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Life in Canberra is full of ch-ch-changes. I’m living with a new shipmate who I hardly know, and we are still in the awkward social stage of being cautiously polite. Both of us are being abnormally clean, and amidst many mugs of grog we promise not to murder each other in their sleep.

In a gesture of good will, I found myself offering to make dinner for the both of us. On the menu was gnocchi with home-made pasta sauce, made of non-specific quantities (‘cos that’s how I roll) of tomato, basil, garlic and onion. And here we arrive at the topic for today.

Onions… Not much makes me cry, tough, seasoned pirate that I am, but onions do it for me. It can be slightly embarrassing to dab at your soggy eye-patch in the kitchen, but sometimes crying feels good. I’m sure it’s just that it removes excess salt from this salty seadog or some such. Certainly it has nothing to do with certain forbidden emotions, oh no! YARR!!! ‘Tis the onions and that be truth!

Things that make you cry are called lachrymators, named after lacrius, the Latin word for tears. I swear there was a greek god of despair called Lachrymus, but I may have made that up seeing as I can’t find a reference for it.

When you slice into an onion you split open onion cells, and they release all the goop they have inside them into the air, you can see it spray up if you look closely – which I don’t recommend as it will be ouchy. There are two families of molecules in the goop that are mainly involved in making your eyes pee. The first is amino acid sulfoxides, and the second is allinases which break them down, making (eventually) syn-propanethial-S-oxide the lachrymatory factor. The molecule is more irritating to your eyes than landlubbers in a complainin’ mood. Your tears are an effort to flush out the irritant, if only it were so easy with the landlubbers.

Recent research in New Zealand has focused on switching off one of the genes involved in the irritant-producing process, in effect making a No-Tears Onion. We’re still a good 10 years from being able to roll down to the supermarket to pick one up, but perhaps in the future the tears of the crying-food will be no more.

For now, there’s loads of advice about how to avoid onion tears, and some (such as chewing gum) sound pretty ridiculous. More effective but equally ridiculous is wearing onion goggles, a diving mask, or a spacesuit. Screw that. Take the chance to get it all out, and remember, if onions could cut up people they’d cry too.