Raw Onion Sandwich | A Trip Back In Time

My grandpa is easily one of my favorite people on the planet. The man is 83-years-old, and he’s lived a good, full life. I honestly learned more about him recently than I’ve ever known before. He’s visiting from out-of-town, and my brother, sister and I fired question after question toward him about his past. He didn’t hold anything back when he answered; the stories just flowed out of him. I could have listened to him tell stories for days.

Born in 1929, my grandpa lived through the Great Depression. The funny thing is — he didn’t even realize there was a depression at the time. His family was poor, but he honestly didn’t know the difference. He was just a kid growing up like he thought everyone else did. We asked him more and more questions about the Great Depression, and it was very clear that one of the things he remembered most was the food they ate back then.

Raw Onion Sandwich Recipe

Raw onion sandwich

Even though they were poor, my grandpa says he never went hungry. He told us that his family would walk three-miles to the welfare office every week to get food. They were usually given potatoes, cabbage and onions. That means most of their meals were very simple. One of his favorite treats was a raw onion sandwich. His mom would simply take two pieces of rye bread, lather on some lard, add a thick cut of raw onion and turn it all into a sandwich. He says that’s why he still loves onions today.

I’m a fan of onions too, so the idea of a raw onion sandwich peaked my interest. Not only would it be good to try, it would also give me a quick glimpse into my grandpa’s past. It would allow me to taste something similar to what he tasted more than 70 years ago as a little boy in during the Great Depression. So, I decided to give a raw onion sandwich a shot.

This is what you need…

Great Depression Raw Onion Sandwich Recipe

Raw onion sandwich

Raw Onion Sandwich Recipe

Two slices of rye bread
Butter or mayonnaise (I’m not sure lard is readily available anymore)
One sliced onion

Like I mentioned, coat the rye bread with butter or mayonnaise, throw the sliced onion between the two slices of bread and consume. That’s the simplest form of raw onion sandwiches, and the way my grandpa ate them as a kid. You can easily get more creative than that. I’ve seen other recipes call for salt and pepper, and one recipe that uses peanut butter instead of mayonnaise or regular butter. I might need to give that a shot sometime.

As you can imagine, my grandpa’s raw onion sandwich recipe tastes like raw onions, butter and rye bread. It’s pretty darn simple, but it tasted much better than I thought it would. I liked it enough that I made another raw onion sandwich after I finished the first one. With that said, I probably won’t be making one again anytime soon. There are too many options nowadays with much more flavor, and I don’t really eat much bread. Not to mention, I’m still trying to get the onion taste out of my mouth.

Tim Lewis | Raw Onion Sandwich

Me biting into a raw onion sandwich

I’m so thankful my grandpa was willing to take us back in time with his stories of the Great Depression. You could see the light on his face as he reflected back to his younger days, speaking of his parents and the community he grew up in near Chicago. His stories encouraged me to step out of my box to try something different, and it might sound weird, but a raw onion sandwich allowed me to connect with my grandpa on a different level. And although I didn’t share the experience with him personally, it’s a moment I can hold on to forever (and relive again and again in the future).

Have you ever tried a raw onion sandwich? What did you think? Have your parents or grandparents shared their stories from the Great Depression? I’d love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below or connect with me on Twitter, Facebook and Google+. Don’t forget to also check out http://allaroundtim.com for more fun recipes!

P.S. I want to tell you a few other stories that my grandpa shared about food during the Great Depression.

He told us about how his mother would go to the creek every Sunday. She would stand in the water, dig her hands under the rocks and pull up crawfish after crawfish. He said she would do it for hours; so long that her fingers were bleeding by the end of the day. They would take the crawfish home, boil them up (he can remember the sound of them fighting to stay alive in the hot water) and eat them once they turned red.

My grandpa also shared a story of how the men in the community would put large nets in the trees. They would then sprinkle bird seed in the trees to lure in the sparrows. Once there were enough birds over the net, the men would pull a string and capture all the sparrows. They’d take them home, pluck the feathers and boil the birds for dinner.

There was one other memory my grandpa shared. He can remember people digging through the dirt to find dandelion stems. Instead of lettuce, they would use dandelion stems for salad. I’ve never tasted a dandelion stem, so that might be next on my list.

It’s amazing to hear what a hunting and gathering society it was during the Great Depression. I should have assumed that (you need to do whatever you can to stay alive), but I never really thought about it. My grandpa says after everyone collected their food, they would have community dinners. If you worked to get the food, then you and your family got to eat that night.

