Cheers, not tears, greet Vidalia onion harvest season

April 20, 1994|By Jay Clarke | Jay Clarke,Knight-Ridder News Service

VIDALIA, Ga. -- Everybody knows there's only one reason to visit this small Georgia town: Onions.

Vidalia's onions are something else, the sweetest, juiciest, best gol-darn onions on Earth, people here will tell you.

They may be right. Vidalia onions have been winning competitions ever since Vidalia resident Mose Coleman began producing them in 1931.

Now they're renowned all over the world, and there's no better time to enjoy them than in spring, when the new crop comes out of the fields.

Here in Vidalia, the start of the harvest is a cause for celebration, so if you're an onion freak, mark your calendar for the 10 days starting Friday. That's when this town of 16,000 stages its 17th annual Vidalia Onion Festival.

You can match your kitchen skills with others at the Vidalia Onion Cooking Contest, attend the Piggly Wiggly Cooking School, tour the onion fields, and munch on, cook up and moon over lots of onions.

The one thing you won't do is cry over them. Unlike the sharper varieties, the sweet Vidalia onions, their fans say, are tearless and burpless. "I can't eat any other kind now," says R. T. Stanley Jr. of Stanley Farms, one of the Vidalia area's biggest onion growers and packers.

Along with onion-related doings, Vidalia's festival also offers events like a children's parade, air show, hole-in-one contest, pageant and a 10K run. But the star of the show is the flattened, fleshy bulb known as the Vidalia onion.

Actually, it's a common onion variety, a yellow granex hybrid. But when grown in the low-sulfur, sandy loam around Vidalia, it takes on uncommon qualities.

Vidalia onions have, for instance, a higher sugar (fructose) content than a Coca-Cola (12 1/2 percent compared to 12). They have twice the vitamin C content of an orange, and their high water content makes them juicier and more crisp.

Such sweetness means you can eat them raw without risking violent gastronomic distress, its backers claim, adding it doesn't deter kissing, as the more pungent varieties do.

Onion lovers slice Vidalias and put them raw, with a little mayonnaise, between two slices of bread to make an onion sandwich. Another favorite quick preparation is to peel the skin away, cut both ends of an onion flat, put a bouillon cube in the core and a pat of butter on top, and microwave for 7 minutes. Vidalia onions also are great in salads or on hamburgers, and they make excellent relish (you can buy jarred Vidalia onion relish almost anywhere in town). And, of course, they're delicious when cooked, as in onion pie.

These remarkable qualities were discovered accidentally by Coleman when he planted in his garden some onion seeds from Texas in 1930. When he harvested them months later, he found they were sweet and did not produce an offensive breath.

Coleman took his find to a local grocery store, which began marketing the onions. Today, Vidalia onions are a $30 million business in the 20 counties that by law are permitted to use the Vidalia designation. The Vidalia onion, by the way, is Georgia's official state vegetable.

The onions are harvested from late April through mid-June and are usually available in grocery stores through mid-July. A new storage process, however, is extending the time they can be sold. Vidalia now has huge controlled-atmosphere (CA) tanks into which the onions can be stored for up to six months. Oxygen is removed from the atmosphere inside the tanks, leaving only nitrogen, which doesn't react with the onions. Up to 1.5 million bushels of onions can be stored in the tanks. During the harvest, a 10-pound bag of Vidalias can be purchased in Vidalia for as low as $4 or $5; in the fall, onions from the CA tanks cost double that. The best onions, according to Mr. Stanley, one of the larger farmers, come on the market in May.

Here in Vidalia, you can also buy a variety of canned products made with the sweet onion, among them relish, sweet pepper vinaigrette, peppercorn dressing, salsa, barbecue sauce and pickles. Also for sale are such items as Vidalia onion T-shirts and socks with onion designs.

Aside from onions, there's little here to attract the tourist, though the Town Council has passed a tax to promote tourism. But if it's springtime and you're in the region, Vidalia is worth a stop just to buy those sweet, sweet onions. You won't have any trouble finding the town; during the harvest, the smell of onions wafts all the way out to the interstate highway.

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