A Brief History of Onions in America
On Ramps, Xonacatl, Skunk Eggs and More
Onions remained predominantly a wild plant in the Americas much longer than in Europe and Asia.
The French explorer Jacques Marquette, traveling the shore of what is now Lake Michigan in 1674, relied for nourishment on an onion that the Indigenous locals called cigaga-wunj, which means “onion place” and is the origin of the name Chicago. In more recent times it has come to be known as the Canada onion, Allium canadense, and it grows wild in much of North America from New Brunswick to Florida and west to the Rocky Mountains. It is fairly easy to spot because it has a very strong onion scent and it flowers spectacularly in great globes of little pink or white blossoms. Today it is favored as an ornamental plant.
But some historians and naturalists insist that the wild onion that gave Chicago its name was actually the nodding wild onion, Allium cernuum. It is called nodding because it does not stand erect and, unusual for onions, is bent over even when flowering. It announces itself with white or deep pink or rose flowers with a strong scent of onion. According to a description from the 1890s, these onions look “bright on the whole since the reddish hues prevail. They are often in such quantities and grow so thickly that little else is noticeable where they stand.”
Such bright wild patches are a very rare sight today, even in their native habitat such as the Chicago area, though they are also found in Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Saskatchewan, and Ontario.
There are seventy species of wild onion native to North America. Native American Indians harvested them and sometimes ate them raw, but also used them to flavor cooked dishes or would eat them as a cooked vegetable. Onions were also used in syrups and in dyeing. Roasted wild onions and honey were used by Native Americans to treat snakebites.
There does not appear to have been much cultivation of alliums by Native North Americans, with the notable exception of the Aztecs. But Europeans could not imagine life without cultivated onions and so brought them with them.
Christopher Columbus, apparently finding no onions on his first voyage to the Caribbean, which was a voyage of exploration, brought along onion seeds, cattle, horses, and sheep on his second voyage, which was a voyage of colonization. In 1494 his crew planted onions in what is now the Dominican Republic.
But Mexicans may have already cultivated alliums. Hernán Cortés, in his march of conquest from Vera Cruz to Tenochtitlán, now Mexico City, found that the local people cooked onions, leeks, and garlic. According to Cortés, they ate an onion called xonacatl. This is a word in Nahuatl, the original Aztec language that is still in use. Today it means “onion,” but what kind of onion the original xonacatl was is not certain. In Mayan the word is kukut. Francisco Hernández, a physician to Philip II of Spain, was sent to Mexico from 1570 to 1577 to report on the flora. According to Hernández, xonacatl was an onion with a “split roof,” which probably meant a split bulb, more like a shallot.
Pre-Spanish cooking, much of which is still in practice, does not use a great deal of alliums. The rich sauces called moles involved dozens of ground-up ingredients but rarely an onion. The famous mole from Puebla, mole poblana, uses some five different chili peppers, chocolate, ground tortilla, seeds, and a dozen other ingredients including garlic, but no onions. Mole manchamanteles does include both boiled onions and garlic on its long ingredient list. Mole de olla also uses both onions and garlic.
It is far easier to trace pre-Spanish Mexican cooking than Sumerian, because the Spanish recorded what they found and the Indigenous people still have their culture and are continuing to cook the dishes they made before the Spanish arrived. Some modern inventions have crept in. City tortillas now are made by machine, but the people in Indigenous villages think this is a disgrace and tortillas there are still made by hand, exclusively by women. Recipes still call for xonacatl, but today cooks usually use the onion the Spanish brought. This is historian Heriberto García Rivas’s recipe for xonacatl in his cookbook Cocina prehispánica mexicana:
In a little hot chia oil, fry three onions finely chopped. Add three ripe zucchini squash, peeled and quartered, a tablespoon of yucca or sweet potato flour, stir with a wooden spoon, mix in six large peeled and seeded tomatoes, maguey or corn syrup, salt, pepper, herbs, cook slowly.
It is not certain that the Indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest ate the bulbs of wild onions, but it is known that, like ancient Europeans, they ate other bulbs. They were particularly fond of camas, Camassia quamash, which, like onions, used to be thought of as a lily variety. More recent botanists have decided it is in the family of the agave.
