Friday, March 7, 2014

Onions by Irena Rindos

I know they’re here somewhere. Maybe the pantry… No, not there…

Ah! Buried in the fridge behind old cold cuts. Should’ve known- finding anything in this kitchen is always a small ordeal. I grab a large sweet onion- it’ll be perfect for this dish. Now to find a clean pan and start cooking!


My first memory of onions centers around my mother’s pierogies. My brother and sister and I would look forward to the days she would make them- it was always unexpected, but as soon as she would whip out the potatoes and work the dough, we’d jump up and down, begging her to “make them faster!”, “let me help!”, “I want them noooww!”.

After delicately stuffing and sealing each dumpling, she’d grab a few onions and roughly chop them before sauteing them alongside the pierogies in a generous bath of butter. “Back in Poland,” she’d always say, “we’d eat lard and butter everyday and no one ever got fat.”

I’d wait impatiently at the table, taking in the smell of the onions caramelizing; mixing with the savory aroma of the dough and stuffing frying. A batch never lasted longer than several minutes, and on several occasions raw batches waiting for the pan were eaten out of impatience.


I grab a knife- I’ve always been fond of small paring knives- to pare off the skin, and then lay the onion down on a cutting board. There’s something very satisfying about chopping onions- each time I try to dice them smaller, neater than the last time. Thin, uniform cuts lengthwise, then precise perpendicular slices, swiping each cut aside, adding to the small growing heap of translucent squares.

There- I’ve finished chopping. I should poke around in the cabinets and find out where he keeps the oil..


For most of my youth, I hated onions- aside from pierogies, my only other exposure to them was as nasty little raw slices that would commandeer my mouth for a day.

That all changed when I was about seven. Every Sunday, my mother would boil an assortment of vegetables for a soup we’d bring to my great grandmother. Each time, she’d take a small bag of pearl onions and add them to the mix. The times I’d help her cook, I’d bat them around in the soup as I stirred, mystified by their transformation into glassy little bulbs. I never dared try them- they looked too much like the raw onions I hated.

I told my mother as much one afternoon in the kitchen. “Try one! They’re very sweet,” she told me. I didn’t trust her- she had a habit of tricking us from time to time- but for some reason I hoped perhaps she was right and bit into one. It was sweet, even enjoyable. I’m not sure why I hadn’t connected the transformative power of cooking before then (I had already realized how amazingly sweet boiled carrots were).


Now to saute these little guys… I’m always nervous whenever I saute onions. After all these years, I’m never quite sure what the right amount of oil is, or the heat, or time- the onions seem so fickle each time, demanding constant supervision and stirring as they slowly soak up the oil and caramelize. Increase the temperature, decrease it a bit, stir, they look like they’re cooking too slowly, increase the temperature, they start to stick a little… and so on.

The one constant I can rely on is that slightly sweet, tangy smell that always feels... homey. I can’t define it, but I know it when I smell it.


I always considered onions a staple, regardless of cuisine - I had seen them pop up in various Asian and African dishes in addition to the European and American fare I was accustomed to. I could understand holding a love-hate relationship with them, but aside from that, they seemed like a harmless standard ingredient in cooking. This, of course, changed.

One summer during college, I traveled to Vancouver to volunteer and ride bikes. I had arranged to spend the summer living in a “vegan house” with several other roommates, headed by my friend who I’ll call Burt. Burt seemed fairly normal when I met him, and continued to appear so until we went shopping for groceries after I moved in.

“You’re buying onions? Onions are bad for you, you know. I never eat onions.” I expected him to follow this up with something about pesticides, worker’s rights… but: “They’re too stimulating, get you too excited. That’s why buddhists don’t eat them. So I don’t eat them.”  I clutched at my bag of onions hesitantly, but bought them anyways.

I later found that his disdain extended to underwear - “Causes cancer!” - so that was that.


Mmm there it is -  that smell starts wafting towards me, and I know it’s time to move on. I toss in some spinach, give them a chance to soften and mingle with the onions. Looking up at the clock, I need to hurry - 20 minutes will be cutting it close.  I bat the contents of the pan around one last time before pouring in cups of broth and dumping in the orzo- the broth hasn’t had time to heat up, but I tell myself the orzo will soak up the water one way or another.


Growing up, I regarded onion rings as that weird appetizer you’d order if there weren’t any cheese sticks or nachos to be found. They were usually okay - the onion itself never held much flavor, and seemed to exist solely as something breading would adhere to. If you were unlucky, they’d arrive at the table soggy with grease, limply flopping around as you battled with the potential guilt of letting food go to waste.

After heading off to grad school, however, onion rings became a bar staple. Buy a pitcher and a basket, settle down at the table, share stories and steal a bite or two between words.


I bring a spoonful of orzo from the pan to my mouth and chew. It’s tender- the grains give perfectly under my teeth as I roll them around in my mouth. Excellent. A drizzle of olive oil, sprinkle of sea salt, and a generous dose of oregano later, I fold in the onions and wilted spinach. The oregano gives off an earthy, but delicious smell as it mixes into the orzo, with savory notes from the onions.

This’ll taste wonderful- and just in time, too; I hear keys in the lock of the front door, and he’ll be in the house soon. Bringing the bowl out to the kitchen and setting it near the plates, I see him walk in the door, and I think of how this, too, is something I appreciate about onions - I can share them with the people I love.

After earning an MFA I'm CG film production, Irena Rindos decided to further pursue the creative potential of programming. Her thesis film, Wycinanki, tells the story of her mother in Poland and can be seen at  . Currently, She's working on the script for an indie game, and hopes to create compelling narrative and art driven games in the future. Her twitter page can be found here, and her website can be found here.


some guy said...

Dang! what an awesome story! I wanna eat some orzo and perogies now...

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