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Who the Hell Uses Onion Juice? - Mark Bittman

By John Thorne (

The other day I was leafing through a vintage edition of The Fannie Farmer Boston Cooking School Cookbook looking for American chop suey (a story for another time), when my eye fell on a recipe with an ingredient list that included a few drops onion juice and suddenly I was a child again, poking around in my grandmothers kitchen.

It was an odd little room. The family lived on the bottom floor of a large duplex, built by my grandfather in the 1920s in Wollaston, on Bostons South Shore. Long before I came along, my grandmother purchased a piano and turned the dining room into the piano room. Thus, the kitchen became the dining room and the adjoining pantry became the kitchen. It was just wide enough to hold the kitchen sink at one end and the gas stove at the other. (The refrigerator sat in the dining room.) Between them ran a narrow counter and, above and below it, storage shelves for cookware and food. This was the kitchen in which Nana prepared meals for a family of five children (my mother the only girl).

How she did it Ill never know, partly because by the time I was old enough to attend to such things, rheumatoid arthritis had laid her low. However, in those days lots of kitchen shelves were not a necessity: a grocery order was a phone call away, and the milkman and the Cushmans Bakery man came to the back door. (In fact, they came right through it, shouting a welcome as they did.) I do know that Nana was a good cook if a plain Yankee one, proud of her baking and willing to go the extra distance to give plain fare a touch of the special.

Even so, she required little in the way of seasonings. I still recall those yellow rectangular tins with the Stickney & Poor brand name spelled out in bright red script: clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, mustard, and black pepper. Apart from a box of Bells poultry seasoning and a bottle of vanilla extract, the only other thing I remember is Howards Onion Juice, in its oddly elongated bottle.

As a child, I had no interest in cooking, and not even a little boy could have fitted in the kitchen when Nana was at work. However, when I learned to read, I found the act so thrilling that I practiced this new skill on every label that came my way. When I parsed out the words onion juice I was deeply shocked. These were two words that simply did not belong together. Some juices, like grape juice, were rare treats, other juices apple, orange, tomato were a regular part of my life (all, by the way, poured out of cans), but onion juice? Did Grampa and Nana secretly drink the stuff? I never dared ask, but I never forgot, either.

I put aside the search for American chop suey aside, lost in contemplation. Onion juice. I couldnt remember it called for in any other cookbook. Do people still cook with it? Can you even buy it? It took but a moment at the keyboard to answer those questions: Howards Onion Juice still exists. sells it by the case. And people were attesting to how glad they were to find it, how they needed it for their spaghetti sauce and sloppy joes, their salad dressing.

Well, there was no way I was going to order a case. Still, curiosity piqued, I decided to check out likely suspects here in Northampton (MA). First, I drove over to Big Y, a local supermarket chain that prides itself on its New England roots, and poked around. But where should I look? On the spice shelves? Among the hot sauces? The gravy mixes? I finally asked one of the clerks. The query went up the management chain and came back down: Never heard of it.

I tried our local grocery, Serios; their next-door competitor, State Street Fruit; then on to Atkins Farm Stand (unlikely, you think, but I did leave there with a bottle of Spanish sherry vinegar, a jar of an organic Indian simmer sauce, and a little carton of red wine foundation sauce impulse buying, my middle names). But, as to onion sauce, no, no, and no. I gave up and emailed Howards Foods for help. They kindly pointed out that both their onion and garlic juices were sold at our other local supermarket, Stop & Shop. I had, in fact, looked there, but had suffered input overload in front of the dazzling (if mostly meretricious) display of seasonings. I simply failed to see it.

Howards Onion Juice. The ingredient list is short and impeccable: onion juice, vinegar, salt. Despite a yelp of protest from my inner child, I take a nip straight from the bottle. (I had just finished eating a Greek salad and thought, How could it hurt?). It didnt. Although the bottle claims that one teaspoon is equal to half an onion, Howards Onion Juice has none of that sharp-toothed bite of raw onion. In fact, it tastes sort of like onion breath smells except now its in your own mouth and doesnt go away.

A politer way of saying this is that tastes like juice extracted from a boiled onion, plus a zip of vinegar. Unfortunately, my whole goal when cooking onions is to fry out the juice, and with it that hint of skunk cabbage. Not that I mean to diss Howards product. I can see adding a splash to anything liquid (soups, stews, broths) that could use a hit of the vegetables simultaneously tasty and malodorous vibes. But, really, is that what onion juice is all about? I know old-time cooks held garlic at arms length. But they didnt treat onions like that and certainly not cooked onions. There had to be something more to the story and to Nanas cooking than this.

Back I went to Fannie Farmer. We have twelve editions in our collection not all of them, but most. Onion juice is there from the first, not poured from a bottle but made as needed right on the spot. In the original volume, you were instructed to get it by working the cut surface with a fine grater, but soon some culinary quick-wit discovered a much simpler method: Cut a slice from the root end of the onion; scrape the juice with the edge of a teaspoon.

Try it. What you get isnt so much juice as a thickish pulp, and it’s charged with flavor, right up there (almost) with finely minced raw garlic. As soon as I dipped a finger in it, I had to mix it up with some butter and eat it on toast. I surely breathed fire for an hour afterwards, a small price to pay for something so deliciously potent. This stuff is definitely not for kids.

That naked power also explains why it was often added by the drop and added it surely was. In the 1921 edition of Fannie Farmer, it is used to add savor to a lobster and oyster ragout; a savory of chopped chicken liver and hard-boiled egg; Hamburg steak; Eggs la Caracas, scrambled eggs with the odd but tasty sounding addition of tomatoes and smoked chipped beef; a host of stuffings the list goes on and on. (It is also used uncooked as see this simple corn salad.) In other words, it was deployed where we today would most likely add a touch of garlic.

Howards Onion Juice appeared on the market in the early fifties, around the time I was learning to read. Consequently, that bottle, when I first saw it, was a newly offered convenience. But it is the original scraped raw onion pulp that is the revelation. As with garlic, halfway measures can be worse than none at all. Im already working up ways to put real onion juice to work, from meatballs to clam fritters to onion (as in garlic) bread. Somewhere, Nana is what? Smiling? Aghast? Whatever it is, its nice to be in the kitchen with her.

(Copyright John Thorne 2010)

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