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Onion Harvest

January 12, 2010

September 25, 2009

I’m sorry if it’s been a while – I slipped in the basement and found myself buried under a great heaping pile of freshly harvested onions. The good news is that I emerged completely free of rheumatism, arthritis, gout, bad humours, boils and negative vibes. The bad news is that maintaining a dry environment in my somewhat-porous Cape Cod basement has proven to be a formidable challenge. Proper storage and preservation of the harvest is key, and, after years of late-winter discoveries of  once-gorgeous, juicy heads of carefully dried and braided garlic turned to dust and those mouth-watering heaps of home-grown onions liquified and too many of the hard-won butternut squash developing squishy spots that overtake the fruit, I’m over it. I need advice. I need a copy of Mike Bubel’s “Root Cellaring,” and when I have a few sheckles to rub together I will make a grab for a used copy from Amazon. In the meantime, I am trying to can all I can, in hopes of happily tasting those onions next March – and I’m emptying the resevoir in the dehumidifier at a dizzying rate.

It troubles me that we can ruin so much of what we grunt and sweat and spend to grow, even with all the modern innovations of refrigeration, freezing, canning, and dehumidification. But it really doesn’t surprise me. For as many steps forward as we take, we seem to inexorably stride away from the centuries of knowledge that native peoples possessed. Not that our local predecessors were free from “rabbit starvation” and the like, but if I had to survive on what I harvested and killed during the kinder months, I would quickly be no more. The loss of native wisdom in the face of high-tech innovation may be a subject more suited to discussion during the dark of winter, when all the nice gear from Columbia Sportswear and EMS and L.L. Bean still can’t keep the snow from getting between the little one’s mittens and jacket cuffs and when multiple snowsuits must be at-the-ready as they all become quickly saturated. Thoughts turn to inside-out fur vestments, maybe oiled with seal fat, but we’re jumping ahead too much for my taste and my instant-gratification culture.

The issue at hand is the onions, and I’m hoping I cured and dried them enough to make them last. The harvest from last year held on fairly well, with the yellow onions going bad first, the whites following on their heels and the reds holding fast until early spring – or until they ran out. My garden is not huge, and I supplemented my stash with store-bought stock, a mistake I will not soon repeat. Rather than figuratively and literally put them up on a shelf, I have learned the hard way to eat them up. No more rationing.

While brainstorming ways to preserve the onions, I ran across some enticing lore of medicinal and magical nature. Some of these curious tidbits came my way in an appropriately curious fashion. We periodically peruse the stacks at our local transfer station ‘swap shop’, and the literary volumes available there put the free-will offering at the local library to shame. It is interesting to see ‘collections’ deposited in their entireties, and it isn’t hard to spot them. Recently someone unloaded a collection of works that offered a glimse into what must have been the result of some kind of spiritual quest. We found books dealing with herbal magic, geological magic, sweat lodges, Native American medicine, folklore and history. We grabbed them all and settled in for some reading.

Scott Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs offered up previously unknown info on onions.

Apparently, the onion is of masculine gender and ruled by the planet Mars. Its element is fire and its deity Isis, and its powers are protection, exorcism, healing, money, prophetic dreams and lust. Impressive stuff for the simple-looking orb born and raised in the dirt. After this introduction it gets juicy.

Under the heading “Magical Powers,” Cunningham writes, “Take a small white onion, stick it full of black-headed pins, and place it in a window. This will guard against the intrusion of evil into the home. The flowers are decorative and protective, and can be dried and placed in the home for an unsual and protective amulet. Carried, the onion gives protection against venomous beasts. Grown in pots or in the garden, they also shield against evil. Halved or quartered onions placed in the house will absorb negativity and evil, as well as disease. For healing, rub the cut end of an onion against the afflicted body part, visualizing the disease going into the onion. Then destroy the onion by burning or smashing and bury. Settlers in New England hung strings of onions over doorways to guard against infections, and a cut onion placed below the kitchen sink has long been used for the same purpose. To cure warts, rub them with a piece of onion and throw over your right shoulder. Walk away without looking back. A large red onion tied to the bedpost protects the occupant against sickness, and aids in recuperation. Never throw onion skins and peelings onto the ground – if you do, you throw away your prosperity. Instead, burn them in the cookstove or fireplace to attract riches. An onion placed beneath the pillow can produce prothetic dreams. If you are faced with making a decision, scratch your options on onions, one to each onion. Place them in the dark. The first one that sprouts answers you. Some ancient authorities state that when eaten, the onion “provokes to venery,” i.e. produces lust. Magical knives and swords are purified by rubbing their blades with fresh cut onions, and if you throw an onion after a bride, you’ll throw away her tears.”

If treatment of specific maladies is more interesting to you than warding away that omnipresent evil, the first  Foxfire Book offers some intriguing down-home uses for onions. Compiled from selections from the Foxfire Magazine, Eliot Wigginton’s book includes lessons in hog dressing, snake lore, faith healing, hunting tales, moonshining, and, as Wigginton puts it, ‘…other affairs of plain living.’ The stories were gathered by Wigginton and his high-school students, who headed into the Southern Appalachians ‘…armed with tape recorders and cameras.’

The home remedies in the book include wonderfully rustic concotions that often involve lard, turpentine, kerosene and whiskey, and there are fanciful cures that call for rendering the fat of a polecat. Most of the remedies involving onions are slightly more palatable.

For chest congestion, ‘Make and onion poultice by roasting an onion, then wrapping it in spun-wool rags and beating it so that the onion juice soaks the rags well. Apply these rags to the chest.” For croup, ‘Squeeze the juice out of a roasted onion and drink,’ or ‘Boil an onion, some turpentine, and some lard together. Pour the juice on a cloth and put it on the chest.’ If pneumonia is your worry, ‘Make an onion poultice to make the fever break. Then give the person whiskey and hot water.’ For a sore throat, ‘Bake onions in an open fireplace; then tie them around your throat.’ If you happen to be caring for a child with a serious illness, forget the onions. ‘Take some blood from the child’s arm, put it on a grain of corn and feed it to a black hen.’

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