Mark Kurlansky explores power of onions in latest book

Author’s visit to Atlanta will include a multi-course dinner Nov. 16 at Holeman & Finch
Author Mark Kurlansky's latest book looks at the cultural, historical and gastronomical influences of the onion. Courtesy of Paula Pontes



Author Mark Kurlansky's latest book looks at the cultural, historical and gastronomical influences of the onion. Courtesy of Paula Pontes

About 25 years ago, my days consisted of juggling toddlers while fitting in freelance writing during naptime. When the 5 o’clock witching hour would come, I’d frantically turn my thoughts to dinner and try to ignore my mini people’s meltdowns.

My friend Zemka, the seasoned mother of two teenagers at the time, offered me some sage advice to get me through harried home cooking moments: Grab an onion. You’ll figure out the rest as you chop, she said.

Author Mark Kurlansky makes a similar observation in his new book, “The Core of an Onion” (Bloomsbury, $28). “In much of the world, from Asia to the Mediterranean, the first step in cooking is often to chop an onion and have a good cry,” he writes. “It may be that across the globe cooking begins with onions because once onions are sautéed, the kitchen fills with the warm, sweet, inviting fragrance that seems to promise delectable things to follow.”

"The Core of an Onion" by Mark Kurlansky explores one of the most ubiquitous foods in the world and includes more than 100 historical recipes. Courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing

Credit: Courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing

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Credit: Courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing

In his usual witty way, Kurlansky — known for his many best-selling single-subject food books exploring the likes of cod, salt, milk, oysters and salmon — presents the cultural, historical and gastronomical influences of the allium cepa in his latest work. After reading the 200 pages, including 100 historical recipes, it’s hard not to develop cepaphilia, a word Kurlansky coined to denote “the love of onions.”

“People always say that I find all this stuff on just really commonplace, ordinary things,” Kurlansky said from his home in New York. Onions are commonplace, he added, “because they have such extraordinary attributes that people all over the world want to use them. It’s an incredible food that has properties unlike anything else.”

Mark Kurlansky is the author of numerous best-selling single-subject books, including "Cod," "Salt" and "Milk." His "The Core of an Onion" peels back the layers of a humble but beloved allium. Courtesy of Sylvia Plachy

Credit: Sylvia Plachy

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Credit: Sylvia Plachy

Read “The Core of an Onion” and you’ll come away with random facts that could come in useful at an upcoming holiday party. Some conversation icebreakers: Onions are the second-most produced vegetable in the world (tomatoes are No. 1). The U.S. ranks third in onion production, harvesting 6.75 billion pounds annually (China and India are Nos. 1 and 2, respectively). The sulfur compound in onions that induces tears is not the same one that produces its pungent flavor and smell.

Just as fun as the trivia are the onion tales that Kurlansky has unearthed. “The Olympic athletes of ancient Greece prepared for their contests by eating onions for strength and power or for good fortune,” he writes. “An athlete might eat a pound of onions and also drink onion juice, and rub onion on his belly.”

Some 3,000 years later, stinky onion breath is against the law in some places. “There are communities in the United States that still have old ordinances on their books against eating onions in public spaces,” especially movie theaters, he writes, adding that these bizarre laws are “almost never enforced and most of these communities are not even aware that such ordinances exist.”

That’s something he learned after making phone inquiries to the city of Northfield, Connecticut, about a local ban on eating an onion while walking down the street, as well as to city officials of Ridgeland, South Carolina, where “a woman weighing more than 200 pounds cannot be see eating onions in a restaurant or at a public picnic if she is wearing shorts.”

Kurlansky said that it amused him to learn about the class distinctions drawn between people who ate cooked onions and those who ate them raw. “When the Arabs controlled Sicily, they wrote about how dimwitted and backward the people of Palermo were,” he said. “The reason for this was that they ate raw onions. And the English did the same thing about the Scots.”

In a chapter titled “Looking for the Perfect Onion,” Kurlansky traces the origins of numerous onion varieties, including the pride of Georgia: Vidalia onions. These sweet onions first were planted in Georgia in 1932. The Toombs County farmer who planted them, Moses Coleman, got those seeds from a Texas company that had been experimenting in breeding onions that were less pungent and stinging on the eyes. In the 1940s, the sweet onion became the most popular product at a farmers market in Vidalia, the largest city in Toombs County, earning the variety its name.

Today, the designation of an onion as a Vidalia is as protected as the Italian balsamic vinegar of Modena or French comté cheese. Vidalia onions must be grown within 13 counties in Georgia or parts of seven others. There’s even an official packing date set each year by the Georgia Department of Agriculture; an onion sold prior to that date can’t be called a Vidalia.

In order to carry the Vidalia name, onions must be grown within 13 counties (or parts of seven others) in Georgia. AJC archives

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“There’s a few other places that also have sweet onions that have become part of the culture,” Kurlansky said, referencing Walla Walla, Washington, and the Hawaiian island of Maui. “I think that Vidalia, in terms of marketing and public relations, does it better than any of the others.”

Local chef Linton Hopkins is such an onion fan that he is presenting a multi-course dinner at Holeman & Finch when Kurlansky visits Atlanta Nov. 16 as part of a book tour. The meal will include 11 onion-centric recipes, ranging from the famous James Beard onion sandwich to rabbit with “Onion sauce! Onion sauce!” (a pejorative that Mole in “The Wind in the Willows” yells at a bunch of rabbits, Hopkins explained) and an onion lemon chess pie, similar to the recipe that earned Gail Barker first place in the 1987 Vidalia Onion Festival.

“It was fun for me to write this menu,” Hopkins said.

Kurlansky, likewise, had fun going down the onion rabbit hole. In fact, he concedes that “The Core of an Onion” differs from some of his other books, because it does not have “a strong environmental message.”

“I think that, right now, the world is so horrible that we all ought to ... just relax and read about onions,” he said.

And maybe have a good cry.


Nov. 16. $200 per person. Dinner presented by Cappella Books and Hopkins & Co. Three-course dinner features recipes from “The Core of an Onion.” Ticket also includes a copy of the book. Reserve tickets online. Holeman & Finch. 1201 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-948-1175,


This dessert recipe, published in Mark Kurlansky’s “The Core of an Onion,” features Vidalia onions. The recipe, created by Gail Barker, earned first place at the 1987 Vidalia Onion Festival. For a coconut onion pie, replace the lemon extract with 3 tablespoons of coconut extract and garnish the pie with grated coconut.

3 cups boiled sweet Vidalia onions

2 cups sugar

2 tablespoons butter or margarine, melted

3 eggs, beaten

2 tablespoons flour

3 tablespoons lemon extract

2 unbaked pie crusts

1 small container whipped topping

Place the drained, boiled onions in a blender and puree until smooth. Add sugar and butter. Mix well. Add eggs, flour and lemon extract and mix well. Pierce the bottom of an unbaked pie crust with a fork. Add 2¼ cups of filling to each crust. Bake at 350 degrees, until the crusts are brown. Cool and top with a whipped topping like Cool Whip. Garnish with lemon twists.

Makes two 9-inch pies.

Per serving: 275 calories (percent of calories from fat, 33), 3 grams protein, 44 grams carbohydrates, 31 grams total sugars, 1 gram fiber, 10 grams total fat (5 grams saturated), 34 milligrams cholesterol, 113 milligrams sodium.

From “The Core of an Onion: Peeling the Rarest Common Food — Featuring More Than 100 Historical Recipes” by Mark Kurlansky (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2023). Copyright Mark Kurlansky. Reprinted with permission.

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