Saturday, March 2, 2024




By Jim Szantor

Some people do not cry when onions are peeled, chopped sliced or diced.  Others cry when they are merely mentioned or even implied.  What is it about the allium cepa that causes it to be de rigueur in recipes, seemingly mandatory at McDonald’s and compulsory in casseroles?

What magical properties accrue to this vile vegetable of the hollow, tubular leaves and edible, rounded bulb? What culinary clout does it hold? Do onions cure cancer, prevent baldness or remove unsightly age spots? Are they a surefire Covid killer?

Were onions served at the Last Supper?  Does Taylor Swift eat them?

Some answers, assertions and affirmations in a moment. First, though, a position paper of sorts on the plight of one who must make his way as a consumer in an onion-obsessed world.

If the onion does to you all the things it does to someone who cannot stand, bear, countenance, abide or otherwise tolerate its taste, you know what it is:

--To sit down to a meal anywhere and find the main dish (not to mention the appetizer, soup or salad) loaded with the loathsome ingredient.  How to negotiate this culinary minefield politely if not furtively without offending the hostess?  How to suppress the whimpering and retching attendant to the ordeal?

--To wait endlessly—punitively—at fast-food establishments that package the item with other, more respectable and comestible condiments.  Kudos to the franchises that make the onion an option; a pox on those that operate under the assumption that those little white, chopped interlopers will be loved and consumed with relish by all.

--To grab eagerly for a new entrée in the supermarket’s frozen food section, only to recoil when it is discovered that onions--dehydrated, flaked, powdered or fuel-injected--are part of the bargain, take it or leave it. (In the finest of print, of course.)

It is a mystery why the onions are so omnipresent in the gustatory scheme of things, when to some they are slimy if boiled, repugnant if raw and palatable only if fried to a crisp—to such a crisp, that is, that only the crisp, and not the actual onion essence, is tasted.  (Full disclosure: I recall quite fondly the Onion Straws served by a New Orleans eatery, a close encounter I have yet to live down, there being is a living witness.)

The true enemy of the onion feels not only persecuted but also triumphant when able to detect the faintest evidence of its flavoring.  Cook a beef stew with boiled onions in a mesh bag and remove them prior to serving? The congenital onion-hater can tell.   That’s because the onion has little subtlety, is totally devoid of finesse.  It always lingers near the scene of the crime, fouling the breath and otherwise making its ingestion hard to forget.  But this seasoned onion adversary survives each close encounter, his palate and olfactory glands able to detect its unpleasant properties everywhere.

It could be argued that eating a hamburger with onions is—dare I say it?—an antisocial act.  My hamburger with tomato and pickles flies under the radar, even in close quarters.  Someone eating one loaded with onions in whatever form?  He or she is, in effect, broadcasting with appallingly broad bandwidth, callously indifferent to the consequences!

The onion’s raison d’etre?

According to noted chef Jean Banchet of Le Francaise in the Chicago suburb of Wheeling’s fabled Restaurant Row, “Onions add a lot of flavor, a unique flavor, to soups, sauces and salads.”  He prefers cooked over raw, though, and opts for the shallot, an onion cousin, for fish and bordelaise sauce.

The onion, in the allium giganteum genus, is a real attention-getter, both in the garden and in cut flower arrangements.  It is one, however, that even Mr. Anti-Onion can appreciate, for this flowery version is not to be eaten.

But the more common garden variety is one that a former colleague, Chicago Tribune food editor Joanne Will, says “is worth crying over.”

“Onions not only enrich other flavors but they make a statement of their own.  Just think of some of the things onionophiles would have to give up: deeply browned and caramelized sweet onion soup, boiled baby onions saturated with cream sauce (a must with Thanksgiving turkey), crisply delicious, battered onion rings.”

To a close and cherished associate (one who has prepared this author’s meals for 53-plus years), the onion is an ingredient both pleasurable and problematic.  To cater to her husband’s unfathomable oddity, meal preparation is fraught with strategies, dodges, reluctant omissions and, sometimes, downright deceit. In short, to keep peace in the family, she has to keep the onions out of the crock pot.

There are untold hardships for one who was born unequal in that his tase buds are out of step with the rest of humanity’s.  The onion, in its ubiquity, has made coping more cumbersome, ordering more odious and tasting more tentative for the afflicted.  Unquestionably, the onion is an affront, an imposition, equally detestable, whether served by gracious hostesses, celebrated chefs or sullen countermen.

But if you are among the majority who cannot live without onions, by all means indulge and enjoy.  This is only an open admission of an aberration, a venting of a lifelong loathing, not a produce section polemic.  Some of my best friends buy, cook eat and even grow them. But they’ve never grown on me.

Until the onion makes the headlines (remember the Great Potato Famine, the cranberry scare of 1959, Red Dye No. 2 and other periodic pantry-related panics), it will be the same old story for those who can’t stand them, those who dream of the day when restaurant signs and menus everywhere will contain these words:

No smoking, no substitutions, no onions.



The chili could be malicious and downright unforgiving.  The omelets sometimes look like yellow Play-Doh flecked with foreign bodies.  The coffee isn’t strong enough to defend itself, and the waitress puts the plates down with an offhand finality.  Breakfast served any time.  Eggs any style.  The soup? It’s navy bean.

 It’s easy to put down the greasy spoon, that ubiquitous testament to the tacky and the Tums.  But by whatever name—luncheonette, diner, café, grill, coffee shop, ptomaine parlor—it used to account for 40-50 percent of the eat-out dollar, according to industry sources.  Now?  Not so much, as changing tastes and the sweep of urban renewal have relegated it into a virtual museum piece--a slow-food square peg in a round hole of a fast-food, instant-everything, drive-through and highly hyphenated universe. Some things just sort of happen, with no grand design or Machiavellian malice aforethought.

 But the greasy spoon was a slice of Americana that clung to the fork with nary a nod to fad or fashion.  There were no vegetarian plates, as meat and potatoes carried the day and the night and the mortgage.  The Serv-Naps filed out of their countertop compartments as the daily duet of eat-and-runs and lingerers played their way through an unconducted arrangement.  The beef was “govt.-inspected”—but did it pass?  There was a counter-top jukebox selector, with some pop, some country, some rock but definitely no Rachmaninoff.

You know the place.  Everyone, whether through happenstance, resignation or momentary indifference has ended up at one of these Edward Hopper-esque establishments, clutching a greasy knife or fork. How the spoon, which generally just stirred the coffee, got left holding the bag is a mysteryforever lost in the mists of time.

Whatever their culinary merits, one could develop an irrational affection for the emporiums of this genre.  And they were more than eating places.  Sociologically they could be an over-the-counter salve for the tattered psyches of the urban disenfranchised, who hoped they wouldn’t close on Christmas and trap them in their cheap hotel rooms.  They were sort of halfway hash house social clubs, with no membership list but plenty of dues, where the help was as transient as the trade.

Some of these motley establishments were actually respectable—sometimes good—and do not deserve to be painted in such tawdry tones.  Almost always locally owned, they were probably more consistent at their level than some tonier “destination dining” spots and had a more devoted clientele, who prided themselves on being regulars, never had to state their orders and were probably as good as the National Guard should someone get surly with the waitress.  Perhaps the key to their fate is how many such places are opening these days, not how many are closing.

But while there’s time, the eyes above the menu survey the scene and laugh and marvel at a few things:

--The waitress always looks like she is glad they are out of whatever they are out of.

--The catsup bottle says “restaurant pack,” whatever that’s supposed to mean.

--The busboy is a strong man--a bit too strong—but he didn’t shower up with Irish Spring.

--There’s a fill-up-the-sugar-container fetish that is hard to fathom.  Today’s two fingers’ worth on top of yesterday’s two fingers’ worth.  The sugar at the bottom was refined in 1952.

--The “chef” has more tattoos than specialties and thinks “Guide Michelin” plays for the Montreal Canadiens.

--The cream pies and such are kept at a tongue-numbing 33 degrees.

--The sandwich plates are larger than they need to be, but the dinner plates. . . .

--The cashier/owner always seems to be eating ice cream out of a coffee cup on a stool near the cash register.

--They honor the “law” that says coleslaw shall be served in flimsy paper or plastic cups and in minute amounts.

--The spaghetti always comes with “rich meat sauce.”

--The menu always has an item or two that no one has ever ordered.  Who orders Red Snapper in places like this?

--If you want something to go, you have to stand in a special place, probably so they won’t confuse you with people who prefer to eat standing up with their hands in their pockets.

--The floor is usually brown-and-yellow tile squares, in accordance with the Seedy Restaurant Color Scheme Act of 1942.

--Some old guy always comes in about 10 p.m. and orders a bowl of bran cereal.

---The menu is a Sargasso Sea of misspelled names and fanciful if not fraudulent descriptions.  From the Broiler.  From the Sea.  But never From the Freezer.

--The server never fills in all those bureaucratic squares at the top of the “guest check” and writes diagonally across the lined form.  What’s more, she has a Ph.D. in abbreviations.

--One of the customers always looks like he is doing his income tax at one of the tables.

--Somebody always walks by the window and waves in just before he disappears.

--You’re the only one at the counter, and some guy walks in and sits right next to you.

--The french-fried shrimp comes with enough cocktail sauce to cover about two pieces.

--The table’s wobble is always half-corrected with a dirty folded napkin or three.

--The clock is always stopped at something like 2:42.

--The Muzak is always playing something like “Never on Sunday” or “Nom Domenticar.”

--The cook flip-slides the plates across the high stainless-steel counter, and they always stop short, as if equipped with disk brakes.

--The cashier always puts your change down on a spikey rubber thing that looks like an oversized scalp massager.


In the early morning lull, after the midnight rush hour subsides, the buzz of the fluorescent now equals the sizzle of the grill as the beat cop walks in and sinks into the house booth.

 “Say, where’s Sally?  She off tonight?”

“Nah, she quit.  Went back with her old man.”

“Oh . . . . Say, you got any a that meat loaf left.  Haven’t eaten all day.”

“Nah, meat loaf’s out.  All’s I got left is thuringer.”

“Thuringer, huh.  Well . . . gimme a piece of that blueberry.”

(Illustration:  Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” 1942)

Forecast Follies (or . . . "Here's Jim with the Weather")

Mark Twain famously said, ”Everyone talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” 

And since reports of Mr. Twain’s death were not highly exaggerated, I’d like to fill in for him and address something we apparently can’t do anything about, either—the nonsensical, downright insulting barrage of verbiage issuing forth daily from what used to be called TV “weathermen” (and they were all of that gender back in the day) but are now known as “meteorologists,” as if space rocks were an omnipresent factor in our lives.  As in, “60 percent chance of precipitation by daybreak, with 0.000001 percent chance of meteor collision.”  (Meteor showers do occur, but usually are not perilous enough to cancel your picnic plans. They have yet to be seen in the Bus Stop Forecasts or the Car Wash Advisories that “humanize” these bloated segments.)

The weather portions (there are usually two—a fairly brief “teaser” early on and later, the Big Production) of most TV newscasts are, first of all, way too long (and coupled with all those time-wasting teasers about “what’s coming up,” leave precious little time for what we actually tune in for—news).  We don’t need to know where the Alberta Clipper fizzled, that an El Nino is in mid-formation or that a front in central Montana caused a “dusting” in northern Iowa.  And as for those “pockets of snow” we were supposed to get last night, I looked in mine and, blessedly, found none. But the station has paid serious coin for all of the glitzy graphics and radar capabilities, and by God, they are going to be used, if even just to show us what the rainfall looks like in downtown Racine “right at this very moment.”  Gripping.

And then there is the universal, comically contrived “personalization” factor, apparently de rigueur on all stations. It’s never “Thursday’s forecast,” it’s (ahem), “the forecast for your Thursday . . . .”  One can only envision the rapturous glow viewers must feel when luxuriating in the warmth of that gratuitous pronoun! (As if that forecast applies only to you, no one else. Ah, exclusivity.)

If one were to awaken from a 30-year coma, he or she would probably be mystified not only by cellphones, laptops and GPS devices but also by the existence of a curious phenomenon known as The Weather Channel: All weather, all the time--a nonstop barrage of jargon, gaudy graphics and arcane factoids.  How did we ever exist without it? When it’s a slow weather day (and in this day of acute climate change, there’s always a crisis on the front burner somewhere), footage of past calamities will fill the bill for weather junkies or the aficionados of disaster porn.

Those with (ahem) backgrounds as editors find the nightly weather segments to be cringefests in the extreme.  Temps don’t just drop into the 20s, they “drop down,” as if “dropping up” were a physical possibility.  Is snow or rain in the forecast? No, we’ll have “snow showers” or “rain showers.”  And it’s never just “sun”; it’s “sunshine,” as if that extra syllable ramps up the warmth.  These folks never pass up an opportunity to gild the lily, because we’re often told of the possibility of “rain events” or “snow events,” which leads me, at least, to wonder if I will need a ticket, if there will be guest speakers and if refreshments will be served.  (Spotty Showers?  That was my clown name back in the day, a story to be told when the Vernal Equinox rolls around.  Which this year, in the Northern Hemisphere, will be at 10:33 a.m. CST on March 20.  Mark your calendar.)

But my pique rises to fever pitch in winter, when we’re often told during our seven-month layered-look season to “bundle up,” as if we lifelong Midwesterners have no prior experience with winter weather--as if we had all just parachuted in from Jamaica in our underwear and had no idea on how to adorn ourselves in these brutal climes.  We don’t need to be told how to dress when icicles form—we’ve been there, done that—and resent the insinuation. One of the local weather wordsmiths hails from San Diego, and he’s telling us what to wear?  Outrageous.  I’d like to send him back to sunny California on his surfboard or his skateboard, preferably when the barometric pressure equals the dew point and, optimally, on a jet stream.

More and more women are seen these days holding forth during TV weather segments, and they have proven themselves every bit the equal of the men—long-winded and grammatically challenged. Positive role models apparently are non-existent; the often-parodied “weather bunnies” are blessedly a thing of the past (their anatomical attributes far outweighed their academic credentials), and the first exemplary female trailblazer with any gravitas has yet to be found. 

So please, Mr., Mrs. or Ms. Meteorologist, do us all a favor:  Stop behaving as if you are getting paid by the word, spare me the details about weather phenomena that have no bearing on our locale and, most of all, stop insulting our intelligence.  Chill out, stick to the weather and let us worry about our wardrobes.  Failing that, my fondest wish is that I could take all of you, get you all bundled up and sent to the Sahara.  There’s a 99.99 percent chance that you won’t need an umbrella or have to worry about a lake effect, a polar vortex or banal banter with the anchor desk. 

And now here’s Al with the Sports.

--Jim Szantor  


                                                                 By Jim Szantor

Rhetorical questions, questionable rhetoric and whimsical observations about the absurdities of contemporary life 

  --I was the first teenage member of The Hair Club for Men.

--If St. Patrick were around today, I think he’d be trying to drive all the snakes out of office!

--March madness. You’ll be hearing those words on TV ads a lot this month. Me, I'm mad 12 months a year--and twice on Sunday. (And the person who wins the NCAA Basketball Tournament office pool is usually a woman who picks the teams by their nicknames or uniforms.  Never fails.)

--Who made the decision that all TV anchors and commentators should pronounce "candiDATE as “candiDIT”?  (What dit is the election?  Do you have a dit for Saturday night?  What’s the dit today?)

--Speaking of politics, -what was your favorite moment of the Vivek Ramaswamy candidacy?

--Pro NO! Customers who forked out $3,500 for the Apple Vision Pro headset are already returning the devices, claiming they cause eye strain, headaches and motion sickness.

“More than 200,000 pairs of the groundbreaking goggles were sold during pre-order before being released to the public on Feb. 2,” news reports told us.

(There’s that idiotic term again—“pre-order.” You mean that’s the order I place before I place the actual order?  And the ridiculous verbiage never ends! A crisp $100 bill to anyone who can explain what “point” adds (in the vogue phrase “price point”) that “price” doesn’t already say.  Bring back the stocks in the public square for the people who invent or perpetuate these things!

--I’m having trouble mastering the art of stir-frying.  You might say I can talk the talk, but--wait for it--I can’t wok the wok.

--Line never spoken on “The Sopranos”: “You ain’t got the money? Hey, no problem—have a nice day!”

--Miguel Rodencito.  That, if you haven't already guessed, is "Mickey Mouse" in Spanish.  (Literally, "Michael Little Rodent.")

(Sponge Bob Square Pants?  That would be Esponja Menearse Plaza Pantalones! Who else would tell you these things? (That’s a foolproof Party Ice-Breaker, my friends.)

--Winter musings:

Note to TV stations: Wouldn't it be a lot easier to just list the schools that are OPEN instead of showing the names of innumerable schools (and/or companies, event names) on the marathon-length "crawl" at the bottom of the screen?  

I don't understand all these school-closing "snow days." Why?  Because you go to the gym, mall or fast-food joint, and what do you see?  Wall to wall kids!  It's not like the school closing kept them safely at home, so aren't they better off on the school bus and at school instead of individually heading out into the very same elements they're supposedly being "protected" from?  And forget the stay-at-home moms—they don’t exist.

The teachers?  Well, other adult employees find a way to get to work on snowy days, so what's the problem here?  What is this, another quote-unquote liability issue?  Ridiculous.

Ice fishermen are to winter what Civil War re-enactors are to summer.  

(What's the point of freezing your butt off/risking your life/investing in all kinds of gear in trying to catch $6 worth of fish?  Fish that you can buy in many stores! About as pointless as wearing scratchy heavy wool uniforms in August while running around pretending to shoot a guy from your bowling team who's dressed as the "enemy.”)

Winter driving hazard no one ever mentions:  Wet snow that clings to highway signs, making them all but unreadable.  How many missed exits or wrong turns result, not to mention accidents? If we can put a man on the Moon, there should be a way to fix this.  Yet . . . everybody sees this, and nothing is ever done.  Maybe we could put some of those chemicals that are already killing us to good use for a change?

Why do people say, "It’s too cold to snow”?  (Right; those 18-foot snow drifts at the South Pole where it’s 80 below zero are strictly an optical illusion!  Obviously an outlier! Or in these dark days, maybe even a deep fake!)

Electric vehicles are quickly becoming the laughingstock of the century: Few reliable charging stations in safe, well-lit areas, and said vehicles are almost useless in cold weather.  Oh, and I almost forgot to mention those pesky exploding batteries.

But the planet is better off, right? Good—we’re on the right track . . .  in a dysfunctional world in which we can’t even do something as simple as phasing out the penny, which has been on the agenda for at least 30 years. 

--Which would be better: To have the hottest thing on the market . . .  or the coolest thing on the market?  Can one thing be both?  Discuss!

--Overheard: “I know a guy who is afraid to Google himself for fear he’ll go blind!”

--jimjustsaying’s Word That Doesn’t Exist But Should of the Month: “Profanitype.” n.  The special symbols used by cartoonists to replace swear words (*&%#!, etc.).  No agreement yet established as to which symbol represents which expletive.—“Sniglets,” Rich Hall & Friends.

--Endangered species, language division: “Shindig.” (And you’re an old-timer if you can remember the days when underwear was referred to as “unmentionables.”)

--Overheard: "My, my!  Next fall my 4-year-old grandson will be starting preschool."

No, he won't.  He'll be in SCHOOL; there's nothing "pre" about it.  He will be in a room with a teacher, other kids, a blackboard (or maybe now an iPad?) and won't be able to leave until the bell rings.  That's SCHOOL, whether it's Playland, Harvard or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

--I don’t care what anyone says:  Olympic figure skaters or “ice dancers” are performers, not athletes.

--Memo to producers of newspaper advertising inserts: “WOW! doesn’t work for me anymore next to a loss-leader price tag.  I think us jaded consumers are all pretty much "WOWed out" by now.  (A recent insert for Walgreen’s had 36 WOW! items.  Enough already!)

Tell you what, advertisers:  Just tell me the product and the price, and I’LL decide whether it's a WOW! for me or not. Your opinion doesn’t count.

(Better yet, why not come up with some more novel wording, something more attention-getting, such as:  HOLY SHIT!  Duracell AA's, 4 pack, 99 cents!!!" . . . Or, "JESUS H. CHRIST!  Snickers 2-pack, 89 cents!!! Now we're talkin' "grabbers," are we not, folks?!)

--There will never be a Richard Belzer Lookalike Contest.  (I loved "The Belz”—my nominee for the Best Comic/Serious Actor Combo Platter.)

--In response to a query from a Popcorn regular in Singapore: Q-tips, according to the company, are so-called because the "Q" stands for Quality.

Q-tips started in the 1920s when the founder noticed his wife applying wads of cotton to toothpicks. The original name for the cotton stick was "Baby Gays," but switched to “Q-tips” in 1926. (“I’ll take the Original Name for Common Household Products for $5,000, Alex.”)

jimjustsaying's Party Ice-Breaker of the Week:  "Say [actual partygoer's name here], did you know that Richard NIxon played the lead role in a school production of 'The Aeneid'?"  (Who said there are no second acts in American life?)

--Is there some kind of rule that says every protest group's chant has to begin with "Hey-hey, ho-ho . . ."?  

--Three words you commonly see in print but never hear anyone actually use: "Cavort," "nimble" and "splendid."

DRUDGING AROUND: Surprising, alarming reasons behind “out of control” STD epidemic: Starts with dating apps . . . Cops: Dealer handed out business cards with cocaine sample attached . . .  Surgical robot burned woman’s intestines and caused her to die: lawsuit . . . Contestants will lose virginity in reality show set on tropical island . . .  “Better than real man”: Young Chinese women turn to AI boyfriends . . . World’s tallest man meets world’s shortest woman . . . Why skipping your dog’s walk is a bigger deal than you think . . . Red Lobster ditches “all-you-can-eat” after huge losses . . .  Six-pack abs six times worse for the heart? (Thanks, as always, to Matt Drudge and his merry band of aggregators.)

--"My fake plants died because I did not pretend to water them."--Mitch Hedberg

--If I ever have robotic surgery, I can’t wait to get the bill. (“Hey, I programmed MY robot to send you a check! Don’t blame me—it’s out of my hands—literally!)

Speaking of robots: Carving a chicken seems simple enough to people who have done it in the kitchen. But the eye-hand coordination, or reflexive sizing up that the human brain makes as it decides where and how deep to cut has been incredibly difficult to replicate in a robot, says Gary McMurray, who leads a team of robot builders at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Let’s see if I’ve got this right:  A robot can do delicate brain surgery . . . but can’t cut up a chicken?  I guess we’re not as advanced as we thought we were. (Slap forehead here!)

--He said it: “Learn your lines and don't trip over the furniture."--Spencer Tracy on his advice about acting.

--She said it: "If I had my life to live over again, I'd make the same mistakes--only sooner."--Tallulah Bankhead

--Talking back to the TV:  When CNN flashed "Coming up next: Are you smarter than the average computer?" I said: "No!  But I've got a chip on my shoulder if that helps!"

--Ryan Seacrest, your flight is now boarding.

--Speaking of flights, a Finnish airline is asking passengers to weigh themselves at departure gates. 


Why? The Finnair program is part of an effort to improve airplane balance calculations. Passengers will step on the scales at Helsinki Airport with their carry-on luggage.

More airlines are using this strategy to ensure a plane’s total weight is accurate. Finnair said its program, which began last week, is “voluntary and anonymous.”

--Never order salmon “served on a cedar plank." Why pay $5 more for something you can't eat?

Bank on it: Spaghetti always costs more at a "trattoria."

More dining: jimjustsaying's Eat-Out Tip O' the Week:  At a Mexican restaurant, always
ask to be seated in the No Guitarist section. (“Me gustaría una mesa en la sección
sin guitarrista!”)
--TODAY'S LATIN LESSON: Sicut bonus vicinus, res publica firma est. (“Like a 
good neighbor, State Farm is there”)

Thanks to Al Buckerkie, this month’s Popcorn intern.