My grandpa’s stories make me feel fortunate that I’ve never had to go hungry. I’ve always been able to afford a snack when I want one. I’m also thankful I had an opportunity to hear my grandpa’s stories about the Great Depression. It helped me learn about him and a period of history I’ve always been interested in. I hope you enjoyed the stories, too.

Raw Onion Sandwich

Raw onion sandwich


  1. Rena Corwin says:

    My Nana was born in 1913 and would’ve been 100 this August. She too ate onion sandwiches during the Depression and long after. Walla Walla onions were her favorite. She also kept many other habits long after the Depression ended- saving bread bags, twist-ties, rubber bands, tinfoil and many other items for reuse. It saddens me that after recent hard times in today’s society, people tend to be just as wasteful as ever. We could learn many lessons from our elders.

  2. Lucy says:

    My mom & dad talked about eating raw onion sandwiches, as have my older brothers & one sister. I never have eaten one & probably never will; I’d end up with a bad case of heartburn.

    I love old timey stories!

  3. Anonymous says:

    Yum! My father told me about onion sandwiches when I was just a child and I immediately went I to the kitchen and proceeded to make one. Astonishing! So delicious. I needed up making several and ate every last one…yum. That was 45 years ago!

  4. Anonymous says:

    I’ve just had an onion and dandelion leaf sandwich! I googled onion sandwich to see whether such a thing existed outside my childhood memories (and present day eating habits). My grandmother introduced them to me. She was born in 1899 so lived through the great depression (in rural England). If you experiment with dandelion leaves pick the tiny new ones (no bigger than your index finger) and leave the older ones on the plant. They taste like a cross between rocket and bitter endive. I slice my onion very thinly then cross cut the rings. I usually use mayo but when gran made them for me she used to use the fat left in the pan from frying sausages. Surprisingly tasty and still love them today.

  5. Gee S. cheese whiz: you don’t know where f in onions is. You take 2 slices of white bread
    or sourdough spread butter or margarine liberally on both sides slice the onion like a beefsteak tomato sprinkle vinegar on the onion (if you didn’t soak it first), salt the onion,then pepper it. Samich it, if you haven’t salivated it already half way down your
    face. Enjoy. A kid from the” depression” of 1950′s.. Walla Walla are for us
    oon-ion connausers. They still do better with a little vinegar.

  6. Seth H. says:

    Throw a shot of Heinz 57 on it instead of the butter/mayo and exchange the rye bread for Ciabatta bread. Delish!

  7. Ryan says:

    My grandfather was born in 1930 but did not live in the US (missionary family) until 1940. I have heard many stories from him about onion sandwiches – not because he ate them, but because his mother loved them, and he absolutely despises onions. Interesting to find out that onion sandwiches were a common depression-era meal.

  8. Irishreign says:

    My Mom was born in 1911…me in 1941…I don’t know who introduced me to onion sandwiches…probably my Mom’s sister, who was born in 1900. I have been enjoying them since I was little…white bread, mayonaise, onions sliced thin and layered thick on the bread…lots of salt back then, not now! I thought them a delicious treat. (I also made cole slaw sandwiches for my lunch when I had to carry one to high school…it was soggy, but delicious by lunch time!!) I didn’t know that they were something that the ‘notsowelloff’ ate to fill their bellies. It was my ‘go to’ meal when Mom served something I didn’t like. I still enjoy them, and my favorite onion is the vidalia…mmmm, going to go make one NOW!!

  9. e says:

    I love raw onions. My version of the sandwich uses red onions (the sweeter kind you get in salads) and melted Red Leicester cheese on brown bread. I’ve also got half an idea (very possibly wrong) that they help in getting rid of colds and flu, which is why I had one just now. Damned sore throat.

  10. j says:

    My mother was born in 1929. For an after school snack she would go out to the garden to pull a green onion and eat it with a slice of cornbread.

  11. Carol says:

    Postal worker age 95 attributes his longevity to onion sandwiches. Link to news story http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=128246020

    Sent from my iPhone

  12. Grams says:

    Yes, you can still buy lard, if you look just a tiny bit, it’s not hard to find at all. In my store it’s usually in a white box with a green stripe that says lard. Duh. If you’re going to write about food, shouldn’t you at least research something before saying “I don’t think it’s available anymore.” Not much of a food expert. It is the best thing to season, or re-season a cast-iron pan, also used a lot in the south.