White pioneers learned to eat camas in desperate times, noting that it was similar to but sweeter than an onion. But there is another camas that is deadly poisonous, known as “the death camas,” which grows among the edible camas and creates understandable reluctance among newcomers to harvest these bulbs. After the Nez Perce gave some good camas to Lewis and Clark, Lewis described it as “a tunicated bulb, much the consistence, shape and appearance of the onion; glutinous or somewhat slymy when chewed.” He thought lilies and hyacinths tasted better.
As in Europe, Native Americans were extremely fond of the wild onion called ramps, or ramson, a strong-smelling species. They cooked ramps as a vegetable sautéed in acorn oil. These alliums are among the first green vegetables to come up in the spring when little else is available and so were greatly valued, even used in religious rites by some tribes, including Chippewa, Cherokee, Ojibwa, Menominee, and Iroquois.
Early European colonists considered eating ramps to be a desperate move, and their smell was associated with extreme poverty, but they learned from Native Americans and these wild vegetables became an important resource for starving settlers. Native Americans continue to value these wild plants, but because of overharvesting and destruction of wild lands, they are becoming hard to find. They often grow undisturbed on the lands of national parks, but the reason they are undisturbed is that picking wild plants from national parks is illegal.
Native groups have tried to be granted an exception, but that is a difficult fight. Cherokee were charged in 2009 with illegally harvesting ramps from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, despite the park being situated on their traditional plantgathering lands. This is an ongoing fight for a number of Native American groups.
Europeans preferred cultivated onions because that was what they were used to. One hundred and fifty years after Columbus, there were still few onions cultivated in the Caribbean or North America. When Richard Ligon, escaping the English Civil War, moved to Barbados in 1647, he carried with him not only seeds for sage, tarragon, parsley, and marjoram, but also onion seeds, and thus began Barbados’s onion cultivation.
The first Pilgrims brought onions with them on the Mayflower. Onions were planted in Massachusetts in 1629 and in Virginia in 1648. The founding father known to be a great onion eater, George Washington, seemed passionate about them, and ordered onions to be planted at Mount Vernon, according to a 1798 report. Thomas Jefferson left detailed accounts that show that onions were a staple crop on his Virginia estate, Monticello, before, during, and after the Revolutionary War, and even on land he owned before construction began on the estate in 1769. He seemed to have favored white Spanish onions, but Madeira and tree onions were also planted. Amelia Simmons, author of the first cookbook published in independent America, in Hartford in 1796, recommended Madeira white onions if you prefer a “softer” flavor and “not too fiery.” But, like Pliny, she also recommended red onions.
By 1806 the new Americans were raising six varieties of onions, and by the time of the Civil War, there were fourteen popular varieties.
The Easterners who went west in the mid-nineteenth century found few onions under cultivation. They greatly missed them, even though they liked to call them “skunk eggs” because of their strong smell. Because of their ability to store well, onions later became a basic provision for migrating pioneers on the wagons that went west. An 1860 issue of Hutchings’ California Magazine listed onions as one of the “necessities” for an eight-day journey into the mountains.
Elizabeth Bacon Custer, the widow of the infamous George Armstrong Custer, did not write of his racism and genocide, but she did write about onions while camping in the west with Custer, saying that they were “as rare out there, and more appreciated than pomegranates are in New York.”
Custer and his younger brother Tom, who also died on the Little Bighorn, were zealous cepaphiles. But apparently, in a rare criticism, Elizabeth was not fond of her husband’s onion breath. In an 1873 letter to his wife while on an expedition to the Yellowstone River, Custer wrote that he was filling up on onions now that he was away from her. “I supped on RAW ONIONS; I will probably breakfast, lunch and dine on them tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after ad libitum ad infinitum . . . Go it old fellow! Make the most of your liberties! . . . If you intend to eat raw onions now is your only time for ‘missus is comin.’ ”
Custer seems to have taken onions as he found them, but some Americans wanted more—they wanted them bigger, smaller, stronger, milder, sweeter. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries onions were to become big business.
From The Core of an Onion: Peeling the Rarest Common Food – Featuring More Than 100 Historical Recipes by Mark Kurlansky, on sale November 7th from Bloomsbury Publishing. Copyright © Mark Kurlansky, 2023. All rights reserved.