Turkeysong

Experimental Homestead

Onion Braids: functional, symbolic, marketing ploy.

onion braid headers

I often braid my onions, but my braids aren’t all neat and pretty-like.  Stylish onion and garlic braids are nice, but I don’t have the time, energy and patience to sit around making something that I produce essentially for functional reasons look like I bought it at a country chic boutique.  Last year though, we braided onions for the market.  I spent a lot of time trimming the bulbs and making them look presentable, then dipping the dried leaves in water to re-soften so tonia could braid them neatly.  We added dried lavender and stuff to spiff them up a bit.  they turned out pretty nice and It was kind of fun, but it was also time consuming.  A major motivator was that it allowed us to sell our onions for a lot more.  If you really added up our time though, it was more like having another mediocre paying job to our lives, which is actually okay, but not high incentive.  I liked our onions braids, but something never quite sat right about the whole thing.  I think in a way we were diminishing the value of the food we grew by making it into something that may be viewed as art first and food second.  Also, I couldn’t help thinking that we could have spent that time growing more food or making something more lasting.

Onion braid for market

Pretty?  Pretty expensive!  (photo by tonia chi)

Braiding onions is actually more fun when I’m doing it for functional reasons.  I just start slapping them together and it usually works out good enough (“Good enough”, a lot of jokes have been made that this is the Turkeysong motto.)  The braids are kind of messy, more like onion dreadlocks, but I’m looking at some of them hanging in my room right now and they’re pretty neat looking after they cure well enough to knock off some of the dirty outer skins.  Once you give up on making them all perfect looking, curing and storing braided onions is very practical.   It doesn’t take very long to whip out a 15 or 20 onion braid when you have no significant commitment to cosmetics.  Functionally speaking, the bulbs in a braid have good air circulation for curing, and they don’t take up a lot of space like loose onions do when spread out somewhere to dry.  You can easily move a braid in or out of the shade, and move them inside when it gets damp out.  There is no picking up of numerous loose onions one at a time and finding another place to spread them out flat, or looking for a container with good air circulation to put them in.  You can store the braids in a cool dry place, and maybe bring in one at a time to hang in the kitchen, pulling onions off as you need them.  Some say the onions keep better because the necks are sealed and less likely to be infected with rot.  If an onion does rot, it’s less likely to infect others if it’s not piled in with them several onions deep in a crate or bag, and they are much easier to inspect.  Onion braiding is a great system and that’s why people started doing it.  And yeah, it does look neat.

But it doesn’t just look neat.  To me it is also symbolic of my choices and my lifestyle.  Each year, the sight of onion braids reinforces my sentiments about them and what they represent to me; my efforts of the past seasons carrying me through the coming ones.

Making pretty braids is much less functional.  It takes a lot of time to clean up the bulbs so that they look good, and unless they’ve cured for a while, that process often leaves very little protective skin on the onions.  There are also a certain number of losses when curing onions that are just inevitable.  I’m sure that more than one person took one of our nice market braids home, at a cost of like 5 onions for 8.00 dollars, or whatever, and hung them up to look at them for so long that some of the onions rotted.  I mean, that’s why you really buy a pretty onion braid, to look at it.  And that’s kind of sad.  Ideally, people would make the food I grow into art and eat it, not just look at it as art until it goes bad.

I’m not totally anti-pretty-onion-braid.  For most people though, onions are a staple food, and braids are a great way to store onions.  I remember thinking last year how cool it would be to sell more strictly functional onions braids.  I don’t think that quick braiding is at all cost prohibitive for me as a way to cure, store and market onions, and may in fact be more efficient for the reasons I already outlined.  I just need enough onions to bother doing it.  If I can find a solid keeper that looks and tastes good, with good cultural traits and all that stuff, and grow a big mess of them, I could sell people braids of 8 to 20 onions at an affordable per-pound price.

Many things and acts are symbolic, but not always of what we want them to be.  I think we would do well to step sideways and try to look at what we want things to mean and to say about us, v.s. what they actually do.  A nice onion braid can mean a lot of things.  For us here, it was a chance to turn something we manifested from the soil into art of sorts.  To give it more life.  But another part of it, is that we were just profiting off people grasping at something that we have that they don’t, yet which they recognize as somehow valuable.  They want to buy a polished up phenomenon of rural life and I’m pimping myself and my precious onions to sell it to them (okay, wait, that’s an awesome image, the onion pimp.  Gold chains, platform shoes…)  I’m actually all for romanticizing country life a little.  I just think that we would do well to extract and celebrate the best and most real parts of it, and not just a dressed up aesthetic.  If someone hangs one of those braids up and thinks it’s too cool and expensive to actually use, then that disrespects the food I’ve grown by placing the aesthetic above it’s potential to nourish and enrich someones life in a more real way.  But then, if my braid is all that nice, I’m just asking for it.

