December 7, 2023


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Why Do Onions Make You Cry? Biology

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In botany an onion is known as genus Allium, a name first given in 1753 by Carl Linnaeus, who established the naming system for the natural order. One of the most numerous plant genera, there are between 600 and 750 different species of Allium. The word allium may come from a Celtic word meaning “strong flavored.” Others say it is from the Greek aleo, “to avoid,” because of the pungency. The Celtic version is more pleasant but the Greek more likely.

Onion recipes throughout the centuries have offered a variety of strategies to ease the pain or even avoid tearing. A Chinese text from the Song dynasty (960–1279) recommended ginger and jujubes, sometimes called Chinese dates. The parsley cure for both breath and tearing eyes was suggested in 1629 by London apothecary John Parkinson in his Paradisi in Sole, which also prescribed onion juice to heal burns.

Florence Irwin, a traveling Irish “domestic science” instructor in the early 1900s, taught her students to remove the sting from onions by a technique called scalding. This was her technique, which actually works: “Peel the onions, place in a basin, add a pinch of salt. Cover with fast boiling water. Leave about one minute. Strain off the water.”

Some suggest that the pain to the eyes can be reduced by running water near them. This seems a folk cure, but it has a scientific underpinning: Just as the sulfur compound is drawn to the water of the eyes, it will be drawn away to the tap water. Keeping onions cold in the refrigerator can also help, because cold reduces the onion’s ability to release its gasses.

Using a sharp knife is a good idea too, because the sharper the knife, the fewer cells are disturbed, but the onion can still make you cry. It is sometimes suggested that lighting a match, holding an unlit match in your teeth, holding a crust of bread in the mouth, or biting on the handle of a wooden spoon can help. There is not much science behind those solutions.

I myself have found some success with the running water or refrigeration, and none with the bread, match, or wooden spoon. Another thing that I have found helpful that, oddly, is rarely mentioned, is to protect your eyes by wearing glasses. Onion goggles are available too. But remember, the onion’s defense system is powerful: If the compound can get to your nose, it has a pathway to your eyes.

From The Core of an Onion: Peeling the Rarest Common Food – Featuring More Than 100 Historical Recipes by Mark Kurlansky, releasing November 7 from Bloomsbury Publishing. Copyright © Mark Kurlansky, 2023. All rights reserved.

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