Vidalia - Georgia
Vidalias were the first sweet onions to be promoted and distributed nationally. They first appeared in 1931 when Georgia farmer Mose Coleman discovered that the onions he planted were not hot, as he expected, but actually sweet. Came into its own in the early 1940s, when the F1 Hybrid Yellow Granex was developed. Named for a town in Georgia and grown in 20 specific counties mandated by a Federal Marketing Order.
Availability: April to late June; CA
The Vidalia Sweet Onion Story
Every sweet onion on earth has a loyal regional following. But for nation-wide name recognition, there is no onion name on earth more instantly recognizable than the Vidalia sweet onion. Thanks, in great part, I think, to Willard Scott, during his long run as the Today Show's congenial weather guy, the Vidalia onion was introduced to millions of viewers every spring throughout the 1980's. On camera, Willard would munch on it like an apple, hold cook-offs with his precious Vidalia going up against lesser-known sweet onion varieties, invite chefs to cook with Vidalias on the air, and even fly down to the onion fields in southern Georgia for a look at the crop as it was coming to market.
Willard was doing all sweet onion growers a huge favor, because until the Vidalia gained cache, none of the other varieties were making much headway at capturing the imagination of the average American cook. But once the Vidalia name spread throughout the northeast and west of the Mississippi, more and more people began to understand that not all onions are created equal. Some are hot and potent; others are sweet and mild.
The Vidalia onion story emerged in the late spring of 1931 in Toombs County, Georgia, when onion grower Mose Coleman noticed something different about his crop. The onions weren't hot, as he expected. They were mild and sweet. His first efforts to sell the onions were unsuccessful, but with a bit of perseverance (and most likely, some serious mind-changing), he actually managed to sell the crop for $3.50 per 50 pound bag, which was an astoundingly great price in those days.
Neighboring farmers jumped on the sweet onion band wagon by planting their own crops of this yellow hybrid variety. By the 1940's when the State of Georgia built a Farmers' Market in the town of Vidalia, which was the juncture of South Georgia's most widely traveled highways, more and more tourists carted off bags of "those sweet onions from Vidalia." Soon, it became, "Those Vidalia Onions," at which point the onion finally had its name.
But it wasn't until the mid 1970's that national distribution was really established. At this point, there were about 600 acres devoted to the specialty onion, and Vidalia Onion Festivals popped up in Vidalia and nearby Glennville.
Within a decade, there were over 6,000 acres of Vidalia onions and the state legislature had passed legislation giving the Vidalia Onion legal status and defining the 20-county production area, which meant, in essence, that any sweet onion growing outside that region could not be called a Vidalia Onion. By 1990, the Vidalia Onion was elevated to Official State Vegetable status.
Through the remainder of the 90's Vidalia Onion growers, shippers, and researchers have been working on ways to extend the shelf life of Vidalias through controlled atmosphere (CA) storage. Through the use of technology adapted from the apple industry, Vidalia onions can be placed into CA storage for up to 6 months, meaning that in many supermarkets throughout the country, you just might encounter a Vidalia Sweet Onion in November and December.
Consumers can be assured that in CA storage, no chemicals are used, only the natural elements found in pure air. The atmosphere of CA storage is 92 percent nitrogen, 5 percent carbon dioxide and 3 percent oxygen; the temperature is maintained at 34 degrees F.
©1999 Jan Roberts-Dominguez
Sweet onions now represent more than 15% of all onions consumed in the U.S. - 250 million pounds and growing.
© 2007, OsoSweet Onions