Magazine

Why onions can cause more than tears

Red onion Image copyright Thinkstock

A recent Magazine story paid tribute to the onion - the most widely grown vegetable in the world. Although it's often taken for granted, most people could not live without it. For some, however, it is a menace. Father Gary Donegan from Belfast, was one of a number of people who emailed to explain why.

Onions make me cry but not in the usual manner. I am allergic to them and their related cousins - garlic, leeks and chives. If I eat them I vomit or I get marks like spots or ulcers on my skin.

I was diagnosed in a hospital in Dublin about 20 years ago. Before that, I thought I just didn't like onions and I had naturally reduced the amount I ate - but I didn't realise I was allergic to them.

Where it's really awkward and limiting is when I'm invited to someone's home - it's OK when it's people who know me well, but if I'm eating with people I don't know, they initially think I am very fussy about my food. I often choose not to eat meals or go to dinner parties in other people's homes as it seems to cause such a fuss.

Image copyright Gary Donegan
Image caption Gary Donegan - fed up with onions

In the supermarket I check labels all the time - I rule out more or less all ready-made meals. Most soups and sauces have got onion powder or garlic in them too.

When I go to restaurants, I have to send the food back eight times out of 10 because it has onion in it.

It shocks me that even the most expensive restaurants can't accommodate someone who has an onion allergy.

Their constant cry seems to be, "Our sauces are pre-prepared." It makes me want to say, "At these prices can't you make up a fresh sauce?"

I feel like Sherlock Holmes trying to deduce what's really in the food on my plate - I might order chicken wings and find they're covered in chives - nowhere on the menu does it say "Chicken wings liberally sprinkled with chives," so I'll be picking every single chive off them.

Image copyright Thinkstock

I found myself getting ulcers on my legs one time, and it turned out that I had eaten a burger that had onion minced through it - it wasn't something that had been added on top, the onion was built into it.

I recently went to a five-star restaurant which had an award-winning chef. I explained the situation and the waiter said I could have none of the starters so they made me something else - a bit of crab - it was nice but simple.

For the main course, the signature dish was made up of four items, a quartet of meats - pork belly, cheek, loin and I can't remember what the other one was, but there was onion in it.

When my meal came out, even though it was an expensive dish and I had to pay a supplement for it, there were just three pieces of meat. They didn't say, "We'll put in an extra piece of cheek or something to make up for it," they just left it off so I was paying a supplement for something that wasn't fully there. In a sense I was doubly punished.

And when it came to the dessert, I said to the waiter jokingly, "Are you sure there's not going to be any onion in it?" He was quite witty and came out and put a shallot down in front of me.


More from the Magazine

Image copyright Thinkstock

In our original story about onions, Marek Pruszewicz reported that they are eaten and grown all over the world. China and India grow nearly half of the world's annual production of more than 70 million tonnes. But the top onion-eating nation, measured by the quantity of onions eaten per head of population, is Libya, where - according to the UN - in 2011 each person ate, on average, 33.6kg (or roughly one onion per day).


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