Alice In Onionland

An onion sandwich?

An onion sandwich?

One night many years ago I found myself in the center of the rink in Rockefeller Center. No ice:  it was a hot summer night. Uncomfortable. Humid. Crowded. I looked around, blinking, trying to make sense of the crowd moving me around like a rip tide at the beach. Through circumstances lost to the mists of time, I had found myself at “Taste of the Nation,” the annual event that benefits Share Our Strength, an amazing organization that has been working to eradicate childhood hunger for over 25 years.

I don’t remember the year, but it was definitely BFN (Before Food Network). In the swirl of people, the center of the vortex was Paul Prudhomme, the ample king (in pre-Emeril days) of New Orleans food. He brought blackened food to the fore, a modest idea that unfortunately became a vogue as outsized as Prudhomme himself. The whole thing got a bit out of hand: if it swam or walked, chefs everywhere were suffocating it in too much spice and burning it in a cast iron skillet. 

Can you tell that I never connected to blackened food? I always felt like I was fighting hard to like it —and losing. That’s just my humble opinion, and is certainly not a slam against Prudhomme. He’s forgotten more about food than I will ever know, and he is certainly about more than just blackened redfish.

But on that humid night, in the middle of an ice-less skating rink, Paul Prudhomme may as well have been Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. People just had to be near him, touch him, and eat his purposely-burnt food. 

I am not built for summer. I am bald, pale, and chilly Eastern Europe lurks vaguely in my background. When the mercury goes over 55 degrees I start to sweat. So that night one of my main missions was to find enough water to drink to replace the water that was rapidly sweating out of me and onto my clothes. (Bald, pale, and sweaty: Attractive, no?)

It was in my quest for yet another bottle of water that I found, tucked away in a corner and under the stairs, a kindly-looking, tidy little woman, making tidy little sandwiches with the crusts cut off. She was not attracting a crowd. The only way to explain how bad the location was that she’d been given is to say that if the event had been inside on a cold night, people would have tried to check their coats with her.

My heart went out to this poor ignored woman, so I approached her and asked what she was serving. 

“These are onion sandwiches. Have one!”

Oh, this poor misguided woman. Everyone around her was cooking up a storm, and here she was making these quaint little sandwiches that looked like something Norma Shearer would eat in an old MGM movie. Is that all she knew how to do? Mostly out of pity, I took one and ate it.

How do you best describe in words those moments in life when your perceptions of the world have been changed in a flash? If I were filming the moment, there would be a choir singing “AHHHH” on the soundtrack, and the camera would circle around me while streaks of sunlight would break though misty clouds and hit me like pin spots.

The sandwich was as sweet as sugar. The “onion-ness” we all expect from an onion was only an accent to the sweetness—more like the reassuring presence of a parent at a child’s recital. Understand that this was a sandwich about the size of two fingers, a slice of onion on buttered hearty farmhouse white bread, and as I said, no crusts.

I simply had never eaten anything like it, and quickly asked if I could have another. 

I am blushing as I admit that my next question was, “Is there sugar on the onion?” 

(Picture it: a bald, pale, sweaty, man asking if this woman had sprinkled the onions with sugar. And quite a picture it is, yes?)

The kindly-looking, tidy woman tilted her head to one side, a gesture not unlike a teacher addressing a first grade student, and explained patiently, “No. That’s the onion.”

“But it’s so sweet!”

With almost heartbreaking empathy she replied, “Yes, well, they’re Sweet Onions.” Clearly the kindly-looking, tidy woman was on an educational mission.

I’m sure I ate a lot of food that night, but I only remember the onion sandwich. At the time I had no idea that the kindly-looking, tidy woman–Alice Waters–is considered the pioneering mother of cooking that uses only fresh, local, seasonal ingredients. The influence she has had on American chefs is profound to say the least.

Such a simple philosophy. So easily demonstrated by an onion sandwich. 

I have never tried to recreate this simple, beautiful sandwich. Why? Alice Waters didn’t, after all, invent the onion sandwich. (I think hers was actually modeled after James Beard’s, and I doubt that he invented it either.)

Am I intimidated by being able to find the perfect onion? I am. I think the onion sandwich demonstrates that shopping with an open mind for just the right ingredients is just as important as refined cooking technique–perhaps more so. And to me, that’s a bit daunting.

It is likely that when she woke up that morning, Alice Waters had no idea what she was going to cook that night. She probably decided after she had poked around a greenmarket and found the wonderful Sweet Onions she used in the sandwiches.

My shopping is so passive. I go to the supermarket. I buy whatever is there. I don’t ask questions like, “Is this in season locally?” or “Where did this come from?” I experience frequent disappointment with apples and tomatoes.

I have the exercise backwards! I shop with a recipe in mind, instead of seeing what potential ingredients are at their peak, and then figuring out what to do with them.

I should know better. When I was a kid we lived a short foliage-viewing drive from an apple farm, wonderfully named Honey Pot Hill Orchards, a place where the smell of apples was intoxicating.

My favorites were the small, crunchy, sweet Macouns. I have, at times, tried buying Macouns at various supermarkets here in New York. My ritual is always the same: as the apple approaches my mouth, a rush of memories floods my consciousness. Then the first mealy, dull, bite jolts me back to the present, not unlike being jostled awake because of a mildly disturbing dream.

My parents would never have gone to the orchard at any other time of year. Everyone knows that fall is apple season. I need to apply this same logic to the other things I eat.

Is it time for me to recreate that onion sandwich? The answer would be found at the market.

The bread and butter part is easy. But for the Sweet Onion, as an experiment I decided to try four sources: my neighborhood market, a fancy gourmet market, Whole Foods, and the greenmarket in Union Square. No agenda here: I really like all four markets for different reasons.

I have learned that there are onions, and then there are Sweet Onions: higher sugar and water content, lower sulfur content. Sulfur is what makes your eyes water when you slice onions.

My neighborhood market had navel orange-size faux Vidalias labeled as being from the “Western United States.” But slicing this onion made my eyes water: not a promising sign. Indeed, the onion was very harsh raw; overpowering in a sandwich, but delicious cooked.

The fancy gourmet market had smaller Sweet Onions from Peru whose thin skins held out great promise. These made a decent sandwich, but one not nearly as sweet as Alice’s. And it violates the fresh, local rules: I had at the very least hoped to stick with an onion from the USA.

Whole Foods and the greenmarket were not selling any Sweet Onions the day I went foraging.  Lesson learned. Sweet Onions are advertised as being available all year round. But the prime season is late spring through mid-summer, so I’ll wait to make the sandwiches then.

For now I’ll stick to apples, which are also advertised as being available year round, but are truly coming into their season now. It is still a bit early, but I found some outstanding, crisp, sweet, Courtland apples from Massachusetts, and some better than OK Macintosh apples from Upstate New York.

So now that I have the apples I have to figure out what to do with them.

An apple sandwich? Oh! Even better: Pie, anyone?

One Response to “Alice In Onionland”

  • I know exactly what you mean about the apples. For a short time, I lived in upstate NY and discovered freshly-picked Cortland apples. I practically made myself sick eating so many. I’ve never had an apple like that again. . .

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