In the Safeway today: shallots at $2.50 for a tiny string bag of three. The Prisoner of Shallot, I said, and thought I could remember the poem (Lord Byron, perhaps—one of the Romantics, surely). Why are shallots so expensive? No doubt a delicacy in some foreign land. Shallot is a pleasing word, mysterious and insouciant too. Later in The Joy of Cooking, I read: “The shallot is the queen of the sauce onions, and must be used with discretion. Indispensable in Borcy Butter.” Borcy Butter! Eventually a friend will say to me: you were thinking of “The Lady of Shalott,” which is a poem by Tennyson, and then I would know that I had had it wrong in the first place.
The cashier in the Safeway said you must be planning a gourmet dinner and I told her that I was only a learner. At home I sliced the shallots as I presumed a gourmet would, into very thin slices, thinner than a dime. Then I broke up some garlic cloves by crushing them under the flat of the knife, as I had seen a man on TV do it, and the pieces of shallot flew off the cutting board (which was warped) where I had stacked them, and landed all over the counter. The shallot is the queen of sauce onions, I said aloud.
I had never considered The Joy of Cooking to be a literary work. I picked it up and continued reading until I found this sentence: “Scallions are eaten raw by self-assertive people.” This was certainly a thing worth knowing. Farther down the page I learned that the leek, “the beloved French poireau, is king of the soup onions.” A king for a queen, a leek for a shallot. Everything in its place.
I had to look into the Norton for Lord Byron, though, and there he was, with his prisoner, in Chillon: “My very chains and I grew friends, So much a long communion tends To make us what we are:—even I Regain’d my freedom with a sigh.”