from Graham Greene’s The End of The Affair (1951):
The film was not a good film, and at moments it was acutely painful to see situations that had been so real to me twisted into the stock clichés of the screen . . . Suddenly and unexpectedly, for a few minutes only, the film came to life. I forgot that this was my story, and that for once this was my dialogue, and was genuinely moved by a small scene in a cheap restaurant. The lover had ordered steak and onions, the girl hesitated for a moment to take the onions, because her husband didn’t like the smell, the lover was hurt and angry because he realized what was behind the hesitation, which brought to his mind the inevitable embrace on her return home. The scene ‘came off’: I had wanted to convey the sense of passion through some common simple episode without any rhetoric in words or action, and it worked. For a few seconds I was happy – this was writing: I wasn’t interested in anything else in the world. I wanted to go home and read the scene over: I wanted to work at something new: I wished, how I wished, that I hadn’t invited Sarah Miles to dinner.
Afterwards – we were back at Rules and they had just fetched our steaks – she said, ‘There was one scene you did write.’
‘About the onions?’
‘Yes.’ And at that very moment a dish of onions was put on the table. I said to her – it hadn’t even crossed my mind that evening to desire her – ‘And does Henry mind onions?’
‘Yes. He can’t bear them. Do you like them?’
‘Yes.’ She helped me to them and then helped herself
Is it possible to fall in love over a dish of onions? It seems improbable and yet I could swear just then that I fell in love. It wasn’t, of course, simply the onions – it was that sudden sense of an individual woman, of a frankness that was so often later to make me happy and miserable. I put my hand under the cloth and laid it on her knee, and her hand came down and held mine in place. I said ‘It’s a good steak,’ and heard like poetry her reply, ‘It’s the best I’ve ever eaten.’
i don’t intend, of course, to comment on every literary food reference (literary reference to food) i happen to come upon – that would be a task both gargantuan and tiresome (note to self: comment at length on food reference in Gargantua) – but now and then, as in the above, one is struck, and the urge to share is irresistible.
i am a sucker for onions, and it seems to me that onions are a vegetable often undersung, for all their ubiquity*. this realization came to me all of a sudden, after years of waxing ecstatic over garlic (not by any means unworthy of such tribute), and it dawned on me that while i could live an admittedly impoverished Happy Life without garlic, no such life would be possible without onions. in fact – could i recall a single (cooked, non-dessert) meal i had prepared in my whole cookin’ life that did not either commence or conclude with onions? at only the slimmest risk of hyperbole – no.
thusly did onions emerge from the murk of the wings – essential but unnoticed – into the foot lights of my affection.
and so too do i approve their being given so central, if synecdochal** a role in Greene’s book, however much “It wasn’t, of course, simply the onions.” just as it was, and was not, simply the bomb
that ended the affair. (i suddenly am having this flash of fervent curiosity as to whether Morrissey’s “if it’s not love, then it’s the bomb the bomb the bomb that will bring us together” is in any way derived from The End of the Affair.
without getting into it, both Love and The Bomb play in complicated and not necessarily conflicting ways at the keeping together/driving apart of the two principal characters. and so regular invocations of English literature as already exist
making it unbelievable that Greene was not familiar to Morrissey notwithstanding***, the precedent is set (or as it were, followed) by the his reference to Brighton Rock
(1938) in Vauxhall And I’s “Now My Heart Is Full.
but this is not, all indications to the contrary, about my love for onions; rather, it is about green peppers and my -extreme- dislike for them.
(not green peppercorns, which i love btw; green bell peppers.)
for it was while transcribing the above passage that i had the thought that steak with fried up onions and green peppers was perhaps the only situation in which i can imagine desiring green peppers. and not merely tolerate, but actively desire; which is a big thing, because i fuckin’ hate those guys. but did i always hate them?
i tell myself that one day (not too long ago) i “realized” that I Hate Green Peppers, which implies that the hatred was always there, but i was somehow unaware of it, and it took someone articulating the thought (by saying “I hate green peppers,” or like, “Green peppers are stupid and suck,” or “Green peppers belong in Staten Island, with all the other trash” or something) for me to come to terms with what was underlying all along.
