Why a trip to the sweet onion source in Vidalia is worth it, especially this month (plus a recipe).
by Erin Z. Bass
When I visited the town of Vidalia, Georgia, last year as part of a tour of the state’s new Georgia Grown Trail, it was clear that life revolved around onions. Some towns have peanuts, others are known for strawberries, wine or, in the case of my hometown, rice. But I’m not sure any work as hard to protect their signature crop and promote it around the world.
While Vidalia is the official home of Vidalia onions, it’s also the pioneer of all sweet onions. Their early planting during the Great Depression was an accident. In hopes of a new cash crop, farmers planted onions. Nobody expected them to come up tasting sweet, but when they did, word began to spread throughout the state. Piggly Wiggly was headquartered in Vidalia and helped farmers get their new crop on store shelves to meet demand and start a sweet revolution.
By 1978, the onions had their own festival in Vidalia and, in 1980, the current mascot Yumion was born. By the mid- to late-1980s, farmers began to recognize a need to protect their sweet onions at the state and federal level. That’s why the onions are officially trademarked and there’s a Vidalia Onion Sheriff and Vidalia Onion Committee whose job it is to protect the onions today.
As sheriff and Director of the Vidalia Onion Business Council, Bob Stafford (pictured) is in charge of protecting and enforcing that trademark and making sure that those using the trademark are registered growers in the particular Vidalia onion growing region. That means when you purchase an onion labeled “Vidalia” at the grocery store in one of the 50 states or Canada, it is indeed a sweet onion grown in or around Vidalia, Georgia.
See video of Bob explaining his onion duties here.
Visiting Vidalia today around harvest time in late spring, the smell of sweet onion is definitely in the air and the place to learn all about the town’s cash crop is the Vidalia Onion Museum. Opened in the spring of 2011, the museum serves to educate both tourists and locals about the Vidalia onion’s history, popularity and culinary significance.
While onion farms around the area are starting to jump on the agricultural tourism bandwagon and open for tours, visitors can see a small Vidalia onion plot right out front the museum. “You walk through the onions and into the museum, and if you want to touch or smell a Vidalia onion, then you can do so,” says former museum Executive Director Wendy Brannen.
Read more about the Vidalia Onion Museum in our 2011 story Welcome to Vidalia.
You’ll probably have to hug mascot Yumion first – also a great photo op – but the little plot and Yumion are as cute as the museum itself. At 1,300 square feet, it’s a tightly packed space of onion lore, including a Vidalia onion love letter from Julia Child and handpainted mural that explains what makes the onion taste so sweet.
Each spring, the harvest of Georgia’s official state vegetable is anticipated by growers like M&T Farms and Vidalia Valley and, of course, consumers. Prime time to celebrate the onion and its season is during the annual Vidalia Onion Festival and Golden Onion Chef Competition. As the official kick-off to the festival, the second-annual competition on Sunday, April 14, showcases the onion and its versatility, while offering 12 of the state’s chefs a platform to display their skills and creativity.
Chefs like Brian Jones at The Ritz-Carlton in Atlanta, John Mark Lane at Elements Bistro & Grill in Lyons and Keira Moritz at Steel Magnolias in Valdosta have announced their recipes, which feature the onion in crispy, stuffed, caramelized, jam and dessert form. Last year’s champion was a Caramelized Vidalia Onion Fritter with vegetable slaw and mustard vinaigrette, created by Chef Hilary White of Serenbe Farm (recipe below).
The onion celebration continues at the 36th annual festival April 18-21 with a Miss Vidalia Onion Pageant, carnival, Vidalia Onion Extravaganza with Georgia artist Mark Ballard, the Vidalia Onion Run, recipe contest and public tasting, music by the Charlie Daniels Band and the World Famous Onion Eating Contest. See the full events schedule here.
For the Golden Onion Competition, recipe booklets are included in the ticket price of $10 in advance and $15 at the door at the Vidalia Community Center. Find out more about the competition in a podcast with Hope Philbrick. The Vidalia Onion Museum is located on Sweet Onion Drive and open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Weekend passes to the Vidalia Onion Festival are $40, with single entry $15.
Caramelized Vidalia Onion Fritter With Serenbe Farm Vegetable Slaw & Mustard Vinaigrette
by Chef Hilary White
3 cups diced Vidalia onions
2 Tbsp canola oil
1/4 cup water
1 Tbsp butter
Heat sauté pan. Add oil. Add onions and caramelize. Add butter. Add water as needed to deglaze pan. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside. Yields 1 cup caramelized Vidalia onions.
1 cup caramelized Vidalia onions
2 Tbsp applewood smoked ham, diced
1/4 cup Gouda cheese, grated
2 Tbsp mayonnaise
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1 cup flour
1 cup milk
1 cup plain bread crumbs
1/2 cup Panko bread crumbs
4 cups canola oil
In a mixing bowl, combine caramelized Vidalia onion, ham, cheese, mayonnaise and Dijon mustard. Salt and pepper to taste. Set aside to chill. Form fritter using a small cookie dough scoop. Yields approximately 12.
To bread the fritters, place flour in a bowl. Mix egg and milk in additional bowl. Mix bread crumbs and Panko crumbs in third bowl. Place the fritter in the flour, coat and shake off excess flour. Place in egg and milk mixture and coat well. Place fritter in bread crumbs and coat evenly.
To fry the fritters, heat canola oil to 350 degrees. Cook fritters in hot oil until golden brown.
1 tsp chopped garlic
2 Tbsp brown sugar
1/2 cup white balsamic vinegar
1 tsp salt and pepper
2 Tbsp grainy mustard
1 cup blended olive oil (canola and olive oil)
Mix all ingredients, except olive oil, in a mixing bowl. Whisk in olive oil.
Vidalia Onion and Serenbe Farm Vegetable Slaw:
1/4 Vidalia onion
2 small peeled carrots
2 Hakurei turnips
4 small radishes
1/4 stalk celery
12 celery leaves
1/4 cup English peas and tips
2 Tbsp minced chives
Slice onion, carrot, turnips, radish and celery on a mandolin slicer. Toss with celery leaves, peas and mustard vinaigrette.
To assemble the dish, dress the salad and place at the base of a serving dish. Place a crispy fritter on top of the salad. Garnish with chives. Serves 6.
Photo Credits: Vidalia onions, Bob Stafford and Vidalia Onion Fritter by Hope Philbrick and Golden Onion trophy by Ingrid Varn.
Erin Z. Bass is editor/publisher of Deep South Magazine. Find out more about her here.