The Onion Sandwich — Caramelized Onions

(recipe follows)onion sandwich_055

People who comment or send me mail tell me I can improve my blog by talking more about my life. From their advice I have been adding bits and bytes. A part of my life story I never speak about is poverty: I grew up poor. After my parents divorced my mother and I were so poor we couldn’t afford a vacuum. My mother borrowed one every couple of months from her half-brother’s wife. (To clean the carpet we used the back side of tape.)onion sandwich_058

We were poorer than most because my mother was unable to work — why is another story — and so we depended on welfare, food stamps, and kindness.

onion sandwich_054

Sometime in the 80’s the government started cutting the welfare and food stamp programs. I was used to not having much. Our furniture came from hand me downs, our TV a tiny, portable black and white. I only ever had a couple of pairs of pants and a few shirts. This was the baseline for my day to day — but I didn’t know how good I had been living until those cuts came into effect. One example should make my meaning clear.onion sandwich_053

I came home from school one day to my mother eating an onion sandwich: Two slices of day old bread, a slice of raw onion, French’s mustard. We had nothing else. I recall she smiled, said it was delicious and wished she had know — which sounded plausible through her souther drawl, but the sadness in her eyes gave up the lie.
onion sandwich_052

I broke out of what I hear called a The Cycle of Poverty. I am aware that a lot of my choices are a reaction to having been poor. I have 37 pairs of shoes because I grew up having just one, poorly fit and used to the last — but I don’t waste money and never borrow.
onion sandwich_051

Although I rarely talk about it, I own up to where I came from. I know from experience that you can chose how to remember what’s passed. To a degree you can reshape a memory — or honor it to let it go. So I took the pungent onion and made it sweet; I crafted my own mustard to make it mine; I bought the very best bread and made an Onion Sandwich.

(note: this is also used in Savory Pie)

Caramelized Onions

  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

onion sandwich_045


tier one (you must use)

  • At least 2 pounds of brown onions sliced thin (I fill my 12 liter/quart stock pot which reduce to about 2 cups)
  • Up to 2 tablespoons of butter (you really don’t much, the water in the onions will prevent them from sticking for most of the cooking)

tier three (optional)

  • Up to 1 tablespoon sugar (near the very end to help caramelize the onions or further sweeten them, taste before adding sugar)
  • Up to 1/4 cup strong beef stock near the very end of cooking (to loosen the brown bits at the end of cooking)
  • Up to 1/4 cup water (to loosen the brown bits at the end of cooking)

Method: Put your butter or oil in a large pot. Peel your onions, remove the root end and cut in half lengthwise and slice thin. Add them to the pot with the butter. When you’ve finished all your onions put the pot on the stove and turn it on medium to melt the butter. Don’t stir the pot until it’s heated up, about 3 to 5 minutes. Stir the pot and make a decision:

If you’re going to be in the kitchen and want the dish to finish quickly turn the heat up to high and stir every five minutes or so. They’ll finish in about an hour, depending on the volume. If you want to relax, turn the heat to low and come back and stir the pot ever 20 to 30 minutes. Depending on the volume and heat, this method will take a minimum of three hours. 

Your onions will go through three distinct phases:

  1. Individual slices slowly becoming a mush with a lot of liquid, almost like a soup. This phase is the longest and requires the least amount of attention.
  2. They will start sticking to the pot. Here you have stir more often, but there’s still a lot of liquid. At this point you’ll notice the start of a color change from translucent to light brown.
  3.  Finally they will brown during which you need to constantly move the onions in the the pot, scraping the brown bits off as much as you can. Those brown bits are flavor.

The temptation is to remove the onions when they start to stick. Don’t. Reduce the heat if you wan to but bring them to a dark brown. When they are near dark brown, this is where you would add sugar. When you can no longer scrap the bits off the bottom and sides of the pan then they are done. Remove them from the pan. You can also remove all but a tablespoon or two and add either 1/4 cup of water or strong beef stock to loosen the remaining brown bits of flavor at the bottom of the pan. I keep these separate from the caramelized onions to flavor other dishes.