    • Leah says:

      Oh yeah? PURE lard? All I can find is the partially hydrogenated crap, otherwise known as trans fat, which causes heart disease. Read the ingrediants lable. Pure *non-hydrogenated* lard is healthy as long as its hormone and antibiotic free (and preferably organic which means non GMO feed was used.) GMO is a big problem in recent years, especially for corn. Huge amounts of the herbicide roundup can be used on GMO crops because they are altered to withstand it where those amounts would kill a non modified plant. Problem is those levels of it are not good for people or animals and collect in the animals fat (lard). You can look it up, what its doing to growers/farmers and farm workers and people living near the crops in South America. I think its the worst in Argentina.

  13. Brian says:

    A good substitute for lard is strained bacon grease. I have a friend who said they used it for everything you would use butter for. I make biscuits with it, I also put it on baked potatoes, toast and use it to saute some of my dishes. It is a more complex flavor than butter and as far as fat content there is no difference.

  14. Roy Kelly says:

    My gram introduced me and I have loved them ever since! We made them from oinions grown locally – never really had a nem for the onion other than white, yellow or red – the yellow are more bitter. Salt helps the taste, as does Garlic powder – had them on all kinds of bread. Reading this story makes me want to go make one right now!

  15. Jeans~ says:

    Mom was born in ’34 in TX in a family of many, many kids…I’ve been curious about the history of our “onion, butter, and bread” family snack for some time! Thanks all for sharing~

  16. Anonymous says:


  17. Anonymous says:

    That’s funny, this brings back a memory about the lunches my old boss, from Holland, used to bring to work….are you ready for this?….candy sprinkles, that you sprinkle on caskes/cupcakes, between two pieces of bread. Never heard of it before than and never did since!!

  18. Nikki5 says:

    Your granddad probably did not realize there was depression going on because he was so young! In 33/34 which was the depths of the depression he was 4/5 years old. My mother was born in 1921 and was hungry all the time and washed out the same clothes- dress, underwear, socks every night to wear to school the next day. Her memories of good food. were a turkey dinner with all the trimmings, raisin pie, navy bean pie and a good cup of coffee with plenty of cream and sugar.

  19. Geoff says:

    I started eating them with just cream cheese and sweet onions, now I use Ranch dressing instead of the cream cheese. -Light and crunchy.

  20. Anonymous says:

    I love onion sandwich. we were really poor growing up. so I would take onion sandwich to school for lunch I still eat them today. I’m 68

  21. Toni-Sue Lua says:

    I have eaten onion and butter sandwiches all my life but always on white bread. I had one tonight and googled it to see if anyone else ate them and surprise they do. I love raw onion. My other favorite is Onion, butter and peanut butter. I can’t blame it on the depression as I am not that old but my parents ate them too so it probably came through them. It is a great comfort food to me.

  22. Garnet Preston says:

    Mom was born during the Depression and she made onion sandwiches for me in the 1950′s. Squishy white bread, butter, thin slices of onion. And she served it with cold pork and beans. It is the taste of summer for me.

  23. Ken Thomas says:

    A quarter inch slice of vidalia onion on thickly spread of peanut butter between two slices of bread, then cut in smaller sandwiches is a good way to get attention at a dinner on the grounds at church! Some will stick up their nose, and others will try it and like it. Try it and have some fun. (I have been told that the Walla Walla and the Texas Sweet is the same granex onion as the Vidalia, but I know that the same onion grown in incompatible soil will burn just like the ordinary onion. The best sandwich is the mild sweet Vidalia in my opinion. (Enjoyed the comments. Never tried mayo on any PB sandwich.)

  24. Expat Pat says:

    Also quite good as “open faced” sandwiches. Just slather on the butter a bit thicker so the onions will stick better (haven’t tried mayo), salt, pepper and go to town! Any onion will do, you just have to slice according to its heat/sweet factor. White bread not recommended unless its a sourdough. All dark breads recommended!

  25. pamk says:

    there is a three day onion sandwich recipe that involves:
    1-.soaking unsliced onions in ice water x 1day
    2- soaking sliced onions in ice x 1 day
    3- placing onion slices on dainty (e.g. cut into rounds) slices of mayonnaise spread whitebread
    4- packaging the sandwiches in singke layers in waxed paper
    5- refrigerating for several hours before serving

    This is a Process but well worth the effort as the result is very very good- velvety smooth and delicious.

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