Dietribes: Peeling the Onion


The Onion. No, not that Onion. Rather, the delectable vegetable that adds a great deal of flavor to your meal and aroma to your kitchen. At the workhouse, Oliver Twist was lucky to get "Three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week, and half a roll on Saturdays." I can't imagine eating an onion plain, but perhaps some of you have. For now, shake or stir your Gibson cocktail (garnished with an onion, of course), and learn more about this fantastic foodstuff.

"¢ According to the Cambridge World History of Food, "The onion may have originated in Persia (Iran) and Beluchistan (eastern Iran and southwestern Pakistan), but it is also possible that onions were indigenous from Palestine to India [...] the consumption of onions is depicted in the decoration of Egyptian tombs dating from the Early Dynasty Period, c. 2925"“c. 2575 B.C. Onions were used as religious offerings, put on altars and, as is known from mummified remains,were employed in preparing the dead for burial (placed about the thorax and eyes, flattened against the ears, and placed along the legs and feet and near the pelves). The Greek historian Herodotus reported that onions, along with radishes and garlic, were a part of the staple diet of the laborers who built the Great Pyramid at Giza (2700"“2200 B.C.)"

"¢ Not merely a tasty addition to many dishes, onions are also thought to relieve hypertension, hyperlipemia and coronary artery disease. Also, onions contain antioxidative activity, which can be increased by microwave heating or boiling.

"¢ Onions vary in size, shape, color and pungency. For instance, warmer climates produce onions with a milder, sweeter flavor than do other climates. From the Encyclopedia Britannica, a quick field guide to onion varieties:

"“ Globe-shaped onions may be white, yellow, or red. They have strong flavor and are used chiefly for soups, stews, and other prepared dishes and for frying.

"“ Bermuda onions are large and flat, with white or yellow color and fairly mild taste. They are often cooked and may be stuffed, roasted, or French-fried. They are also sliced and used raw in salads and sandwiches.

"“ Spanish onions are large, sweet, and juicy, with color ranging from yellow to red. Their flavor is mild, and they are used raw and sliced for salads and sandwiches and as a garnish.

"“ Italian onions are flat, with red color and mild flavor. They are used raw for salads and sandwiches, and their red outer rings make an attractive garnish.

"“ Pearl onions are not a specific variety but are small, round, white onions harvested when 25 mm (1 inch) or less in diameter. They are usually pickled and used as a garnish and in cocktails. Small white onions that are picked when between 25 and 38 mm in diameter are used to flavor foods having fairly delicate taste, such as omelets and other egg dishes, sauces, and peas. They are also served boiled or baked.

"“ Green onions, also called scallions and spring onions, are young onions harvested when their tops are green and the underdeveloped bulbs are 13 mm or less in diameter. Their flavor is mild, and the entire onion, including top, stem, and bulb, is used raw in salads and sauces, as a garnish, and also as a seasoning for prepared dishes.

"¢ Of course, one of the most popular varieties of onion is the Vidalia because of its mild flavor. The Vidalia often fetches as much as three times the price of ordinary onions. Grown in Georgia, it will not cause "your nose to run, your heart to burn, or your sweetheart to gag" (at least according to Jimmy Carter's former press secretary). Tests have shown that the sugar content in the Vidalia is highest of all; it seems to have something to do with the mild climate and the paucity of sulfur in the sandy soil.

"¢ Because of its popularity, the Vidalia has had to contend with its share of impostors. In 1986, a case went to the Georgia Supreme Court against onions grown in Texas and California that called themselves "Vidalia Sweet Onions." After the case was settled, the Georgia legislature passed a law that stated only onions grown in specific counties of Georgia could be labeled as Vidalia.

"¢ If onions are so wonderful, why do they make you cry? Find out by reading this article, which describes the chemical process, along with a few remedies. A friend once told me if you put a wooden spoon in your mouth it works to stave off the tears. This is as of yet untested .... has it worked for anyone else?

onion-goggles.jpg"¢ If all else fails for the very sensitive, consider purchasing your own pair of onion goggles, or finding scientifically meddled-with, tear-free onions.

"¢ First Prize at the 2007 Onion and Leek Show went to Paul Rochester for an onion over 15 lbs. His secret? Playing swing tunes to the plants, something I once tried for a science-fair project, to negligible results (my violin playing did better than the plant which I talked to, though. It died).

"¢ After all this onion business, you may need a bit of parsley to get rid of that onion breath ... at least, according to the National Onion Association that is.

"¢ What are you favorite ways to use an onion? I often caramelize it and include it in everything from stir fry to pizza to a scrumptious gourmet grilled cheese sandwich (though I don't cook them for nearly as long as that site recommends).

Hungry for more? Venture into the Dietribes archive.

