Food on Fridays: Heavenly Onion

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Food on Fridays with Ann

In 2011, I read a chapter from The Spirit of Food: 34 Writers on Feasting and Fasting toward God, edited by Leslie Leyland Fields. In the piece by Fr. Robert Farrar Capon, entitled “The Heavenly Onion,” he curiously, meditatively, slices open and examines an onion. The following is a reprint of my own attempt to curiously and meditatively slice open an onion.

I decided to do more than read “The Heavenly Onion.” I decided to live it.

In this excerpt from The Supper of the Lamb, Robert Farrar Capon invites the reader to take an onion (he recommends a yellow onion, but I ended up with a white onion), a paring knife and a cutting board, and sit down at the kitchen table.

I was to acquaint myself with the onion.

Hello, onion.

Yes, it was just me and the onion; the onion and me. Together at the kitchen table.

An occasional child passed through.

“What are you doing with that onion?” one asked.

“I’m getting to know it,” I replied.

The child shrugged and moved on. My kids are used to seeing their mom undertake various experiments for the sake of books, blogs, or just basic curiosity.

So they left me alone to look at my onion as if I’d never seen an onion before. I was to meet it on its own terms—to abandon all of my preconceived notions of what an onion is.

First, I was to notice its two ends: the end where root filaments descended into the earth.

And the upper end, the part that pushes up, defying gravity, seeking light.

Contrary to my preconceived notions, Capon is quick to point out, an onion is not the simple sphere. It is linear, “a bloom of vectors thrusting upward from base to tip.”

With Capon’s encouragement, I’m trying to be generous toward the onion, devoting this kind of time to it; because you see, I’m not all that fond of onions. I can’t digest onions very well. I won’t elaborate, but let’s just say they disagree with me.

But Capon didn’t ask me to eat the onion.

He asked me to see it. Smell it. Examine it.

That, I’m willing to do.

Remove the skins carefully, he instructed. Just the skins. The main pieces come off easily.

The skin is thin, brittle and dry; yet, to borrow Capon’s description, elegant.

Well, except for the little bits that pull off stubbornly. Capon sees incredible beauty in them, but they look a little flimsy and scrappy to me.

I feel them: delicate, but smooth.

I’m still game. I want to see and learn, so I continue.

Next: the cut.

I got a chef’s knife for Christmas, so the cut is fun.

And look at what I’ve done.

He says, “You have opened the floodgates of being…Structurally, the onion is not a ball, but a nested set of fingers within fingers.”

What elegant, fluid lines curve and meet at the top.

Moisture glistens on the cut surface and drips at the base onto the cutting board. “You have cut open no inanimate thing,” Capon says, “but a living tumescent being…the pieces of its being in compression. To prove it, try to fit the two halves of the onion back together.”

“It cannot be done,” he continues. “The faces which began as two plane surfaces…are now mutually convex, and rock against each other.”

He’s right. I can’t push them flat together again. Released from its pressure chamber, the onion is swollen—expanded. There is no turning back.

Next I am to lift out, one by one, the layers.

I line them up, and just as Capon says they will, they look something like Russian church spires.


Or tongues of fire.

They seem firm and solid. If I tap the curve with the flat of my knife, it offers a hollow sound, “something between a tock and a tunk,” as Capon says. I am told to take one of these pieces and slice it into slivers.

Pressing and smooshing out the juice from one of the slivers, I see that the onion is, well, limp. Depleted. Empty. Finished.

“The flesh, so crisp and solid, turns out to have been an aqueous house of cards…the whole infolded nest of flames was a blaze of water.”

That is the onion, its shapely figure admired, sliced, emptied and better understood; perhaps even appreciated.

I have smelled it (still smell it, in fact, on my fingertips where I pressed liquid from the sliver with my nails). And I have seen that it is different from what I thought. It is more than I thought. I have paid attention, for the most part, and Capon has shown me that I can take more time to “look at the things of the world and to love them for what they are.”