You can see an example of caramelizing vegetables here.

onion sandwich_060

caramelized onions
3 kilos (8 pounds) reduced to about 2 cups caramelized onions. Notice the brown bits, at this point I can no longer scrape them off, so the onions are finished. At this point I add water or broth to get those bits of flavor stuck all over the pan — don’t waste all that flavor!


homemade mustard with canned green tomatoes and broccoli in custard in a pastry shell
homemade mustard with canned green tomatoes served with my onion sandwich


30 thoughts on “The Onion Sandwich — Caramelized Onions”

  1. I appreciate the honesty in this message and your letting us in on your family life. Your mom sounds like an amazing woman. And this sandwich looks like a little piece of heaven. I especially like the first photo… A few years back I taught cooking classes at a homeless shelter. The pantry there was fortunate to be filled with lots of fresh produce, but often the residents didn’t know how to use them. That is where I came in…We always had loads of onions and they were amazed at how easily they could be transformed from something pungent to sublime…Thank you for this beautiful post. I look forward to reading more.


    1. Thank you.

      You know, in university I had a teacher who told us during the depression people would often massive amounts of onions for the sweets smell and richness they could give the plain foods they had to eat.


  2. Ah, now i get a thing or two. I have the “opposite” background. My grandparents were hard-workin’ folks, and my Mum in particular felt very strongly about moving up the social ladder. That my Papa and i could never really be bothered was something she never forgave either of us for. I became the Commie Bohemian my Dad never had the cojones to be. Hung with the trannies and the workin’ gurls, blew off my college education, and become a cook, ran off to Europe, never worked more than i absolutely had to, and spent or gave away what ever i did have.

    I love this bit from your last post:
    “I know from experience that you can chose how to remember what’s passed. To a degree you can reshape a memory — or honor it to let it go.”

    I learned that one from my friend Teagan. She and i were about 20 years apart when i met her when i was 19 and we got on like a house on fire. She never told a story the same way twice, and in the end she took a car, said she’d pay for it later, and started driving toward Seattle. I wonder if she ever got there?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I can imagine a bit of the “opposite” in how you describe yourself in that paragraph. I worked — and work — hard. When I finished high school I juggled three jobs, 7 days a week, and saved every cent. I still work seven days a week, but on my terms and not very long. Work now is teaching children. I completely enjoy being around young people (whom I affectionally refer to as short people).

      I did my political activism in university, which I arrived at in my twenties.

      Still, it is important to let go. There’s a song I like by Natalie Merchant, “Life Is Sweet”. In short, how you think about things is a choice.


      1. I like being in charge of how i see my surroundings. I grew up with the sense that nothing was good enough, and somehow you had to feel sorry for just about everybody, which is really just a sneaky way of looking down on other people.

        I like not worrying about that kind of stuff as an adult. All i have to worry about is trying to keep people feed and given the chance trying to take away a bit of the pain, and inflicting a little as i can. I have everything i will ever need, and i am ready to go when ever “the fat lady sings”. Nothing left to do but cuddle and cook. Well, yeah and look old, crazy and menacing, so no-one messes with my peeps. Nothing like a graying beard, and that “nothing left to lose” wild eyed look to keep squares other up-to-no-goods at a distance. Haha

        Besides, the world has alway done just exactly as i wanted it to. I got the life i wanted. I’ve got the guy i wanted. I’ve got lovers and friends, and never enough time for all the nonsense i want to do. I am allowed to do what i want to and be who i want to. Now all i have left to do is spread it around.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I can identify with your past, I grew up poor too, but at the time didn’t know I was poor, because I was so loved. The back of packing tape is great for getting pet hair off of black clothing 😉 Love the recipe too 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. You funny old thing ! — with I say with the greatest affection …
    So there you are, living the high life O/S, and looking back on a life that a great number of us couldn’t imagine. I admire your courage. But then, I admired it some time back …

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m loving this blog. I always enjoy hearing about how food ties into personal experience and this is a great example. And I too grew up poor and funnily enough I can relate to the carpet-tape cleaning method. Kudos to you though for taking those memories and turning them into something so wonderful!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Cteavin, this is a great post, your best to date, IMO. You were able to tie your childhood narrative of living under difficult circumstances and then overcoming them, with that onion sandwich. You transformed that raw onion sandwich into the caramelized onion sandwich, just like you have transformed your hard beginning into a life filled with much and growing success. I appreciate your sharing this with us.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s by listening to people such as yourself and reading those blogs that have helped me learn how to share and be creative, so thank you very much for taking time to comment and for having made an excellent blog.


  7. Great post Steven! Not only is your photography improving, but I think your blogging is as well! Pretty amazing how much you’ve accomplished just since the beginning of the year!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply to Cteavin Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s