Don't hate me; I got my little sister stoned. She wasn't that little, and she didn't actually get stoned. I was home from college and some friends and I offered her a joint. Nothing happened. She felt obligated, though, to act stoned (she later admitted) so she blurted out "I feel like an onion." Those of us who were actually stoned may or may not have found that "deep."
Maybe she'd been listening to the Beatles' "Glass Onion" from their White Album, which had come out a few years earlier, on the sixth anniversary of JFK's death. We still listened to that. I still do.
I didn't find out until less than three years before her death that my mother didn't like to eat onions. (She had never, to my recollection, served them to us; I had never thought about it.) She liked their flavor; she would cook with them, then discard them. What a waste, I thought. During that educational visit I made her hand them over to me instead, and I gobbled them greedily. You could not have gotten me to exchange them for chocolates. (Well, not milk chocolates, anyway.)
Many film buffs discovered the (huge) talents of actor James Woods by virtue of his performance in The Onion Field. Not I; I discovered the film (and the Joseph Wambaugh book from which the film had been adapted, by virtue of having seen Woods in Holocaust, also where I first saw Meryl Streep, come to think of it.
When Holocaust was first aired, I was pretty excited. At the time, I worked for the Social Security Administration (an organization that now declines to give me the time of day) in downtown Los Angeles, in a room where eight of us occupied desks in two rows facing each other from opposing walls. I came to work in high spirits the day after the first episode, asking everyone if they'd seen the show. No one had. And furthermore, added one colleague, she never would. She didn't approve of such shows. They caused ill feeling among people of different races or beliefs. She hadn't watched Roots (nor, I presume, read the Alex Haley book Roots: The Saga of an American Family upon which the miniseries was based) when it was aired the previous year, and she wasn't going to watch this either. "Why," she proposed, "what if after watching it, as a result, a little Nazi child went to school and got picked on by a little Jewish child?"
Yes, I was flabbergasted, too.
Anyway, my recollection of how things were during Roots' airing was that it promoted communication and caused not one whit of bad feeling among races or religions. That year I was working for the Accounting Section of the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., among people of various nationalities, ethnicities, so-called races, religions, ages, regional backgrounds and sartorial inclinations (I mention that last while fondly remembering an extremely meticulously dressed colleague who, not least because of a coincidental physical resemblance, always reminded me of Ron Glass's character, Harris, in the then-current sitcom Barney Miller, of which I was fond; he even carried himself like Harris, and just the sight of him always made me smile). Apart from the usual office politics, of which I was too ignorant to be a part, relations ranged from polite to friendly, but no one spoke about race. It was considered rude to notice that someone's skin was a shade or two paler or darker than one's own. During and after Roots, people would say, in effect, "hey, I can't help noticing you're black. My great-grandfather was a slaveowner. Sorry about that!" and get, in response, "Cool, my folks were sharecroppers. Let's do lunch!" (Okay, they didn't say "do" lunch; this was before I moved to California.) So I thought Holocaust would open things up between my people, Jews, and non-Jews (I wasn't thinking about little Nazi children).
I might add that I was a fairly naive brat at the time, and even before Roots would open my mouth in ways others were not wont to do. During my early days with DOJ, before my employers calmed down (from what? you ask! Don't ask!) enough to assign me enough work to keep me busy all day, I sat reading an excerpt, in The New Yorker, from James Baldwin's upcoming book, The Devil Finds Work: Essays, which was of particular interest to me not only because I was a fan of Baldwin's already but because since the age of 15 my concerns had included the issue of stereotyping. I had begun to notice that teenagers, on television, were rarely portrayed by real teenagers, and that even when they were, they didn't act like anyone my age, not anyone I'd ever met. Then I started noticing that there were virtually no Jews on television. Oh, there were plenty of Jewish comedians, actors, writers, directors, producers... just no Jewish characters, with the notable exception of comics and Holocaust victims. There were no ordinary Jewish people.
(Valerie Harper's Rhoda in The Mary Tyler Moore Show was as close as one could find to an ordinary, everyday Jew, but of course she was funny. At least -- and this was unusual -- she wasn't funny because she was Jewish. She happened to be Jewish and also happened to be funny. Later, Judd Hirsch would portray a Jewish lawyer, the leading character, in a mini-miniseries called "The Law," but when it was picked up as a regular series, Delvecchio, he mysteriously became Italian. It wasn't until 1982's mid-season replacement -- for what I have no clue -- Hill Street Blues that American TV saw not one, yet, but two actual Jews who were neither comics -- though Bruce Weitz's Belker was often funny; Joe Spano's Goldblume was a regular guy -- nor Holocaust Victims.)