Depending on how my onions cure out this year, I may invest more in growing onions for market next year. They are a good crop in that they will keep between markets and can be sold all winter.  That’s good. I need crops that hold and store well since I can’t make it down the hill to market every week.  I sort of blew it this past season by getting my onions in too late, but some still did well (*see footnote on varieties and stuff below).  I think it would be cool as hell to show up at the market with a pile of somewhat knobby functional onion braids; braids that aren’t so pretty that people won’t actually use the onions.  You see what I’m getting at here?  The symbol was real before, but now it means something different.  It is symbolic of something more tangible and close to home; something that is not just playing at a fantasy of real food and farm, so much as participating in it as part of a rhythm of daily life.   I grow onions.  I braid them.  You hang them in your kitchen and pluck them off to nourish your family.  I see you at the market next year.  And while you use them they visually reinforce the choices you’ve made and remind that food is maybe something more than a thing that shows up magically at the store and which you trade money for.  I think that’s a pretty cool relationship.

I have a lot of stuff I’d like to do, and I don’t have the energy, space, fertilizer and water to make a real dent in the onion consumption of Ukiah residents, but I can make a tiny dent, and do it in a way that allows people to take home a more real, and more meaningful, piece of life here at Turkeysong.  I’m sure I’ll get better at braiding and make prettier braids than I usually do.  I might even braid in some dried flowers or some herb and chilis.  But, I’m not sure I want them to be too pretty. The goal is definitely functionality and not adding a lot (if any) in price to what should be an affordable staple crop.  If I want to make some serious stacks of cash, I can grow a couple beds of cipollini onions.  Those flat little gems sell for 5.00 or 6.00 a pound to people who want to spend their money on gourmet food, which is great.  What better could they spend it on?

these are just a few thoughts I’ve had over some time now.  I woke up at 3:30 AM as I so often do.  I put on my headlamp and did a little hoeing under the interstem apple trees in preparation for fall potato onion planting.  Then I thought I’d use some of my time while waiting to get sleepy again bringing in the onion braids and chili strings that have been curing and drying on the south wall of the lizard house.  I’ve been meaning to do it for a week or so.  The onions cured nicely in the gentle sun we have this time of year (remember I planted late so I harvested late), and only one bulb was lost to rot so far.  Now it’s almost dawn and I have to go back to sleep so I can wake up all perky and replace the head gasket on my car.  And you probably thought I was going to go plough a field with a wooden stick or something like that.  Gotta have a way to get the giant pile of onion braids I’ll have next year down the hill somehow.  They’re not going to hike down there by themselves.  Take my advice and stick to urban homesteading unless you have some other reason to be out in the country other than that it’s pretty and private.  That way you can probably get your onion braids to market without a car.

onion braids curing

This candid picture is very representative of the contrasting richness and squalor that is turkeysong.  Lots of good food, but weak infrastructure.  Several people have offered to buy me a new door :)  I’m not sure this one will make it through the winter, but I have apples to grow and someone has to serenade the chickens in the morning.

Oh yeah, how do you do it!?  It seems to work better for both curing and braiding if the greens are not too green.  I think it’s actually better if they are mostly dry, but I’m still deciding what I can get away with.  If they are very green, they shrink a lot in drying and the braid can become loose or even fall apart.  Dip dried leaves in water briefly to make them more supple.  Form an X with the leaves of two onions.  Lay the leaves of a third onion over the cross formed by the X and wrap it’s leaves once around the cross’ intersection to secure the first two onions in place  Then you just start braiding, adding an onion with every lay over.  putting in a piece of twine toward the end can help strengthen the top of the braid.  I usually braid out to the tips and then double the end over and lash it down to form a loop for hanging.  If none of that makes any sense, just do a search for onion braiding.  There are plenty of tutorials out there.  I’m out of onions to do a photo series with this year.

