In this beautiful essay for Joyland, Matthew Medendorp peels back the layers of the lowly onion, an organism with DNA more complex than that of a human. He reflects on its earthly origins and heavenly taste once transformed by fat in the pan, after it meets the knife.
The point is: we have more in common with an onion than we might like. If we share a certain amount of our DNA with a banana ((between 41-50% depending on the source, certainly more than I’m comfortable with), how much more so with an onion? Onions have, in fact, five times the amount of DNA as humans. There’s a famous genetic test associated with the vegetable named the Onion Test. The Onion Test puts us humbly in our place. Scientists used to think the more DNA an organism had, the more complex a being it was. Into this enter the humble onion, with a cellar structure so simple you can identify the building blocks of life under a simple, middle-school science class microscope. That extra DNA, scientists concluded, must be junk DNA – DNA that serves no purpose. The DNA is on standby, like an onion on your cutting board, awaiting something no one can quite predict yet, its final purpose unclear. So, it is possible that when you cut an onion you condemn a complex being to oblivion. Or, alternately, to a higher purpose.
Every time we chop an onion, we remember other onions that we’ve chopped. Even water has memory, and an onion is not without its juices. We compound our onion experience, water, and layers, and chopping, spirit memory and muscle memory. This is all automatic, primal, and elemental. The steel of a good cut is tempered in water, supercooled and given strength by the cold. Every time we chop an onion, we visualize what it will become, therefore invoking its future. Past onions and future onions collide on the cutting board as we slice and dice. This happens all without consideration, but it bears dissection.