Despite a shared geographic location and a common heritage, the South remains a richly diverse region, with every section of every state priding itself on its own specific traditions and culture. But there is an ingredient that combines our myriad distinct flavors into one delicious dish: a relationship with food that goes far beyond sustenance and survival. We celebrate our style of cooking with huge festivals, find comfort in casseroles, express love with home-cooked pies, and attach astronomical value to a bushel or two of just-shelled lady peas.
But what about the humble onion? While it’s an integral part of numerous classics in Southern cuisine, I’d argue it rarely receives the praise that it deserves.
My first onion memory is one I recall with all my senses. I can visualize standing in my grandmother’s kitchen as my uncle grabbed an onion, peeled its “paper” off and bit a chunk out of its side like he was tearing into an apple. He tossed it to an eight-year-old me, and without question, I followed suit. The instant my teeth broke the thin skin, a pungent jolt assaulted my nose and flooded my mouth. My uncle burst out laughing, but I didn’t spit it out. I didn’t even want to. The taste was unexpected but not really unpleasant. I learned right then that I love onions. I always use more than is called for by recipes. I add onion to those that don’t include it on the list. I’m the person who eats the crunchy rings of raw onion set out on well-worn tables at fish camps.
I now know that others don’t share my unadulterated adoration of the onion, so I’m careful to tone my onion-overload down when cooking for others. I’ve also figured out that there are plenty of folks who don’t even like onions at all.
In fact, onions are kind of the veggie underdog in the Southern culinary club, sometimes hated, many times unappreciated. They’re not put on a pedestal like the soft, fuzzy peach. Not prized like a perfectly ripe tomato. They play only bit roles in the wistful wintertime dreams of summer’s harvest. We’ve relegated them to mere sidekick status; they’re seen mostly as a seasoning, one element in a menagerie of background flavors used to support something else. And I get it.
Onions aren’t pretty like a handful of frosted-indigo blueberries or a wedge of watermelon with its fresh green arch crowning a triangle of brilliant red. They’re not sweet like corn or subtle like pale yellow squash. They’re plain looking and on their own can taste sharp and, sometimes, downright harsh.
Yet, if you give it a little thought, onions could be considered analogous to our Southern experience. Initial success for settlers in our region was wrenched from the earth much in the same way onions are pulled from the ground. Peeling away an onion’s many layers and digging into its flesh can bring on tears just as delving into painful pieces of the South’s past can wet our eyes. But we push on anyway, knowing the bad will pass and we’ll get to the good, the same way our hardy ancestors did, learning lessons all along the way.
Onion farming is also a huge agricultural industry in the South, creating thousands of jobs and annually contributing billions to local economies. And in the kitchen, when utilized by someone who understands their strengths and weaknesses, onions are worth their weight in gold. Imagine a squash casserole without them. Bland. That praised perfect tomato? It reaches new heights when combined with chopped onion and bit of vinegar and oil. The best gumbo and the greatest gravy you’ve likely ever had were built on the onion’s firm foundation. There’s a good chance a little grated onion is the secret to your favorite pimento cheese. But while they are essential in these roles, onions can stand on their own too. Bake them with some cream and a splash of white wine. Batter ’em and fry them golden in hot oil.
With the sweet squatty orbs from places like Vidalia, Georgia, currently at their peak, there’s no better time than now to make onions the star of the show, and it’s easy with a batch of Onion-Bacon Jam. It takes some time to make, but the payoff is well worth the investment. Use it to embellish a burger, spoon it over a wedge of melted brie, or just eat it with a spoon. The smoky, salty goodness of bacon and a low, slow cooking process unlock the onion’s depth and complexity and put them center stage.
2 large sweet onions, chopped
5 slices of thick-cut bacon, chopped (approx. 1 cup)
1 1/2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
1 tablespoon honey (raw and local is best)
1/4 cup water
In a large dutch oven, cook the bacon over medium high heat until it gets crisp. Remove the bacon and place on a paper-towel lined plate. Discard most of the bacon grease, but leave 2 tablespoons in the pot. Add the onions and cook, until soft, about 15 minutes. Add the vinegar, honey, water, and cooked bacon, reduce the heat to medium low, and cover the pot. Cook for 1 1/2 to 2 hours or until the onions are caramelized to a medium brown color and the mixture reaches a thick, slightly sticky consistency. Add the thyme and cook on low 5 to 10 minutes more, uncovered. Let cool to room temperature and enjoy! Keeps in the fridge up to two weeks (if it lasts that long).
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