So I was extremely interested in Baldwin's memories of growing up black and gay in a world in which gays were not portrayed directly at all and blacks were maids or slaves, depending on whether the setting was modern or historical. I couldn't wait for the book to come out. My friend Betty -- whom I hadn't known long, but already liked, and who happened to be black -- walked into the office while I was reading, and I looked up and asked her how she felt when she saw black people portrayed in the movies. Did she, I wanted to know, think, "oh look, one of us/me" or "crap, that's not real, why don't they get it right," or nothing special at all?
To this very day I cannot recall Betty's answer because what I do recall is her shocked expression when I asked my (did I mention naive?) question.
I did not bring up Holocaust again during its week-long run. I didn't want to envision any more little Nazi children.
I'm sorry, were we talking about onions?
Did you know that garlic is almost an onion? They're both allium, anyway. A garden, or bulb, onion is allium cepa and garlic is the intriguingly named allium sativum, the plural of which, of course, would be allium sativa (I refer you back to the first paragraph of this essay, which refers obliquely to cannabis sativa). I don't believe my mother ever introduced me to garlic. I may well have decided to include it in my pantry because of Werner Herzog. Always a fan of his, I was interested in Les Blank's documentary, Burden of Dreams, about the making of Herzog's Fitzcarraldo. As a result I became interested in Blank himself and immensely enjoyed his Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers. Perhaps that was my introduction to garlic; at any rate, we got introduced, and we've never been apart since, thus proving that I am not a vampire. I have a theory, and I will write it up one day (look here for a link when I do) that the pre-Stoker Dracula myth has two sources: the real-life exploits of a couple of weird Romanians, and longstanding Eastern European anti-Semitism. (The Plague did its bit to enhance the already existing legends.)
I have a friend named Boe, an American like myself, whom I met when he was in my employ at a language school whose Nagoya, Japan, branch I was managing at the time. He returned to the United States for a bit but returned to Japan and stayed with me for a few months while seeking a place of his own. (I told him he had to be out by summer; there was no way I was going to keep my clothes on in the house during a Japanese summer!) During his brief stint as my (just friends, folks!) roommate, I taught him how to cook. One day, while I was at work and he was not, I phoned him to ask him to start some spaghetti. I instructed him to chop up a clove of garlic. When I got home, he was exhausted and apologetic; he had tried to get a whole clove chopped but couldn't quite do it. He hoped that what he had accomplished would suffice. He had understood "clove" to mean "head" and had peeled and chopped up almost a whole noggin. The dish now featured quite a few cloves of garlic. The spaghetti did not suffer from his error and I learned a lesson too: there is no such thing as "too much garlic."
Toward the end of my stay in Japan, after the language school had closed its branch and I was able to take on more university positions, I moved (alone) to a house in another part of Nagoya and found I was able to walk to and from one of the universities, a very good one, Nagoya University, crossing my narrow street and walking a short distance down a narrower one until I came to a steep hill, up the side of which I'd puff until I reached the graveyard at the top, through which I'd then circle the whole hilltop in order to reach the path down another side, which spilled out into another short bit of narrow road that led, finally, to one of the widest, most major streets in all of Nagoya. Several blocks down this street was the University. I'd be fairly chugging along by the time I reached it and ready to walk miles more, which of course provided some of the energy I needed to teach my classes. At the end of the work day, I would reverse the procedure, with two minor changes. For one thing, I would be pretty hungry by then, so I'd stop at a family restaurant about halfway back to the hill. This eatery was large, with a fair-sized room in the front, an expansive one in the back and a salad bar between them. The salad was cheap and included among its delicacies sliced raw white onions that were mild and sweet. I couldn't figure out why they were so mild; finally I broke down and asked. The answer: they were soaked in water (for an unspecified period of time), then drained. They retained their crunch but lost their sting. I asked one other thing, too: since there was some separation of areas already, why not turn the front room, where I habitually sat, into a nonsmoking area? This was virtually unheard-of in Japan; in Japan, at the time, the percentage of the (presumably adult) female population who smoked cigarettes had recently risen from a number I have forgotten to something over 20; the number of men who smoked had recently dropped to about 60 percent. The restaurant's management didn't roll over the minute I made my request but I made it repeatedly and they finally caved: the front room became an official nonsmoking haven. So they took the sting out of breathing as well!