These french onion sellers, known in England as Onion Johnnies, wrap their onions on a core of straw or rushes instead of braiding, but the bulbs are already fully cured out.  Actually, this whole onion johnny phenomenon is really an interesting study.  From what I’ve gathered (which should be suspect:) they found it cheaper, easier and more profitable to import their onions to England across the channel and sell them there door to door, rather than trying to get them to French population centers.  Apparently the onion Johnnies were quite the phenomenon for a long while, but then slowly stopped coming till there were only a few left. The onions are sold in hanks door to door.  If you look at the older pictures of the Onion Johnnies, the hanks are very nice looking, but pretty plain.  There is currently a revival, but this time it’s a little different.  There are festivals and stuff and you’ll see a lot of the onion shanks are very dressed up with flowers and grain heads and stuff.  I think that people probably used to buy them mostly for the onions.  Now, it’s probably more of an idea and a symbol that people are buying.  It is even alleged that the stereotype of the frenchman in stripped shirt and beret came from the English being familiar with these guys.  Now at the festivals the guys wear the hat and demonstrate spinning up shanks of onions for sale.  They have to sell their frenchness a little.  I like to dress up my booth and I sell ideas like heirlooms and the more aesthetic parts of life here.  It’s an interesting thing to think about though, when are we degrading and pimping ourselves and over inflating an image, v.s. presenting an idea and aesthetic that will move people in a positive way while still making fat stacks of cash :O  So here is the idealized version, though still maybe kind of squalid.  I stopped short of finishing the building…

So here is the cleaned up version.  This photo is the onion braid made with clean looking onions, braided carefully with some flowers and stuff.  I moved the broken door mirror.  Hung the old cool antique mirror in a totally useless place, even for a chicken.  Caught the chicken walking by.  Leaned my guitar in a precarious position that isn't even safe.  rehung my onion and chili braids, breaking one of the yellow onion braids and dropping several of them on the ground, which I know have to eat sooner than later because they are bruise, even though I have a lot of other substandard onions already that are in need of eating.  I opened the door so the mosquito net would show instead.  tore the dirty old plastic off the window, then put in a piece of leather. I didn't like the chunk of leather, so I moved it and made sure my 1940's Rife machine replica that was sitting there was visible.  I even went and pulled the vaccum tubes out of my other rife machine replica and put them in this one because they look cool, but in doing so, I broke the plate annode pole off of one of the 866 mercury vapor rectifiers.  but then the  chicken was in the leather window picture, so I photoshopped the rife machine window into the chicken picture.  Then I photoshopped out the orange power cord that usually runs in through the door to power this room.

So here is the cleaned up version of the previous photo. This photo is the photo equivalent of the onion braid made with clean looking onions, braided carefully with some flowers and stuff, v.s. the previous photo which is some dirty old onion braids and what my life actually looks like. I moved the broken door mirror. Hung the old cool antique mirror in a totally useless place (even for a chicken), caught a handsome speckled Sussex hen walking by, leaned my awesome, vintage looking 1990′s National resonator guitar in a precarious position that isn’t even safe, re-hung my onion and chili braids so they would look better and as if there was more stuff, (breaking one of the yellow onion braids and dropping several of them on the ground, which I now have to eat sooner than later because they are bruised, even though I have a lot of other substandard onions already that are in need of eating). I opened the door so the mosquito net would show instead of the scary halloween door.  Moved the cheap soapstone cutting bandsaw that lives in the yard all year round under a plastic trash bag, in order to get a better angle.  Tore the dirty old plastic off the window, then put in a piece of leather. I didn’t like the chunk of leather, so I moved it and made sure my 1940′s Rife machine replica that was sitting there was visible. I even went and pulled the vacuum tubes out of my other rife machine replica and put them in this one because they look cool, but in doing so, I broke the plate anode pole off of one of the 866 mercury vapor rectifiers. But then the chicken was in the leather window picture, so I photoshopped the rife machine window into the chicken picture window.  I would have photo shopped the whole thing out and made it black, but I drew the line there.   Then I photoshopped out the orange power cord that usually runs in through the door to bring power to this room.  Cropped out extraneous junk on the side of the building.  Also, all the first set of pictures got lost in a camera malfunction, so I had to set it up twice.