"˜Dietribes' appears every other Wednesday. Food photos taken by Johanna Beyenbach. You might remember that name from our post about her colorful diet.

University of Pittsburgh
Researchers Create Motorized Wheelchair Made for the Water Park
University of Pittsburgh
University of Pittsburgh

Despite advances in technology, there are many aspects of the world that remain inaccessible to people with disabilities. But researchers at the University of Pittsburgh are working to make one activity easier for people who use motorized wheelchairs: navigating water parks.

The average motorized wheelchair has a number of electrical and battery components that can’t get wet, limiting who can access the joys of splash parks and pools. But a new wheelchair that uses compressed air instead of a heavy battery could change that, Gizmodo recently reported.

Created through a joint research project between University of Pittsburgh engineers, the university’s medical center, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the PneuChair is lighter and quicker to charge than traditional motorized chairs. It can also be repaired with basic hardware tools if something breaks in the midst of all the splashing.

The 80-pound chair (a traditional device can weigh up to 400 pounds) can travel about three miles on one charge, about a third of the maximum distance of an electric mobility device. Another benefit: It only takes 10 minutes to recharge rather than eight hours.

The university's Human Engineering Research Laboratories is also working on a scooter version for people who don't need the assistance of a full chair. “The potential to open opportunities for people with disabilities who need powered mobility to access splash parks, water parks, beaches or pools is transformative,” lab director Rory Cooper told the university's press service.

The PneuChair was designed in part for use at Morgan’s Inspiration Island, an upcoming water park in San Antonio that’s designed for people with disabilities. The accessible splash park—which is part of Morgan’s Wonderland, a fully accessible theme park—will initially offer 10 of the chairs to its guests for use while they’re there.

[h/t Gizmodo]

Dietribes: Cabbage

• Cabbages are derived from the wild mustard plant of the Mediterranean region, and have been popular since ancient times. Cato the Elder praised the cabbage for its many medicinal uses.

• Cabbages are highly nutritious, containing large amounts of Vitamin C, folate and fiber. That and its low calorie count is why some people use cabbage on weight-loss diets.

• However, the cabbage is also known to have a certain undesirable gastric side effect. As Nicholas Culpeper said in A Complete Herbal (1653) "Cabbages are extremely windy, whether you take them as meat or as medicine, as windy meat as can be eaten, unless you eat bag-pipes or bellows."

• Remember "freedom fries"? That wasn't the first time the name of one of our foods has been attempted to be changed because of political fervor. During World War I, Americans renamed sauerkraut "liberty cabbage."

• No one knows exactly how the Cabbagetown neighborhood in Atlanta got its name, though stories include the idea that the original poor Scotch-Irish residents (workers at the nearby cotton mill) would grow cabbages in their front yards, and that the smell of cooked cabbage was a nuisance (and later a point of pride). Other apocryphal suggestions include a train derailing or a Model T car overturning and spilling cabbages everywhere for people to snatch up, shouting "Free Cabbages!"

• Georgia has another cabbage connection - Cabbage Patch Kids, which were originally called Little People. In the late 1970s, art student Xavier Roberts started creating "soft sculptures," which he later expanded on by giving them birth certificates and allowing "adoptions." In 1982 the name changed to Cabbage Patch. By the mid-80s, the dolls went on record as having the most successful and in-demand introduction of a toy ever.

• Though cabbages have often been thought of throughout history as a cheap food, that's certainly not true in Northern Canada, where a cabbage can cost $28. The northern Canadian territory of Nunavut is so remote that anything not a product of hunting and gathering must be flown in.

• By the way, that corned beef and cabbage you cook up for St. Patricks Day? Not actually Irish. Though corned beef was made in Ireland in the 17th and 18th centuries, most Irish families were too poor to eat it. Instead it went to British citizens as well as the British and U.S. military. These days, the Irish reportedly find the dish just plain boring.

• Cabbages can have a killer instinct - genetically modified cabbages can produce scorpion poison that kills caterpillars when they bite leaves. But don't worry, the toxin is modified so it isn’t harmful to humans. (I like that the title of the article is "Venomous Cabbage"!)

• Another way to get rid of pests in your cabbage? Er, human urine. According to a 2007 study, "Our results show that human urine could be used as a fertilizer for cabbage and does not pose any significant hygienic threats or leave any distinctive flavor in food products." Good to know?

• The largest cabbage on record was called "The Beast" and weighed 127 pounds. Reportedly it wasn't actually particularly tasty, so it ended up as compost rather than on anyone's plate.

• How do you like to eat your cabbages, Flossers? And have you found a way to counteract their less-desirable side-effects?

Hungry for more? Venture into the Dietribes archive.

‘Dietribes’ appears every other Wednesday. Food photos taken by Johanna Beyenbach. You might remember that name from our post about her colorful diet.


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