by Tim Steury | © Washington State University
Think of all the recipes that begin with this simple instruction: Cook (saute, melt, etc.) onions. In spite of that ubiquitous beginning, however, the literature of food, which can wax poetically and extensively about salt or beans or wine, gives the onion, which provides the savory structure for thousands of dishes, short shrift.
Maybe it is just that onions are so fundamental that we take them for granted, chopping and ingesting them as casually as we breathe air or drink water. Perhaps it is that the onion is a basic and ancient staple, like rice, corn, garlic, its wild ancestors an inherent part of our culture and appetite. Although they have been cultivated for at least 3,000 years, wild relatives undoubtedly nourished and pleased our ancestors far back in the ancient depths of culinary time.
And so, it is good that a select group of Washington farmers give onions their full attention.
Last year they harvested 22,000 acres of onions on fewer than 20 major commercial farms, nevertheless ranking our state as second, next to California, in total U.S. onion production. The best fields produce upwards of 50 tons per acre.
On a hot day in mid-August, just north of Connell, Brad Bailie ’95 is giving me a tour of his 650 irrigated acres to show me how he raises such beautiful onions. The bulbs are large and packed against each other halfway out of the ground, their leaves stiff and deep green. Most of what Bailie grows are yellow bulb storage onions, which also make up the majority of Washington production. But he also grows red onions, cipollines, and sweets. The sweets are similar to Walla Walla sweets, of which only a thousand-acre crop around Walla Walla can be so named. [See article in fall 2010 issue.]
Onions are not an easy crop to grow, says WSU regional vegetable specialist Tim Waters (’02, ’09 PhD) later in the day as we inspect plots where he runs performance trials on different pesticide and fertilizer regimens. Onions are a high-risk, high-payoff crop, and Bailie has upped the ante considerably by growing them organically. Although organically grown onions can pay off handsomely, at up to three times the price of conventionally grown onions, producing a healthy crop without the help of conventional fertilizers and pesticides requires a very non-conventional mindset.
The fourth generation of his family to farm this land, Bailie traveled after college and worked for a couple of years with farmers in the Guatemalan highlands. When he returned to the States, he worked a while for a seed company, then started raising native plants for seed on rented land. After the farmer who rented part of the family’s land retired, Bailie decided to take it over.
“This field will be next year’s onions,” he says of a plot he planted last fall in triticale and nitrogen-fixing vetch as a cover and green manure crop. He follows the vetch and triticale with mustard, which adds a huge amount of organic matter to the soil and also acts as a biofumigant against various pathogens. Mustard also absorbs a lot of nutrients, keeping them from leaching from the topsoil during the winter.
Bailie has planted insectaries around his property, permanent plantings to provide cover and food for beneficial insects. Part of each insectary is a grassy mound where beetles overwinter. “Beetles eat a lot of weed seed,” he says.
Bailie encourages any help he can get in combating weeds, a particularly irksome problem when one has foresworn synthetic herbicides. Onions present a particular challenge because they create only a light canopy against the competition. Although onions can be mechanically cultivated when young, later weeding is done by hand.
Although Bailie says he doesn’t get any major outbreaks of pests, which he attributes to the beneficials he encourages, “We do have thrips.”
We get out of the pickup, and he pulls up an onion plant to show me the infestation of the minute insect, about which he is, unconventionally, unconcerned.
Rather than spray, even with organically permitted chemicals, “We figure we’ll put up with a little damage.”
Although thrips are well-protected as they squeeze deep into the neck of the onion plant, Baile has confidence in his predatory insect allies, noting that his yields are nearly as high as the best of conventionally grown onions, but without the pesticide costs.
Thrips feed on the onion leaves, says Waters, as we inspect similar populations on his plots later in the day. Thrips (and even a single insect is a thrips, he says) adults will land on the plant, feed, and insert eggs in the epidermis of the plant. Thrips have an unusual asymmetrical mouth consisting of a mandible and a stylet, with which they “punch and suck.” The resulting damage, called stippling, reduces the plant’s photosynthesis and, depending on the severity, production.