*variety and growing notes:  Yellow of Parma from baker creek is looking very nice.  It’s a round uniform onion and looks like a good keeper type, though we’ll see about that.  Most of the other onions I’ve trialed from baker creek did poorly, and  many have had a tendency toward bifurcation.  bifurcation is when the bulb divides internally into two or more bulbs with a papery sheath between them.  They are harder to process and don’t always keep as well as solid bulbs.  The french braiding onion I bought from Baker Creek,  Jaune Paille Des  Vertus, and the German Storage oinion Stuttgarter, both had a high percentage of bifurcated bulbs. I met some folks from Sustainable Seed Company, who are based locally here.  One of them was saying that bifurcation is a huge problem for them when trying to source quality seed.    Seed growers make a lot more money if they plant a crop and just let it all go to seed.  What they should be doing though is getting out in the fields and rigorously rouging out (killing) the “off types”.  If they don’t, the seed quality runs down over a few generations.   Borrettana Cipollini seed from Fedco and sustainable seed company is very nice and uniform, making cute, flat little onions with very little bifurcation.  They look great braided, but I’m not sure how well they keep yet.  I just ate some Borrettana Cipollini slow cooked in some killer turkeysong chicken broth with sage, bay, salt, pepper and dried black trumpets.  All day cooked in the solar oven till the broth was reduced to the rich yellow fat.  All I can say is, oh my fucking (lack of) god.  Okay, I can also say sweet, fine textured, no sharpness, and wish I had some toasted bread to smash them on and a pint of guinness.

For you locals, I’ve had really good luck starting onions from seed in January to February.  My target date is January 15th, but then through anytime in February seems to work well enough.  I don’t think I had a single seedling onion bolt this year, and that lack of seeding out is pretty much the norm when growing from seed.  Seeding is common though when using starts that are grown somewhere else and shipped in, or especially planting those tortured little onion bulbs called sets.  One market grower told me she only grows Candy onions because it’s the only variety that doesn’t bolt on her; but that’s probably because she buys starts instead of starting them herself.  Candy is a delicious onion though.  I plan to start experimenting with some fall planting as well to see how that works for getting an early crop.

potato onion braids

Potato onion braids.  I roasted one of these braids whole for a party that year.  It was awesome.  BTW, speaking of potato onions, I’m selling potato onion starts this fall/winter through the ebay paleotechnics account.

November 10, 2013 - Posted by | Food and Drink Making, Garden Stuff, Uncategorized | , , ,

11 Comments »

  1. Great blog, thanks for sharing so generously!
    Do you ship potato onions to Sweden?

    Comment by Torbjörn Lundaahl | November 10, 2013 | Reply

  2. hahaha! “onion pimp”… Very fun to read; very good light shining on a hidden thing… Yeah, your braids will be prettier and prettier with time, and the point will be moot, except in the perception of the onion buyer. Pegg couldn’t make an ugly onion braid if she tried, no matter how fast she did it… but you know that already. She doesn’t make art, she IS art.

    Comment by Shelley Phillips | November 10, 2013 | Reply

    • So true. She’s my most important teacher ever.

      Comment by Stevene | November 11, 2013 | Reply

  3. I braided the 3kg of garlic we bought direct from an organic garlic farmer last year, 3 basic messy braids tied off with a bow of string at the top and hung in a cupboard. I used scissors to cut off what I needed and had 3 very messy and unsightly braids with just a few garlic hanging off here and there by the end but by gods was it practical. :D
    I’ve never bought a braid of onions or garlic from a market before – the price difference never made sense to me. I think it’s a shame we’ve come so far from food for nourishment and enjoyment to food for aesthetics and for impressing the Joneses. Still, if people are silly enough to pay the extra for something pretty, good luck to them and yay for your pocket. Still, I do hope they actually USE their pretty food and respect what has gone into growing it.

    Comment by rabidlittlehippy | November 10, 2013 | Reply

    • I actually think it’s cool if people want to spend their money on art like that, they could spend it on a lot worse things, and most do. But if it’s at the expense of the food, that’s the real issue for me. And personally I just want to spend my time and efforts in other directions and not cater to that aspect so much. Most years I rough braid some of my potato onions up. I like storing them that way, though they are more work to braid than larger onions, just because they’re smaller. I knew some people out in the mountains that made a lot of their yearly income making really nice garlic braids. So many people end up doing stuff like that to appeal to a certain market because food and goods are so relatively cheap. I’d like my food growing efforts to be more real than that, however small the scale. It’s challenging though.

      Comment by Stevene | November 11, 2013 | Reply

  4. About 10 minutes in they have a different method of onion saving. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6EeIQcWex5w

    Comment by c. | November 27, 2013 | Reply

    • That’s way cool!

