More than 10 years ago, my older brother Robert and his family visited for Christmas. Robert told me that he truly loved pearl onions in cream sauce on the holidays, so I made them for him. In the process, I learned they are a pain in the ass; every tiny onion must be peeled by hand before boiling. But they are delicious and because my husband Andrew seemed to enjoy them, too, I have made creamed onions for several other holiday dinners. Not always, because sometimes I was just not up for the tedium.
Feeling honored and flattered, I was determined to make this the best ever creamed onion dish.
Recently, we spent Christmas at Andrew’s mother’s house. Beforehand, Andrew put together an email for his mom of dishes we’d be making. On the list was creamed onions. When I saw that on the list I thought it was sweet: It seemed Andrew wanted to add a new favorite dish to his family’s traditional line up. I felt flattered that he liked how I cooked them.
Feeling honored and determined to make this the best ever creamed onions, I bought a combination of white pearl onions plus yellow and red ones. I was thinking how pretty the three colors would look in the cream sauce. Because I’d bought three bags, rather than one as I normally do, I underestimated how many pearl onions I had in total.
On Christmas morning, after the present-opening pandemonium at Andrew’s mom’s house, I brought out the pearl onions and began the laborious task of peeling them. I asked Andrew to help, but he was busy working with his mom on pecan pies. So I peeled and peeled, making slow progress.
Some friends of Andrew’s mom came over, and as they stood in the kitchen visiting it became apparent that the onion smell was hurting their eyes. Andrew came over and helped me peel a few, but his eyes couldn’t take the stinging scent, and he went on to something less painful, like cutting potatoes.
Holiday Cooking: Getting Put Out
With all the people in the kitchen, it was suggested I move to the back porch to finish the onions. I was a bit put out about being literally put out, but my annoyance was tempered by the knowledge that I was being a good wife. Andrew was going to have his pearl onions to share with his family. So I sat on the porch with a still-substantial pile of unpeeled onions and tried to think happy holiday thoughts even though I was chilly, my back was hurting from bending over the pile (which was now on the floor on a newspaper), and my fingertips were sore from working the paring knife and pulling away the skins.
I sat on the porch with a still-substantial pile of unpeeled onions and tried to think happy holiday thoughts.
When Andrew came out and I was still not finished, he suggested that I stop and cook what I had. I told him I was determined to make it through the whole pile, and after 90 minutes of work, I finally did. I thought I was the most patient, persistent, considerate wife/daughter-in-law possible.
I cooked them up and Andrew’s mom made the cream sauce. The onions were put out with the many other dishes, and I was happy with how the onions looked and tasted. Since there were so many, I put a giant spoonful on my plate, squeezing it in next to the stuffing and cranberry sauce.
When I sat down at the table, I was shocked to see that Andrew didn’t have creamed onions on his plate.
“You forgot the onions,” I said, alarmed.
“Oh,” he said, “There were just too many other good things. I don’t want to stuff myself.”
“What? What do you mean? You asked me to make them.”
“No I didn’t.”
You Know What They Say About “Assume”
After some table-side bickering that threatened to derail the spirit of the day, we discovered that Andrew had put them on the list of dishes we’d be making because he thought that they were a Nicholas family tradition. I thought he had put them on the list because he liked them so much. I was on the verge of a meltdown over the time spent on the onions and the raw fingers, but then I pulled back and started laughing.
“Isn’t this just typical marital miscommunication?” I asked, as I took Andrew’s plate and put a spoonful of onions on it. I thought of all the trouble married couples get into by assuming—thinking we know the other one so well.
Sometimes you get twists on O. Henry’s “Gift of the Magi.” I have a friend who, when it came time to buy a new vehicle, assumed her husband wanted a truck because he had commented on a neighbor’s Dodge Ram so often. So she suggested a truck, and he thought that’s what she really wanted. Both trying to do the right thing, they agreed on a truck only to later find out that what they both really wanted was an SUV. How screwed up is that? And how common is that—or some version of it?
I decided on a more straightforward approach, starting that moment. “Well, I’m sorry honey but you’re going to eat these onions and you’re going to like them.”
Andrew and I consumed lots of onions that day, and I forced them (nicely) on other guests and (not-so-nicely) on our sons, but there were still enough leftover to fill a huge Tupperware. I packed them in a cooler bag the next day and brought them home. Andrew and I ate onions for dinner that night and for lunch the next day. And for days my fingers smelled like onions—or like marriage, whichever way you want to think about it.
A version of this story was originally published in December 2018.