Not every grower is as tolerant of thrips damage as Bailie, and most conventional growers will spray against thrips several times during the growing season. Because thrips reproduce so quickly, they can also develop resistance to a pesticide if it is used repeatedly. To counter the chance of resistance, Waters conducts trials on his plot in Pasco to determine the most effective order of pesticides to best control the thrips and avoid resistance.
Those leaves that provide the thrips with such effective food and shelter also provide habitat for a wide range of microbial and fungal pathogens.
If you cook much at all, you’ve surely been confronted with that horrifying situation of cutting into the last onion in the pantry only to find it is rotten inside. Neck rot is the most likely candidate of a host of pathogens that cause spoilage in storage onions.
Brenda Schroeder ’97 PhD, a WSU plant pathologist, is the lead researcher on an ambitious project to curtail those pathogens and ease your frustration.
“Once onions go into storage, the farmer has put in over $3,000 an acre,” says Schroeder. If the onions are infected with any one of a dozen species of bacteria or 14 species of fungi, that investment can be severely docked when the onions are pulled out of storage to sell.
Unfortunately, infection is currently difficult to detect.
The onion harvest is a meticulous process, particularly for onions that will be stored over the winter. Once they are dug and have dried out a bit, another machine will pass through the field to cut off the tops. Timing is crucial, as the neck of the onion ideally dries and seals itself off from invading pathogens.
“When these bulbs go into storage, they are beautiful,” says Schroeder. But if pathogens have made their way into the interior of the onion, under the right conditions the onion will rot in storage.
Schroeder and her team are developing an easy-to-use diagnostic kit that can tell the grower whether pathogens are present in the stored onions. If they are, the onions can be pulled out of storage early and sold before they rot.
None of those pathogens are harmful to humans, says Schroeder. They might taste bad. However, “You and I have probably eaten all of these fungi and bacteria and never been negatively impacted at all.”
One might allow a certain admiration for these pathogens in surmounting the chemical defenses onions have developed over eons of evolution. The sulfur compounds that make you cry as you cut a strong onion are part of that defensive arsenal and also part of what makes onions so good for you.
The more than 100 sulfur compounds produced in onions have anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties. Throughout history, onions and other alliums have been used for their medicinal as well as culinary virtues. During the American Civil War, onions were valued both for eating and for treating wounds. At one point, Ulysses S. Grant sent an urgent telegram to Union headquarters in Washington, D.C.: “I will not move my army without onions.” He got them the next day, three traincar loads.
Onions are also high in vitamin C, potassium, and fiber.
But as all vegetables are good for you to varying degrees, I will not end my paean by obscuring the gastronomic virtues of the onion with the merely healthful ones.
You really should eat even more onions than the 18.5 pounds a year the average American eats, and not just because they’re good for you or even to support Washington onion farmers. Rather, onions taste wonderful.
There must be some moral lesson in the pleasure that follows the momentary tearful suffering that sometimes accompanies cutting onions. For cooking instantly transforms those volatile compounds into pure pleasure.
Harold McGee, in his On Food and Cooking, notes that some of the odor compounds driven off by cooking convert into another complex molecule that is 50-70 times as sweet as a molecule of table sugar.
“It is hard to imagine a civilization without onions,” wrote Julia Childs in her all-too-brief homage to the onion in Mastering the Art of French Cooking. But if her words were brief, her recipe for onion quiche is worshipful in its simplicity: crust, eggs, and onions. First, cook two large onions.
Yuan Fang the Hermit on an Autumn Day
By Tu Fu, 8th century
Potherds in the autumn garden
round the house
Of my friend the hermit
behind his rough-cut
Timber gate. I never wrote
and asked him for them
But he’s sent this basket
full of Winter Onions, still
Damp with dew. Delicately
White jade small bulbs.
Chill threatens an
old man’s innards,
These will warm and comfort me.
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