      Comment by Stevene | November 27, 2013 | Reply

  5. I think you might be over thinking the neat vs. sloppy onion braid thing a bit- especially making A LOT of assumptions about what people at the farmer’s market are thinking/want to do with the onions. I’m a lady who shops at the farmers market and I’m all about function over form. You might want to make a couple quick onion braids and see how well they sell. To you it might be sloppy, but to a bored housefrau or busy working mother, it might be rustic :)

    I go through about 3 lbs of onions a week (when I’m making lunches as well at home- which does not always happen) and having onions in a braid vs. in a bag would be a lot better for storage, especially since I need to keep my onions FAR AWAY from everything else- they release enough ethalyne to make everything else rot faster. Which I will sometimes use to ripen an avacado or mango faster, but mostly I just keep them away from my apples and my potatoes.

    Also, see if you can get some small girls who love barbies to come over and help you braid. Bonus points if they have little sisters. I can whip out a french braid on hip-length hair in less than a minute and have no problems whipping out really crisp garlic braids, so onion braids are probably similar enough to be quick work. My daughter, who’s an only child and was never Barbie obsessed, can’t do it at all.

    I don’t know if this will help, but sometimes I’ll get some sturdy butchers twine and tie it at the base of each head of garlic, and then use the stings to help contain the bits that want to go all over the place. It makes it go a bit faster, and come out a bit neater. I use the string to make the hook in the back and just leave the tops poking out, which saves me some time. If you get some burlap ribbon or something, and tie it to one of the onions, that could be really beautiful- some of them have a red stripe or something, and that’d totally be worth a markup. :)

    As a yuppie who shops at farmers markets, I’d also say that I would find it completely charming if you had a note on the onion braid that said something along the lines of “I know I’m beautiful, but I’m too delicious not to eat.” If that soothes your desire to feed people and helps make sure that your onions braids aren’t used as decorations only, then super nifty.

    I, howver, just left a six paragraph comment on a blog I’ve barely read, so I know I’m overthinking things- but at least I’ve got a few things to try next time I make garlic and onion braids. I’ve never

    I found your blog while doing research on potato onions for my own garden, by the way- at the rate I go through onions, I really should grow more of my own.

    Comment by Bippy | December 22, 2013 | Reply

    • Yeah, you’re probably right Bippy, I am prone to over-thinking things! I’m not much of a braider, but then I too was never obsessed with barbies… though maybe there’s still time. A lot of my friends are at child rearing age, so I’ll just rustle up an army of little girls in the fall and pay them in onions and barbie clothes. It’s farm barbie! comes with real dirt! What? Child labor? It’s a play date. They’re only crying because of the onions. I’ll probably get better at making nice braids efficiently. I’m impatient with it still at this point, but I can probably get past that if I do it more. From my limited experience with braiding garlic, I think it’s a lot easier. Dried onion tops are very, let’s say, unruly, as well as fairly brittle. I also would consider going with more of a wrapping system like the french guys do, or the neat system from the link c. posted. Literal braiding may not even be the way to go in the end. And yeah, onion braids ARE highly functional and cool, no matter what. They’re pretty easy to grow if you find plants/sets/varieties that don’t tend to bolt in your area. I like your note idea :D Thanks for the funny and thoughtful comments!

      Comment by Stevene | December 22, 2013 | Reply

      • Find your local middle school, and contact the GT teacher and offer to not charge field trip fees (the local farm my kid went to charged $15 a kid, but they also had a plastic cow with fake teats to milk and an air conditioned visitor center will all kinds of edutaiment crap),, and offer the onion braiding as an activity. Bam, free slave labor. Given budget cuts, the teacher would probably be thrilled to find a place where they don’t have to pay $15 a student, and if you do it for the GT classes, you’re more likely to get the bright students who are going to ask you good questions, and be fun.

        I’m having a hard time finding a variety of onions that won’t bolt in my area- I’m in Texas, the summers are brutal, and there’s like, four varieties of short day onions that seem to do OK here- which is great, but I also want shallots, multiplier onions, potato onions, walking onions, leeks, garlic, and (I will admit it) basically just an Allum Party because I freaking love onions and garlic. Variety is the spice of life and all that, but it’s always a bummer to find a variety that sounds interesting and then realize it will die a horrible death in my yard because it’s just not going to be able to handle the heat.

        Comment by akismet-4f0fadc8e0e3be5dc2ca9747d2375111 | January 2, 2014

      • What makes the difference for me avoiding bolting here is starting by seed. Mid Jan to Mid Feb has seemed to be the best, but I’m going to be experimenting with fall sowing more to see how that goes. What about a light shade? I know a lot of people have trouble with onions. Overall my climate is quite beneficent, allowing for a lot of variety. Most onions seem to be resist bolting here if planted from seed, so I’m spoiled.

        Comment by Stevene | January 3, 2014


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