Tears and Onions from Issue 58/59
“Life is an onion,” Nonna Agata used to say. “You can’t peel it without tears.” This rueful proverb, repeated often during my childhood, haunts me whenever I prepare onions. No matter how often I steel myself, no matter how often I am reassured by the homey objects in my kitchenㅡthe Arts and Crafts cabinets, the red Formica counter, the Cutco knife set, the Amish cutting board, the wooden plaque from Monte Cassino with the words Dacci Oggi il Nostro Pane Quotidiano, Give us this day our daily breadㅡI weep uncontrollably whenever I peel onions. My eyes don’t water so much as spurt, and for five overwhelming seconds, the world consists of nothing but tears and onions.
Until recently, having grown up in a Jersey suburb instead of a Sicilian village, I found no comfort in my grandmother’s wisdom. If anything, it made me feel more alienated and un-American. America is the land of happiness, after all, where memory should be a colorful slide show of Kodak moments, not a meditation on sorrow. If you don’t believe me, consider how many middle-class Americans prepare onions. With their Ronco peelers and dicers, they skin, quarter, and mince bulbs like magic, with no mess or tears. Those television chefs are even worse. Dressed in sterile white aprons, speaking with the monotonous enthusiasm of a NASA official promoting the next space shuttle, they assure you onions actually can be peeled without one sniffle.
Well, I’ve consulted all the WASP cookbooks, from Fannie Farmer to Martha Stewart, and none of the suggestions workㅡnot peeling onions under cold running water, not packing them in ice, not using a small fan. I am forever crying at my cutting board, much to the chagrin of my wife and friends, who sometimes catch me stifling a sob. When they ask what’s the matter, I repeat my grandmother’s proverb. “Life is an onion. You can’t peel it without tears.”
Nonna certainly knew about tears and onions. Even in her nineties, when her hands were gnarled roots and her face resembled a haggard lioness’s, she could peel onions all day, ten, fifteen pounds at a time. Her expression was always stoic, but the tears streamed like a fountain from her clouded blue eyes, and the onions piled higher than Mount Etna. Although she always peeled more onions than we possibly could use, she was neither senile nor crazy. She simply was used to cooking for lots of people, whether it was her large clan in a crowded Bay Ridge apartment or her thirty sharecroppers back in Sicily, where she had owned and managed olive and citrus groves.
Nonna’s property had included an onion field, which proved invaluable when feeding men. Meat, always scarce and tough in Sicily, was doubly so during the war, and Nonna tenderized hunks of beef and mutton in vats of onions. Miraculously, leathery meat would soften, tasteless meat would become savory, meat on the verge of spoiling would revive. In her prime, Nonna peeled mountains of onions to secure her land and her children’s love. In her dotage, she peeled mountains of onions to mourn their loss.
I vividly remember her last peeling marathon. It was May 13, 1981, the day John Paul II was shot. “On the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima!” Nonna wailed. “It’s the end of the world!” She was upset enough already. At the time, she was nursing my semi-invalid mother, her youngest and favorite daughter, who had suffered another attack of spinal arthritis. For two straight weeks, Mamma would scream all night from pain. Nonna and I hadn’t slept in days, so we were particularly distressed by the shooting. For comfort, she peeled onions at the patio table, while I sat beside her with my Remington and types on onion skin, the only available paper in the house. The letter came out like Braille. Nonna shook her head and grumbled. If Vatican security had heeded the prophecies of Fatima, the Holy Father would never have been harmed.