I’ve tried for years to write a poem about an onion. I’ve had little success, but the effort is quite apropos, as I owe a lot to this little bulb. I know some people don’t like the onion. It is the weep-maker, the Jeremiah of vegetables. Readers of Robert Farrar Capon will perhaps have a little more sympathy (see The Supper of the Lamb), but for me, it is the gateway through which I must often go.
I am the chef around our house. I started this journey long ago, when I was a kid eating canned pasta I heated in a yellow sauce pot on my mother’s electric range. I couldn’t leave it just as the manufacturers intended. It had to have basil. This stuff was dried and finely diced, little more than jade confetti. Regardless, it did add a cool, herbal tone that balanced out the meaty, cloying over-boldness of Franco-American’s signature sauce. I added a few more things and ate the whole mess over white bread spread with cold butter. From that point, I grew to improving my scrambled egg technique and making vague attempts at sautéed mushrooms in college. Now I’m protective of my iron skillets and my good knife, and I don’t cook greens unless I have at least an hour and a half; I prefer three—two to cook and one to rest them until dinnertime.
That said, I get stumped. After a long day, or after a week of cooking dinner every night and warring against a dirty kitchen, I simply don’t possess the creativity to take measure of what’s in the fridge and compile it into some newfangled permutation I haven’t tried in a while. Enter, the humble onion.
You get a little butter, preferably unsalted, and toss it in the iron skillet on high. Cast iron is the ox of the kitchen—stolid, slow-and-steady, and, when you need it to be, an unstoppable force. Dice your onions or slice them thin and toss them in right before the butter starts to foam. Turn the heat to just above medium. The cast iron will catch and hold the residual high heat and apply it evenly. Move the onions around with a wooden spatula or spoon until each piece is heated through without inner cold spots. Then cover those babies up, turn ‘em on low, and let ‘em think about their sins awhile. Sweating onions in butter draws out their waters and sugars and steeps the whole shebang, mellowing the acidity into a sweet, golden delight.
Don’t feel pressured to come up with something to capture the Nobel committee or vie for a Pulitzer. Sometimes the motion itself is enough.Adam Whipple
It’s at this point that I begin to find my way toward figuring out supper. Creatively speaking, if I don’t know what to cook, sautéing onions will loosen my writer’s block—or chef’s block, as it were. I’ve done it so much that I can be on auto-pilot somewhat, and the very action, even though I’m familiar enough to do it reflexively, gets me cooking. It knocks the rust off my imaginative machinery and gets things moving. The motion of the muse is encouraging, and I begin to see the possibilities before me. I’ll remember a packet of sausage, or some kale languishing in the crisper. I’ll think of white wine and chicken stock and butter—always more butter. Eventually, my wife will wander into the kitchen and ask what’s for supper, and I’ll have something to say besides “Can we go out for Mexican?”
Being quarantined, some of us have felt both the blessing and the burden of too much time. Our prayers are with those slammed, exposed heroes of our society—doctors and nurses, grocery store clerks, garbage collectors, local policy makers, and the like. Staying home, furloughed from work, we still want to do our part. Yet if we give any attention at all to our imaginative proclivities, we may find ourselves paralyzed by the sudden appearance of too many possibilities. If one can do absolutely any-thing, then doing some-thing can be difficult. We need to sauté onions. We need something that will at least get our mental wires humming.
This will be different for every person, I expect. As a songwriter, I like listening to new records or going to concerts. I’m guilty of taking a notebook to a show, then escaping the venue halfway through because some line or progression stirred a latent idea and I had to write it down. It takes me a month to listen to a new CD, because I try to drink in every drop of artistic offering. In the interim, various chords or melodic ideas set loose my own thoughts and concepts, and I have to pause and explore those impulses to see where they lead.
What we’re talking about is essentially starter fluid, that noxious accelerant you spray into the lawnmower carburetor every March. All of a sudden, there’s work to do and a sudden influx of gasoline, but if you keep yanking the cord, the engine gets flooded and does nothing. You need a jump start. Who knows what it is or will be? Maybe it’s a walk in the woods, or sitting and watching the downtown stoplights blink for no one in the wee hours of the morning. Maybe it’s viewing a highbrow film that you don’t even like. Maybe it’s driving or showering. Whatever it is, don’t feel pressured, what with all your free time, to come up with something to capture the Nobel committee or vie for a Pulitzer. Sometimes the motion itself is enough. We create because we were made creative, and even adding to the slush pile is better than doing nothing out of fear. Shooting the moon for prizes is a little prideful anyway. All you really need is an onion, and maybe a little butter.