Annie Gray

A history of the onion leaves one crying for more

Mark Kurlansky’s treatment of a vegetable which was domesticated at least 7,000 years ago and on which the world’s cuisines depend feels rushed and inadequate

Onion-sellers in India. [Getty Images]

I am a big fan of Mark Kurlansky. His Cod is one of a handful of books I recommend to people keen to learn about the way in which certain foods have helped shape the world we live in. But while The Core of the Onion has its moments and is an enjoyable read, it’s a mark of how high Kurlansky has set the bar that it doesn’t quite hit the mark for me.

For centuries, no writer has dared to tell the truth about caramelising onions

The main problem is its brevity – a mere 240 pages. Given that the author is someone who can write more than 300 riveting pages on New York seen through its relationship with the oyster, it seems strange that a vegetable which is consumed globally and was domesticated at least 7,000 years ago doesn’t merit the same treatment. It leaves one feeling shortchanged, or that the book was rushed.

We certainly get going fast – Kurlansky’s staccato style, with punchy sentences and short paragraphs, reflects his early career as a journalist – and dive straight into what onions are, with a pithy explanation of why they make you cry. Solutions are suggested: chilling them, or scalding them with a little vinegar before chopping, seems to work well. The writing is lyrical, and the mastery of source material impressive. The opening chapter is devoted to botany; the second to the onion’s development in the old world, then the new, before the first section is rounded off with a discussion of varieties and sourcing. It’s pleasant to read – and illustrated with a good selection of black-and-white photographs.

The trouble is it’s not quite enough. Kurlansky explains at the outset that he’s only looking at Allium cepa, the common onion – despite the fact that the genus also includes leeks and garlic.

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