Peeling through the layers of the onion’s past

jerry Apps
Onions from garden in Waushara County, Wisconsin, Monday, Sept. 5, 2022. Onions, down through the ages, had many uses beyond food.

This was a good year for onions at Roshara. Much better than last year. 

I have many memories of onions as a kid. I will never forget the first county fair I attended, which was in 1938 when I was but a little shaver. I remember so well the sights—cattle judging, the Midway. The sounds—the music coming from the Merry-Go-Round, the roosters crowing in the poultry building, the ducks quacking.  And the smell of onions frying in the food tents—or how I liked it and will never forget that smell.

Looking at this year’s onion crop, I realized that I knew little about onions and their heritage. And why they continue to be popular in the diets of many. As a kid I took onions for granted. I knew my mother grew them in our big farm garden. But they were not near as popular as tomatoes, potatoes, and sweetcorn—at least I never heard anybody in the family waiting for the first onions to be pulled.

So, I did a little checking and learned some interesting things. There is some debate about where onions were first discovered. Central Asia, Iran and West Pakistan were the likely places. Wild onions were in early humans’ diets before farming as we know it started. Onions have been cultivated for more than 5,000 years. One of the reasons for their popularity as a food was because they were less perishable than other foods, they were easily transported, and they would grow in a variety of soils and climates.

Onions, down through the ages, had many uses beyond food. Early Romans believed onions helped restore vision, induced sleep, and cured toothaches. In the Middle Ages in Europe, people believed onions prevented headaches and prevented hair loss. The first Pilgrims arriving in America on the Mayflower, brought onions with them. Onions became a popular commercial crop in New England.

Of course, onions remain popular today. The top five onion producing states are California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and New Mexico. Wisconsin ranks number 11 among the states in onion production. I continue to enjoy the smell of onions frying.

THE OLD TIMER SAYS: Onions have remained a popular food item down through the ages.

Jerry Apps

Jerry Apps, born and raised on a Wisconsin farm, is Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of more than 35 books, many of them on rural history and country life. For further information about Jerry's writing and TV work, go to or contact him at