By Doc Lawrence –
VIDALIA, GA—George Washington once declared that “the onion is the most favorite food that grows.” With that in mind, I traveled to Southeastern Georgia to learn about America’s heralded Vidalia onion, named after a city of the same name. A thriving prosperous community, Vidalia is an intimate place and very livable. Bourbon is the mainstay of Louisville and Bardstown, Kentucky, Jack Daniel’s is the bedrock of lovely Lynchburg, Tennessee, and American wine is almost automatically associated with Napa. Similarly, the sweet Vidalia onion is connected to this place and its prosperity.
The Vidalia onion is across the board a popular ingredient with home and celebrity chefs. There is, I suggest, a reason: it has a pleasant texture, tastes wonderful and blends into dishes without overpowering them.
What exactly is a Vidalia onion? It is a sweet onion of certain varieties, grown in a production area defined by law and is trademarked with the same protections guaranteed to products and brands like Coca-Cola and Smithfield Ham. The onions were first grown near Vidalia in the early 1930s and early on found to be an unusually sweet variety of onion due to the low amount of sulfur in the soil where they grow.
When most onions are sliced, the cells release enzymes that break down and generate unstable chemicals that turn into a volatile sulfuric acid gas that wafts through the air to your eyes. Because they grow in low sulfur soil, the popular expression here is that Vidalia’s cause fewer tears.
Agriculture and tourism now work as partners in agritourism. Also, the farm to table movement reflects a consumer desire to know more about where food comes from, making a case for using local products when possible.
Like the interesting museums for Bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey, there is a Vidalia Onion Museum. With the rapid increase of interest in local farming and sustainable growing practices, this particular one is a fascinating display of a legacy detailed in layers of events from the Vidalia’s origin to the present day. For families, it’s an interesting opportunity to explore the history of the Vidalia onion and the growing region that has made it so famous. The museum is a hands-on interactive experience providing a wonderful educational opportunity for children and adults. Exhibits illuminate the sweet onion’s economic, cultural and culinary significance by walking visitors through a variety of topics from when and how Vidalia onions were discovered to where Vidalia’s can be grown and what makes them sweet and special. Beyond the history, you observe up close the economic ripple cast by one little onion.
The region has the perfect combination of weather, water and soil to produce sweet onions: Mild winters, abundant rain and low sulfur soils that keep the bulbs from developing a pungent taste. Hand planted and harvested, Vidalia onions are available nationally late April through mid-September. Visiting a packing house is similar to tours of distilleries, breweries and wineries. The packing house is the final step after picking and before shipping. At M & T Farms in nearby Lyons, Georgia the bulbs are carefully brought from the fields, washed and trimmed, graded and then boxed for distribution. The attention to detail here is impressive, a massive operation leaving no doubt about the growing demand for Vidalia onions.
Noted Chef John Mark Lane is a kitchen wizard in his gourmet restaurant Elements Bistro & Grill in Lyons, not far from the onion fields. He served my dinner party his caramelized Vidalia onion cheesecake and we thought we heard angels rejoicing.
The experience recalled the words of Chef Bobby Flay: “Vidalia onions aren’t just the most famous onions in the world; I think they may be the only famous onions in the world.”