The other difference between my pre- and post-work walks was that by the time I finished my sting-free dinner, night would have fallen, and I would trudge down the lamplit street to the dark hill, up the path and through the graveyard. One night I noticed the Buddhas atop the gravestones staring at me, and hastened through. The next time I was there, university-bound, in daylight, I could not help noticing that, of course, there were no Buddhas atop the gravestones. There never had been.
A couple years ago (we're skipping way ahead now, decades and eons) I planted some onion bulbs. I think I got my guy to plant some of them for me, actually. Most of them just sat there: what do you expect us to do? Grow? One or two turned into fine sweet yellow onions; I ate the green shoots of the stubborn ones. They're supposed to be perennial but nobody told them, so they never came back. We buy them, these days, and go through them pretty fast, too: between five and ten a week, depending on my energies and the size of the onions, and whether I have made chopped liver. This is how I make chopped liver: I wash and drain, in a colander, a pound of chicken livers, and throw them into the blender. I peel and section (not formally; I am just trying to get it into manageable chunks) a sweet yellow onion and dump it in with the livers. I core and likewise slice an apple and add it in too. I shake in some lemon pepper and some garlic salt, and add a few peeled cloves (not heads) of garlic for good measure. I add just enough water to prevent the machine from choking, and hit the high-speed button. The cats go flying out of the room, and the blender fills with red-brown goo, which I pour into a hot, oily skillet, cover and let bubble for a few minutes before reducing the heat to somewhere between simmer and low. I walk away. I come back once in a while to check it. When it looks like chopped liver I take it off the heat and spoon it into a bowl. I add creamy poppyseed dressing or mayonnaise, depending on my mood, and refrigerate it until I can't wait any longer. I eat it by the spoonful or smear it on crackers or toast. Yes, I share it with my guy. No, I don't share it with the cats. Garlic is fabulous for cats but onions are highly toxic. I shall illustrate:
Back in Japan, my strong-willed and strong-bodied cat, Wafer, was in the habit of opening the refrigerator and taking out whatever he fancied; I ended up having to bungee-cord the fridge door shut, in response to which he just hopped up on top of the freezer and opened that. (He would take out the frozen corn, begin to nibble it, jerk his head back and try to shake off the sensation of cold, then try another bite.) Before I resorted to the bungee cord, though, he habitually took out whole heads of raw broccoli and devoured them. (As a result of his special diet, necessitated by his almost literally recalcitrant urinary tract, he suffered from heartburn and craved alkaline foods; broccoli hit the spot.) However, once he decided he preferred my spaghetti leftovers. He hadn't eaten much before I discovered his mischieve and retrieved (and binned) the mess, but even the tiniest bit had enough onion in it to send his entire system into a tailspin. He almost died. He survived thanks to a caring vet, who had saved his life more than once already, and his own strong will.
I am less strong than I once was, and I have, on occasion, asked my guy to help me out in the kitchen. The phrase "help me out in the kitchen" generally means "get out of the kitchen, but in these rare instances I have asked him to be there (and allow me to be absent) and prepare food. Preparing food is not one of his talents, nor one of his interests. In fact, he hates it and he's awful at it. However, he grudgingly, even whiningly, complies upon those few occasions.
The first time I asked him to slice onions, he took three hours to slice one. Of course that time included the peeling, which he began after he was done slicing. He also cried through the whole procedure. He had forgotten my advice: run cold water while you're dealing with onions and you won't shed a single tear.
Why slice onions? Why not chop them, or just hack 'em up? I don't know. Somehow they taste better sliced into rings, separated and spread out in a bowl, sprayed with cooking oil and microwaved for five minutes. Of course saut?ng them in a pan works too, but if you walk away and get distracted, they can burn. The microwave knows when to stop.
You should stop me when I ramble on like this. You really should. I write this stuff at weird hours, hours at which no one should be wanting onion rings or Japanese pickled garlic. But you see, I believe I've got the No Sleep Blues, courtesy the Incredible String Band's The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion.