A Feast of Folklore

By Ben Gazur

From witch cake to wassailing, strange stories of Britain's food.

Monday, 8 November 2021

An onion a day...

Hello All!

Thank you everyone who has supported A Feast of Folklore so far. It really means a lot that so many people seem interested in the topic!

While I’ve been working on this book I seem to keep coming across food being used in folk medicine. In the past people must have used anything they had to hand to ward off illness and obviously food was easy to get. But did any of it work? In the spirit of scientific investigations I decided to get out my onions.

In folklore the person who knows their onions was a wise one. An apple a day may keep the doctor away but onions were practically a panacea.

Onions were the go to cure for a bewildering number of ailments I’ve discovered. Got pneumonia? Then slice open an onion and strap it to your feet. Got an ear ache? A small onion covered in oil and inserted into the ear will do wonders. But if you don’t want to be smelling of (or possibly hearing) onions then there was one way to use your vegetable cupboard to ward off all evils and give your home a festive, if pungent, makeover.

Hang up your onions.

Amulets made of onions were, until surprisingly recently, used in homes up and down Britain. When a smallpox outbreak struck Sheffield in 1927 onions could be seen strung up in many houses. Whether they worked to slow the spread of the disease is not recorded. There is one use of onions however that has been playing on my mind since the start of the pandemic.

When a nasty flu season struck in 1915 there were no clear ways to detect who may have been infected and who should be isolated. One household turned to onions to clear things up. By hanging an onion in the house it was thought they could get forewarning of a pestilent visitor. If someone with the flu entered the house then the onion would turn black in their presence. A lot simpler, than poking about in your nose and throat for a lateral flow test, if of dubious efficacy,

Now if you’ll excuse me I have to go and hang an onion to check any of our guests for infections.

Thanks again for your support!

Ben

 

P.S. Please do not stick onions in your ear without first consulting a doctor with a medical degree, and not a plague doctor wearing a beaked mask stuffed with spices.

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