I’ve always loved onions. Legend has it that one of my grandfathers (I don’t remember which one) sometimes ate a raw onion like an apple. Every year, I impatiently await for my favorite onion to arrive in area grocery stores: the Vidalia onion.
Vidalias were first grown in Toombs County, Georgia, several decades ago.
In the late spring of 1931, a farmer named Moses Coleman made a mistake. He thought he was planting “hot” onions when he accidentally sowed sweet onions in the sandy fields of his Southeast Georgia farm.
At first, Moses struggled to sell the onions. Gradually, he realized many people enjoyed the “distinct flavor” of his onions, the result of the low amount of sulfur in the soil. He raised the price of his onions to $3.50 for a 50-pound bag. (That was a lot of money during the Great Depression.) Soon, other local farmers began growing the sweet, mild onions, which remained a local secret until the 1940s.
During those years, a man named Earle Jordan planted Yellow Granex onions, which were a hybrid of the Bermuda and Grano onions. It was this onion that eventually became the Vidalia onion of today.
The little town of Vidalia sits about equal distance between Macon and Savannah, Georgia. In 1949, to help area onion growers, state officials decided to build a farmers’ market in Vidalia, at the intersection of some of the states most widely traveled roads. Tourists began calling the onions by the town’s name, and it stuck.
After the war, Vidalia onion production slowly expanded. In 1963, the Piggly Wiggly supermarket chain built a distribution center in Vidalia, making the onions available in their stores throughout the Southeast. Soon, other retail outlets were shipping Vidalias to other areas of the country. By the mid 1970s, the crop was being grown on 600 acres.
Annual onion festivals began sprouting up in Vidalia and nearby Glennville. During the next 10 years, the production of Vidalia onions increased tenfold. In 1980, the onion’s official mascot, a colorful character named, “Yumion,” appeared at stores and in parades.
In 1986, the state legislature gave the onion legal status, declaring a 20-county production area. In 1990, the Vidalia onion was named Georgia’s official state vegetable.
There are currently about 15 seed varieties of onions approved for planting as Vidalias by the Georgia Agricultural Commission. After seedlings are germinated in a controlled environment, they’re hand-planted. Georgia’s 130 registered growers plant an estimated 15,000 acres of Vidalias, producing 70,000 plants on each acre. They’re harvested, again by hand, from late April through mid-June. Nowadays, some 20 million pounds of Vidalia onions can be put into CA (“controlled atmosphere”) storage for up to six months. About 125 million pounds are put into storage each year. This makes them available from late April to mid-September.
To help preserve Vidalias, wrap them separately in paper towels and refrigerate. You can also store them in sheer pantyhose, with a knot tied between each onion. Then hang the onions in a cool, dry, well-ventilated place.
Leanne Lippincott-Wuerthele, a native of Milton, who has lived in Minnesota and Iowa, has been writing Sunny Side Up for about 40 years. A graduate of Milton Union High School and Milton College, she has written four books. She has two children, three stepchildren, and a blended family that includes 11 grandkids.