Yes, people eat this. Here, an assessment by two rabid onion-lovers and one normal person.
It didn’t sound good to me, this peanut butter and Walla Walla sweet onion sandwich. That’s raw onion, to be clear. And “sliced thick,” according to a reader who recommended it after I wrote about the greatness of our state’s prized onion in June. That was Carolyn in Mukilteo, who said it was her dad’s favorite way to eat them, and that she likes it as well, “sometimes with raisins added.” Then another reader recommended it, too.
The PB&WWS is, naturally, discussed on the ONIONLOVERS forum on Reddit, where a person who is presumably an onion-lover says, “Our neighbor in Idaho in the ’80s, an aging farmer named Arnold, used to swear by peanut butter and onion sandwiches. Just bread, buttered, with peanut butter and slices of raw onion… Walla Walla sweet ideally, but any variety suffices if you crave the sulfur sting.” (A commenter, understandably, says, “I don’t know if this is serious or not…” “Completely serious,” says the onion-lover, adding that the aging-farmer-neighbor got the idea from a sidebar in a farm-equipment catalog.) Elsewhere on the internet, the Eat a Sandwich blog says that Ernest Hemingway loved PB&Os, served with a glass of red wine. Of course he did.
While not an onion-lover, I like onions just fine. But I do not now and have not ever “craved the sulfur sting,” which makes it sound like Satan’s sandwich. However, my editor, Paige Collins, loves onions — she’ll eat a Walla Walla sweet like an apple. We had to try it, she said. I dragged my feet until Walla Walla season should have been over, but no dice; it’s late this year, with another week or so left, according to someone in the produce department at Central Co-op.
To let this problematic-sounding sandwich put its best foot forward, the chef (me) used an organic Walla Walla sweet (exclusively grown by Sarah and Dan McClure of Walla Walla Organics, found locally at Central Co-op, PCC, some Whole Foods and some Metropolitan Markets). The peanut butter: the classic favorite (if sticky to stir) Adams. The bread: Grand Central Sliced Como (excellent for sandwiches and also a favorite of Saveur magazine). The chef skipped the raisins and the red wine, theorizing that keeping this as simple as possible was advisable.
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The first bite wasn’t half-bad. The initial flavor combination of peppery-hot (a sweet onion, no matter how you slice it, isn’t exactly sweet) and salty-nutty arguably had something going for it. A thick slice of Walla Walla sweet is very crunchy, which played off the creamy peanut butter nicely. The blanketlike richness of the peanut butter tempered the HEY-WHAT’S-UP acridity of the onion, at least to some degree. But the aftertaste, as any sane person might expect, was a hot, unenjoyable, raw-onion burn, accompanied by an unpleasant heightened awareness of one’s sinuses. I peanut-buttered the other side of the interior of the sandwich and tried again, then only managed to get almost half of it down because the burn of stopping eating seemed worse than continuing.
It’s not something I would choose to eat, and my onion-lover editor, while less discomfited than me, had to agree. After several bites, she said that while (in her opinion) it was not nearly as bad as it might sound, “I would never make one. I would rather just eat raw onion.” Which she then proceeded to do with a leftover slice.
Education journalist Dahlia Bazzaz walked into the Seattle Times newsroom kitchen and asked what we were eating. I think she actually said, “Are you eating PEANUT BUTTER AND ONION SANDWICHES?!” Turns out she’s an onion-lover, too. Pressed into tasting service, she provided her considered opinion: “It’s not disgusting… They just don’t complement each other. The peanut butter overwhelms the onion.” You wouldn’t want that.
Onion-lovers are special. Paige says she’s been eating raw onions since she was very small, and her only post-sandwich complaint was that she was “sweating onions.” I wanted to eat an Altoid as big as a hamburger bun and then maybe chop my own head off. Later, the back of my throat hurt for a couple hours in a distinctly onion-stingy way. Those of you who love onions enough to enjoy them raw on a sandwich are stronger than that, and I salute you. I hope you eat them with a glass of red wine.