It’s easy to look at an onion and say, “Oh, sure. I know what that is. It’s a round thing.” It takes attention to look at an onion and see it for what it is and, in some way, love it for what it is.

God saw the onion, along with all that He made, and it was very good.

Why don’t I take a closer look and see all that He made?

I have seen one real thing, made by the Creator alone.

And it was very good.

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Source: The Spirit of Food: 34 Writers on Feasting and Fasting toward God, edited by Leslie Leyland Fields. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books. 2010. (pages 46–54)

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Post is reprinted from the archives.

Photos by Ann Kroeker. “Pin” these images in a way that links back to this particular page, giving proper credit.

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  • Comments

    1. LOVED this, Ann. Who would have thought there’d be inspiration from an onion!

      • annkroeker says:

        Patricia, I was following Fr. Capon’s steps, one after the other, and witnessing all of that beauty for myself. I decided I wanted to take a look with my own two eyes instead of taking his word for it. And sure enough, that onion held all of the interest and beauty that he described. Thanks for joining me at the table, knife in hand, to dissect this thing that God has made.

    2. What a delightful way to appreciate Creation. The lowly onion — really — buried for months. Not beautiful like the apple or the pear, dangling for others to admire. But it’s root pushed into the dark soil until it’s unearthed. But what an equistite thing, as you experiment shows.

      And I really laughed at your conversation with your child. “I’m getting to know the onion.” You are twisted fun — and a real joy.

      • annkroeker says:

        Thanks, David, for taking time to read, and comment, and observe my unusual approach to life. My kids are getting so used to it, they just nod and move on in life. I think they pause to see if I might be doing something that they’d enjoy. This didn’t look too intriguing–all those onion parts spread out on the table.

    3. I laughed when I read your kids’ reaction. If I grab the camera, my kids are all “been there done that.”

      I may grab an onion and spend some time with it. I loved the inside of the onion. How many other vegetables are beautifully made, yet we don’t look at them because they’re utilitarian.

      • annkroeker says:

        We know about PKs (Pastor’s kids) and MKs (Missionary kids)…I wonder if in just a few years, we’ll have kids who identify themselves as BKs (blogger kids)?

    4. This is such a beautiful, thought-provoking and meaningful post. We really can see God in so much of his amazing creation, if we only we take the time to look and appreciate it.

      Thank you for hosting Food on Fridays.

    5. Lynn Hopper says:

      And yet–you still couldn’t eat the onion (as I can’t) without dire consequences.

    6. God in creation and in an onion. What a beautiful lesson this onion is telling us. We can and should see God in all creation. He is Lord even of the lowly onion. We do enjoy our onions. Robert made a mixed bean creation that had a sautéed onion, can of diced tomatoes and Cajun spices in the bag of bean. I made some corn bread muffins and it was a delightful treat for our lunch. My post is not about that, but a 30 year old dinner at a Chinese Restaurant. No recipe except the one here in the comments. :-)

    7. Amazing. The onion represents so many things. Healing… and layers. Did you know if you put an onion in a room with a sick person, the onion will pick up the ‘airborne’ bacteria and the sick person will be well in a short amount of time? I read that information you can look it up. It is old way to do ‘healing’. The onion is then thrown away. (not used)
      In emotional healing, we are like an onion needing to heal and peel back each layer to the next. Amazing. Great photos.

      • Sharon, I’m glad to be reminded of the healing qualities of onions–we modern people forget how God packed that bulb with a punch. The idea of placing an onion in the room of a sick person is an idea I’ve never heard of before. My daughter is sick right now. I’m going to grab one and see if it makes a difference.

    8. Ahhh…now I want to get an onion and evaluate it :) Thanks for sharing!

    9. I just had a few moments being contemplative with and onion! Only you could make this happen Ann. Powerful illustrations!

    10. I like those “tongues of fire.” I tend to dread slicing onions, but now, I have something to look forward to. :)

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