Leeks, scallions, and the more pedestrian onion have been around a long time. Wandering in the wildness with Moses leading the way, the disgruntled “rabble that was among [the Israelites] had a strong craving” for the food, if not the laborious life style, they had left behind in Egypt. As the Israelites’s cuisine choices diminished and the rumblings of their stomachs grew louder, memories of forced labor faded. The only thing the despondent wanderers could recall was a bountiful table. And so, according to the biblical author of Numbers (11: 4-6), “the people of Israel wept again, and said, ‘O that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt…, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna…’” [See previous entry on quail.]
Cultivated worldwide for millennia, leeks, scallions, and onions have long been valued as recipe enhancers. Raw, they prick the palate and assault the nose. Cooked, their spicy bite is tempered to a delicate and aromatic sweetness. It was, perhaps, this culinary versatility that in 1211 prompted the Bishop of Winchester to authorize the expenditure of 1 shilling, 4 pence on “onion sets and shallots to plant, besides 6 pence on 2 pounds of onion seed, [and] 2 ½ pence for leeks.” Considered in terms of ground coverage rather than money, “we can estimate that about a quarter-acre [of the Bishop’s garden in Southwark] was under onions and shallots.”(1)
But taste enrichment was not the only benefit to be had from onions, leeks, and scallions. Whether green or dried and regardless of bulb size, the odiferous vegetable was believed to have a host of medicinal applications. Writing in the first century, Pliny the Elder (23-79 C.E.) reported in Natural History (book 19: 33. 108) that Nero, the infamous emperor who reportedly fiddled as Rome burned in July of 64 C.E., consumed leeks daily in order to maintain the clarity of his singing voice! The physician Alfonso Chirino (circa 1365-circa 1429) thought the piquant vegetable had better application elsewhere. In his Menor dano de la medicina, a book that provides therapies that enabled the general public to avoid visits to greatly feared medieval doctors, Chirino advised people suffering from hemorrhoids to mix onion with oil and apply to the affected area. (2) Presumably, the anti-inflammatory effects onions had on hemorrhoids also prompted its use to ease the pain of buboes during outbreaks of the bubonic plague. In Traicté de la Peste, 1566, François Vallériole proposed theriac,* a complex compound that included opiates, be stuffed into the hollow of a cooked onion that could then be applied as a poultice.
For those of robust disposition, onions and scallions had the added benefit of heightening sexual drive. Writing at the end of the 16th century, Bartolomeo Pisanelli maintained, “scallions serve no other purpose than to excite the libido.”(3) Other writers were more specific. Onions were believed to be particularly felicitous to sexuality, promoting sperm production in males and lactation in women. (4) But there was always the problem of too much of a good thing… too much onion could cause headaches! Accordingly, in the instructive text he penned for students of medicine in the first decade of the 14th century, Bernard de Gordon cautioned headache sufferers to refrain from consuming fish, walnuts, onions, and strong wine.(5) Headaches aside, the repeated positive correlation of onions and coitus is, to me at least, perplexing. As noted by the first century Roman poet Martial, “As often as you have eaten the strong-smelling shoots of Tarentine leeks, give kisses with a shut mouth.”(6)
The Tacuinum sanitatis, a guide to healthful eating that was probably written in the 11th century and then translated from Arabic to Latin sometime in the 13th century, provides a succinct summary of the benefits to be had from leeks, or “pori”, (and, perhaps by extension other members of the allium family). Beneath a picture of a man carrying a basket brimming with the leafy sheaths of the vegetable and a woman arranging bunches of them on a table is an informative commentary. Leeks, we are told, stimulate the flow of urine and encourage sexual activity. Additionally, when mixed with honey, leeks break-up chest congestion, a notion repeated by Giacomo Castelvetro in 1614. However, one must be aware that they can assault the senses (I assume the reference is to their pungent smell and biting taste) as well as the brain! To counter these effects, the reader is instructed to mix leeks with sesame or sweet almond oil. Finally, leeks are deemed particularly appropriate for the diets of the elderly and those living in northern climes. (7)
As for Renaissance recipes that include onions… well, they are perhaps best left alone. Bartolomeo Scappi (1570) suggested adding them to fricassees of cow’s udder. I think Julia Child’s classic onion soup is the better way to go!
Finally, there is yet another use for onions, one that has nothing to do with food or physiology. Years ago, I rented an apartment not far from the magnificent church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. I was on the top floor. Daily, I made the climb and daily I had to tip-toe my way through a pile of chopped – and very smelly – onions on the landing between the 2nd and 3rd floors. An enquiry explained the obstacle. A very old (it’s fair to say ‘ancient’) woman scattered them about in an attempt to keep away a pounce of black cats!
*THERIAC: compounds included as many as 80 ingredients that ranged from rue to ground rubies, honey, pepper, and myrrh as well as coral and vinegar.Its palliative effects far out-weighed any curative properties.
- John H. Harvey, “Vegetables in the Middle Ages,” Garden History, vol. 12, no. 2 (1984), page 94.
- Michael Solomon, The Literature of Misogyny in Medieval Spain (Cambridge University Press, 1997), page 100.
- Pisanelli, Trattato della natura de’ cibi et del bere, p. 25, as cited in Sheila McTighe, “Foods and the Body in Italian Genre Paintings, about 1580: Campi, Passarotti, Carracci,” Art Bulletin, vol. 86, no. 2 (2004), page 317.
- Madeleine Pelner Cosman, “A Feast for Aesculapius: Historical Diets for Asthma and Sexual Pleasure,” Annual Review of Nutrition, vol. 31, no. 1 (1983), page 6.
- Bernard de Gordon, Tractatus de conservation vite humane, as referenced in V. de Frutos Gonzáles and A.L. Guerrero Peral, “La neurologia en los regimina sanitatis medievales,” Nurologia, vol. 26 (2011), page 422.
- Brucia Witthoft, “The Tacuinum Sanitatis: A Lombard Panorama,”Gesta, vol. 17, no. 1 (1978), pages 49-60; Luisa Cogliati Arano, Tacunium sanitatis (Milan: Electa, 1973).
- Epigrams, book XIII. 18. For Castelvetro’s reference, see Giacomo Castelvetro, The Fruits, Herbs and Vegetables of Italy, trans. Gillian Riley (Totnes, Devon: Prospect Books, 2012), page 109.