Sunday, September 12, 2010

When Onions Get Uppity

or Th-th-th-that's Allium, Folks!

Every year just as the February doldrums hit, the city of Burlington, Vermont, hosts a winter festival complete with snow sculpting and ice carving competitions.   Some of the entrants are quite serious, and the winner goes on to the national snow sculpting competition in Wisconsin.   Even without the lure of a championship trophy and the warm feeling inside of a job well done, however, the challenge of sculpting in a variable medium like snow could well be its own artistic reward.   (I'd sure love to see someone try it with Rocky Mountain powder.)   Perhaps knowing that your work will melt away when winter ends—which in Vermont is, what, late May, early June at the outside—adds a certain zest to the act of creation.   I can't believe that a snow sculptor wouldn't constantly be rejoicing in the irony of his or her chosen medium:   instead of immortalizing a moment in ageless marble or bronze or stone, the snow sculptor creates something for the moment only, something that is meant to be appreciated briefly before disappearing forever while conveniently also watering the lawn.

The spectator, standing in Waterfront Park under a featureless, white sky on a -10°F day while the winds blow at 25 mph straight down from the Arctic and across Lake Champlain, to watch people sculpt snow because gosh darn it, it's a winter festival and we may as well be festive, is liable to find her thoughts turning to the poignancy of a medium that foregrounds its own impermanence.   She might contemplate the awareness inherent in a "live for the moment" artwork that the moment is soon lost, and that the loss is eternal.   Her enjoyment of the sculptures before her may be tinged with a hint of bittersweetness, a reminder of the fleeting nature of time, of our own mortality, of the passing away of all things.   You know, festive thoughts.

Onions are like that, too.   Not thoughtful, that is, or particularly festive, but imbued with a sense of poignancy, bittersweetness, etc.   Surely you must have noticed it?   As we continue celebrating the vulgar plants this week, let's turn our attention to this culinary staple, which in the scale of fine cooking sits firmly earthed at the bottom, right down there with "all this garlic of low cuisine," as Verlaine put it.   If ever there was a plant that talked too loudly, smelled too much, and never knew when to quit, it would have to be an onion.

And if ever there was a plant with sculptural merit in the garden, whether of the delicate, sturdy, or whimsical variety, it would have to be an onion.   I'm not talking about the officially ornamental alliums here—the kinds with names like "Star of Persia," "Ambassador," or "Mount Everest."   No, I'm just thinking of your everyday, run of the mill, garden to table onion.

I’m currently growing two kinds that have sparked my artistic interest.   The first is He-shi-ko, a perennial bunching onion (Allium fistulosum), which blooms in the spring of its second year (and every year thereafter), with symmetrical, two-inch globes of delicate florets that dry to a papery ivory and produce jet black seeds.

Bunching onions - true "scallions" rather than simply young bulb onions

Egyptian walking onion bulbils
The second is Egyptian walking onion (Allium proliferum).   Rather than flowers, these plants produce bulbils—a head of edible, miniature onions—that eventually get heavy enough to bend their growing stalk to the ground, where the bulbils root and establish themselves.
Egyptian walking onion, caught in the very act of "walking"

And while we're at it, let's throw in a cousin of theirs, Allium tuberosum, or garlic chives, which send up flower heads in late summer that have the precise, branching symmetry of snowflakes (though they all look pretty much the same).   The flowers last for a few short days, after which you would be wise to deadhead them, unless you really, really like garlic chives.

Garlic chives

In each case the blossoms (or bulbils) are more sculptural than painterly;  their three-dimensional shape is more striking than the interplay of color and form.   Generally, however, when we talk about sculptural plants we mean the four-season ones—yucca, agave, ocotillos—the ones with a commanding presence all year.   A sculptural yucca is always sculptural, with or without blooms  (which are equally worthy of sculpting, by the way).   An onion—the rest of the time, it's an onion.   The beauty in these living sculptures is partly in their very evanescence, the necessity to appreciate them while they last.   For myself  (and I realize that I may need to get out more), they foreground their impermanence in ways that more flower-ly flowers do not, precisely because they are sculptural, and we do not generally look to sculpture for change.

By being sculptural, alliums also flirt shamelessly with the high art-low art divide.   An onion with striking blossoms—  Frankly, just writing the phrase “onion with striking blossoms” makes me want to laugh;  the juxtaposition of ideas is so absurd.   If an artichoke is sculptural (and it is), well, that is just right and proper.   It is a delicacy.   One expects it.   In an onion, however, sculptedness seems a bit over the top—a surprising burst of high spirits, of sheer, charming frivolity.   It's almost as if the onion does not know its place on the culinary scale, does not realize that it is low and vulgar and common and smelly and loud.   What is that onion thinking??   It ignores the categories of taste almost as if those categories were imposed arbitrarily from the outside and have no intrinsic merit...Oh, what a dangerous thought; the proletariat has marched in the streets because of thoughts like that (on a somewhat larger scale, of course).

As long as we're being pedantic, let us summarize:  in the onion we have a plant with sculptural beauty and culinary usefulness that is not only a helpful prompt to aesthetic philosophy, but that also contains the seeds of revolution  (N.B. another good reason to deadhead your garlic chives), all to be enjoyed from the comfort of your own garden on a pleasantly sunny September day without a lot of pesky snow sculptors around to disturb your peace.

If nothing else, it's an impressive multi-tasker.