of the top ten onion growers in the world, but the United States is. So is Mexico. The USA, Number Four, Mexico, Number Ten. According to several internet websites, China is Number One. Several other Asian countries were also in the Top Ten. From my research, it appears that just about every country in the whole world likes and grows onions.
That’s a good thing, — for people, but not for dogs and cats. According to healthline.com, it is believed that onions are strong antioxidants, they have antibacterial properties, may boost bone density, and may help digestive health. Not to mention they are full of nutrients!
However, for some reason, onions, leeks, garlic, and others in the onion family, are toxic for dogs and cats. So, don’t feed your dogs and cats onions and leeks, not that the idea to do so would cross any person’s mind – nor a cat or dog’s mind, lol.
Considering that the United States in Number Four among the world’s onion growers, and that just about every fast food place in American sells batter-fried onion rings, maybe my love of onions is really as American as Apple pie!
Ray Spitzenberger is a retired WCJC teacher, a retired LCMS pastor, and the author of two books, It Must Be the Noodles and Open Prairies.