Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Sweetest Onion in All the Land

By Jeff Burns

It’s almost that time of year again!  Each April, onion lovers throughout the world eagerly await the arrival of the new crop of Vidalia Onions, and two separate festivals are celebrated.  This year, the Vidalia Onion Festival is slated for April 23-26, and the Glennville Onion Festival will be on May 9.        

As a native Vidalian (How do you recognize a native Vidalian?  He/She doesn’t pronounce the “L”.  It’s “Vi – day –ya.”), I got used to the usual question asked when I told somebody I was from Vidalia:  “Oh, does your family grow onions?”  Actually, no.  We never grew onions; most people don’t.  We did eat our share, going through hundreds of pounds a season, and we attended the festivals.   And we have relatives who grow onions, but we didn’t.  It was always fun, though, to see mentions of Vidalia in the media.  And there is one other family connection that I found out in my teens when my mother offhandedly said, “You know your Aunt Juanita was the first Onion Queen?”   (More on that later.)

What is so special about an onion that excites gourmets and chefs around the world, has teenage girls vying annually for the title of “Miss Vidalia Onion,” and was officially proclaimed Georgia’s State Vegetable in 1990?  It’s a not uncommon hybrid yellow granex variety of onion, but it is uncommonly sweet when grown in the sandy southeast Georgia soil around Vidalia, a phenomenon thought to be due to an unusually low sulfur soil content among other factors.  By legal definition, onions can only be called “Vidalias” if they are grown in one of twenty specific counties, and they are generally available in spring and early summer, although, special cold storage facilities now extend the season by several months.

In the 1920s and 1930s, farmers around Vidalia were in a similar predicament to farmers throughout the South.  Long years of dependence on cotton and tobacco had led to depressed prices and poor soil conditions.  Then, the boll weevil added insult to injury, destroying cotton crops.  Farmers started looking for other crops to grow, and some experimented with growing vegetables.  Mose Coleman decided to try onions in 1931, and he noticed that his onions were exceptionally sweet tasting.  Word spread, and soon he was selling fifty-pound bags for the astoundingly (at the time) high price of $3.50 a bag.  Neighboring farmers jumped on the bandwagon, and when the state of Georgia built a state farmers’ market in Vidalia in the 1940s, lots more Georgians and tourists alike discovered the delicacy and carted off bags of Vidalia onions.

Coleman and the other farmers realized they had something and started developing modest marketing strategies.  That’s where my Aunt Juanita Burns entered the story.  In 1950, Coleman personally selected her to be the first Vidalia Onion Queen.

Juanita Burns, Vidalia Onion Queen

In the 1970s, national distribution of  the onions began in part because  Vidalia was the headquarters of the Piggly Wiggly supermarket chain at the time. The Vidalia and Glennville Onion Festivals were inaugurated then as well.  Yumion became the official onion mascot in 1980.

Now, Vidalia onions are marketed worldwide, and they are the most famous “brand“of vegetables in the world.  At the beginning of the twenty-first century 14,500 acres of Vidalia onions were grown. Vidalia onions represent about 40 percent of the total national spring onion production and have an estimated value of about $90 million in annual gross sales. Today you can enjoy Vidalia onions with recipes like these or visit the Vidalia Onion Museum for a different experience. 


"America’s Favorite Sweet Onion." America’s Favorite Sweet Onion. The Vidalia Onion Committee, n.d. Web. 14 Mar. 2014.

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