The soil of Pine Island and the rest of the Black Dirt Region makes the flavor of the onions grown there “brighter, sharper, cleaner,” according to local Farmer Cheryl Rogowski. In her estimation, this flavorful distinction is particularly present when it comes to making smoked onion jam, which she says will not taste the same if it is made with onions from a different region.
Kosuga, Rogowski, and many other local farmers are descendants of Polish and Russian immigrants. Their ancestors first settled in the region at a time when most people in that area were of Irish descent — many of whom had made it to the United States to escape the well-known potato famine that gripped Ireland in the middle of the 19th century.
Onions have Been Farmed for Thousands of Years
When Vincent Kosuga took up onion farming, he was following a practice that humans have been practicing for millennia. Onions have been farmed, eaten, and utilized for at least six thousand years. They have been found in archaeological sites that date back to ancient China, India, Iran, and other places around the world.
The vegetable was not only found in kitchens and mess halls: onion traces were discovered in the tomb of Pharaoh Ramesses IV of Egypt, who ruled around 1150 BC. Around two thousand years ago, a famous Roman military leader named Pliny the Elder wrote not only about the onion as a tasty food but also about its health benefits; he claimed it helped to deal with dysentery and mouth sores and even worked as a sleep aid.
Onions Were a Part of Kosuga’s Hometown Long Before He Came Along
Onions have been an essential part of Pine Island’s history and identity for at least the past two centuries. The area that Kosuga called home has soil that is high in sulfur, which is key to giving the onions grown there a particularly strong and desirable taste — especially when it comes to cooking them.
It’s no surprise, then, that the most famous dish in the restaurant that Kosuga originally founded, “The Jolly Onion,” is its sweet onion soup. The dark and organically rich soil is what gave Pine Island and its surroundings the name of Black Dirt Region. It could be said that Vincent Kosuga’s life would not have become so entangled with onions had he not been born there.
Kosuga Was Part of a Large Population With Russian and Polish Heritage
Kosuga always felt most at home in his hometown of Pine Island: it is where his family and friends lived, where he first learned how to farm and came to love onions, and it was a place that was conscious of and celebrated the Russian and Polish ancestry of many of its residents, Kosuga included. During his youth, there used to be local festivals and celebrations of each year’s harvest that were influenced by the Polish tradition called “Dożynki.”
Elaborate traditional costumes were worn, and people danced to polka music, all while big decorations made to resemble onions surrounded the events. For many, the highlight of these celebrations was the crowning of the Onion Princesses and Onion Queens, who would wear costumes and dance.
Kosuga Was a Businessman During a Booming American Economy
Kosuga was busy becoming an onion magnate in the mid-1950s, a time when America was experiencing an economic boom. Having come out victorious from the Second World War — and without having endured the physical destruction Europe had to recover from — the country began a period of intense industrialization and consumerism that, in many ways defined the identity and reputation of the United States.
Many commercial brands and iconic companies that still thrive today were founded around the time Kosuga and his business partner Siegel were scheming to become rich. Some examples include the popular dinner chain “Denny’s” and fast-food icon “McDonald’s” — founded in 1953 and 1955; the tax company “H&R Block,” which began in 1955; and the retail company “Williams Sonoma,” which opened its first store in 1956.