it is a comforting thought, because it reaffirms the continuity of identity and the unity of the self – that life is a succession of peelings away of layers of artifice to arrive at the real, abiding self, but (as i appear not to tire of mentioning
) i am skeptical of such notions. or harbour a healthy pessimism, at least.
it’s difficult to say, because i had a long stint of eating them, you know, pretty much all the time, owing to their status as what i like to think of as the “Second Vegetable” of vegetarianism. it seems that for the first years of most people’s vegetarianism, green peppers have a way of popping up in pretty much everything, more for a lack of better ideas of what to put in a dish, i would argue, than out of anyone’s genuine enthusiasm for them. in fairness, this is a consequence of their versatility combined with a general lack of imagination on the part of many non- or recently vegetarian cooks. carrots and potatoes take too long to cook, broccoli has an unwieldy shape, and pretty much everything else costs too much or 80% of people don’t know how to cook.
i’m generalizing, obviously, but i am certain that many white or whiteish middle class vegetarian or ex-vegetarian punks (or not. it’s cool) will sympathize with this experience, particularly if their entry into the lifestyle roughly corresponded with a. their adolescence, and b. their learning how to cook.
it is just, for many people the first (next) vegetable that comes to mind, and so it survives by stinking up stir-frys, pizzas, pasta salads the land over, inexplicable but omnipresent. insinuating itself quietly into the company of onions and garlic for the initial sauté…
what, for example, is on your average vegetarian pizza? onions (the First Vegetable, despite my arguments about their anonymity, but they are still clearly taken for granted), tomatoes (which don’t count, because they’re a fruit), and what, olives? two kinds of olives? (which i argue don’t count either because everyone, if they think about it, will realize that they’ve always secretly and unconsciously, clandestine even unto themselves, considered olives a fruit. or maybe part condiment? in any case not a full-fledged vegetable. try it, you’ll see), and lo – green peppers, which suck.
so, all that time, all those fledgling years, was i really labouring blind, under a half-felt, inarticulable but loathsome influence of green peppers? for they are foul, tasting at best like batteries and grass flavoured bubble gum (if there was such a thing), or if so unfortunate as to miss this dubious window, like something always already a little rotten.
or am i just embarrassedly projecting my current revulsion, the putrefying metal I imagine now on my tongue, into a past to which it can not presume truthfully to belong? am i just ruining it for myself? interceding in my own memories in order to shore up this fiction of a unitary self, and affect forged membership with the cache of those who always were aware of the shabby interloping of green peppers into otherwise edible cuisine?
well, i guess we’ll never know.
(i might eat a stuffed pepper, actually. stuffed with lentils? yeah, maybe.)
* a notable and much appreciated exception, David Waltuck, of Chanterelle (NYC, RIP) “You can’t cook without onions. There is not a single thing you can do without onions. There are so many things made with onions that when people come into our restaurant and say that they are allergic to onions, I say “No you are not – it is impossible. You just don’t like onions.” People eat onions all the time and don’t know it. I remember having a conversation with Jasper Johns, with him saying “If truffles and onions cost the same amount of money, you would obviously choose an onion. You don’t need truffles; you do need onions.”
a sentiment which, if pressed, i’m sure many cooks would echo, if less brassily.
** this is perhaps pushing it. how to describe the part-for-the-whole relationship of the onions to adultery in this situation? synecdoche describes a part-standing-in-for-whole, subclass-for-class relationship, and vice versa, but i (and my English BA roommate) understand it usually be a more direct relationship. i do not know what better term to employ, and so will trust my gut that on an emotional register the decision to eat the onions is, as a minor betrayal, a subclass of the larger class of betrayals that will come to comprise their affair (including, among others, having sex on the floor of the sitting room while her husband is sick in bed upstairs). this decision also allows me to take advantage of the alliteration, for which the better angels of my nature apologize, and blame the pleasant weather/chirping birds or the cold i’m just getting over. take your pick.
*** i dare you to read that sentence out loud. i just fucking dare you. i’m also pretty sure it is grammatical, although i welcome correction on that note, please. if not i’ll never learn.