Vidalia: would an onion by any other name taste as sweet?
Just as northern Italy is famous for rich, nutty Parmigiano Reggiano and eastern France for its complex Burgundy wines, here in southeast Georgia we have our onions—so sweet you can eat them like an apple and “make no face.”
That’s how farmer Moses Coleman described them the day he came out of his field on Route 280 near Vidalia with what seemed like the golden ticket that would lead him and his fellow midland growers out of the Great Depression. The year was 1931, and a bag of Coleman’s onions sold for $3.50 (equivalent to $50 per bag today). Their mild, honeyed taste could only be borne from the state’s sandy, sulfur-starved loam.
Of course, the Vidalia’s rise in culinary notoriety wasn’t that simple. There were ups and downs, droughts and disease, and heated arguments over whether the bulbs should be forever named Toombs County Sweets to compete with those infernal Lone Star farmers.
But once word spread down at the Piggly Wiggly about those sweet things from Vidalia, the Georgia-grown yellow granex hybird earned a place in our food heritage somewhere between shrimp ’n’ grits and oyster roasts.
Today, we celebrate the state’s official vegetable with an annual festival, where we award the Golden Onion to promising chefs and crown a local Miss Vidalia Onion. There’s also a Vidalia Research Institute run by the University of Georgia that tests new varieties and deems which ones can be authentically labeled genuine Vidalias. It’s like American Idol for onions. Each prospect auditions for a year—judged on shape, taste and hardiness.
When he was a 20-something who could jump out of a flatbed truck, farmer Bo Herndon became a part of this layered history by planting Vidalia onions on his farm south of Lyons. That was back in 1981. While Bo admits it takes a little more effort to climb back into the truck these days, he hasn’t slowed down much. Last year, he was inducted into the Vidalia Onion Committee’s Hall of Fame for devoting more than 25 years to issues surrounding the venerable bulbs.
“It’s been a blessing in my life,” he says. “We’ve poured a lot of money and energy into it, but it’s all we’ve ever done.”
But Bo doesn’t sugarcoat it: growing onions is truly a hard row to hoe. Vidalias are the Southern Belles of crops—delicate, particular and a smidge sassy—requiring growers to tend to their needs much more than other crops, such as corn or beans. Although they can be harvested by machine, Bo and his field laborers do the bulk of the work by hand, from transplanting seedlings to pulling them from the ground and drying them out in the fields. Much of Bo’s success is not in his hands, but in Mother Nature’s.
“A farmer can do everything he’s supposed to do and still get dealt a bad playing hand, and it just doesn’t come out the way you expect it to,” he cautions.
Relinda Walker of Walker Organics, a Forsyth Farmers’ Market favorite, has learned that lesson again and again since moving back from New Jersey in 2002 to help her aging father in Reidsville. In her early 50s, she found herself a first-time farmer.
“It just seemed like the right thing to do, and I haven’t regretted it since,” she says.
In just three years, Relinda tenaciously transitioned her father’s farm to organic vegetable production, making it the first certified organic farm in the state. Soon thereafter, the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service asked her if she would let them try growing organic Vidalias on her land.
She didn’t realize it at the time, but her farm was on the very edge of the state-regulated region for growing Vidalias, which includes all of 13 counties and portions of seven others. The experiment was a success, and Walker Organics is now the primary source for organic Vidalia seedlings.
“The fact that people here and all over the country recognize (Vidalias) as a special vegetable is way cool,” she says. “I like my role as someone who can provide the plant to farmers. I feel like my babies are out there at other farms.”
On the Menu
From the smoked Vidalia onion vinaigrette at Yardbird in Miami to the Vidalia onion bisque at Nashville’s Hermitage Hotel, onions from farmers like Bo and Relinda are finding their way onto more menus across the country. Here in Savannah, chefs take advantage of our blessed proximity to Vidalia country during the short April-to-June harvest, transforming the bounty into caramelized Vidalia onion and sweet potato ravioli at The Olde Pink House or beer-battered onion rings at Wiley’s Championship Barbecue.
One of the sure signs of Vidalia season is when Josh Yates, owner of locally loved Green Truck Pub, writes the Vidalia burger special up on the chalkboard—a classic grass-fed burger topped with a tangy, caramelized relish made with onions from Relinda’s farm.
“I love that Georgia has an agricultural product named for a specific region,” Josh says. “We should be pretty proud that they’re nationally famous and we can get them right here.”
Josh’s take on classic Vidalia relish is something special, all right, but there’s something equally appealing about Bo’s favorite way to serve ’em up.
Green Truck Pub’s Vidalia Relish
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
4 cups Vidalia onion, diced ½” thick
½ cup apple cider vinegar
½ cup vegetable broth
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon coriander
½ teaspoon dry mustard
½ teaspoon Kosher or sea salt
½ teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
In large heavy-bottom pot on medium heat, melt butter. Add Vidalia onion and cook until soft (10-15 minutes), stirring occasionally. Add everything else and cook for another 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Cool, refrigerate, and serve as condiment for burgers, hot dogs, or cheese plates. It pairs well with sharp white cheddar.
5 or 6 large Vidalia onions
1½ cups flour, preferably Western Style
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 egg, beaten
16 ounces beer, preferably a PBR tallboy
Milk, to thin the batter, if necessary
Peel and slice the onions into at least ½-inch rings.
In a bowl, mix together the flour and baking powder. Add the egg and beer and mix the batter until well combined. Add milk by the teaspoon to thin, if necessary.
Dredge the onion rings in the batter then fry until golden brown. Drain the onion rings on paper towels, then serve while hot.
In a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the Vidalia onion and cook until soft, 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add the vinegar, broth, sugar and seasonings. Cook for another 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. The onions should be translucent and reduced to a caramelized chutney. Remove the pan from the heat and cool the onion relish completely. Transfer the relish to an air-tight container and keep refrigerated. Serve the relish as a condiment for burgers, hot dogs or cheese plates. It pairs particularly well with sharp, white cheddar cheese.
According to Federal Marketing Order No. 955 and Georgia state law, only these Georgia counties can use the Vidalia onion name: Appling, Bacon, Bulloch, Candler, Emanuel, Evans, Jeff Davis, Montgomery, Tattnall, Telfair, Toombs, Treutlen and Wheeler, as well as portions of Dodge, Jenkins, Laurens, Long, Pierce, Screven and Wayne counties.