Georgia’s state vegetable, the Vidalia onion, has a distinctive history to match its one-of-a-kind taste.
By Jessica Farthing
Spring and summer bring an abundance of fresh produce, filling farmers markets and stores with colorful, delicious choices from local farms. This time of year, there is no greater anticipated harvest in Georgia than that of the state vegetable, the Vidalia onion. Trademarked and protected, this sweet seasonal variety will spoil the palate for any other. Planted and harvested by hand for over 80 years, the Vidalia onion is treasured in recipes used by both professional chefs and Southern home cooks; now, thanks to smart marketing and wide distribution, they are also available to culinary enthusiasts across the country who are looking to incorporate the unique taste into their meals.
During the Great Depression, a farmer named Moses Coleman in Vidalia, Georgia, harvested the onions he’d grown only to discover that they lacked the sharp flavor he anticipated. Instead, they were sweet. He was intrigued by the strange crop and set out to try to sell them. His customers were a little hesitant, but he finally convinced them of the worth of his product, selling the vegetable for a hefty price. As the Depression era hit farmers hardest of all, they jumped at the chance to grow these onions, and the city of Vidalia began to produce the crop in earnest.
The 1940s saw the launch of a farmers market in the area, right at the junction of a few major highways. Travelers began to spread word of the onions’ mild, savory taste. It was a souvenir of a trip through southern Georgia, a gourmet anomaly that some said could even be eaten like an apple. As popularity increased, regional grocery chain Piggly Wiggly started stocking the shelves seasonally with Vidalia onions. Around the same time, home cooks—especially in the South—began to embrace the special sweetness of the crop.
Bob Stafford, executive director of the Vidalia Onion Business Council and manager of the Vidalia Onion Committee, explains why the growing conditions in the region created this culinary delight. “The soil combined with the temperature and the right amount of … [rain]fall—[everything] seems to fall into place in that area of Georgia. It’s the sulfur content that puts the heat in onions. In that sandy soil, it leaches out, which … [produces] the mild onion in Vidalia.”
Eventually, the state saw a need to protect the brand. After all, Vidalia onions were particular to the area and, therefore, that space needed to be defined. In 1986, the legislative Assembly for the state of Georgia passed the Vidalia Onion Act, naming 20 different counties that could grow Vidalia onions and bring them to market. Surrounding Vidalia’s Toombs County, the borders of the district are as far away as the South Carolina state line. Altogether, there are between 9,000 and 12,000 acres planted annually, yielding a bounty of sweet onions from April through August.
Only one county removed from the Vidalia onion district, the chefs at Sea Island use the vegetables in their dishes as soon as they become available. Eric Fullem, the executive chef of events, isn’t originally from the area, but the very first time he tried one of these prized onions, he was hooked. “When it’s Vidalia onion season, we use it on anything and everything that we can. They order them across the resort to highlight the local ingredient.”
The crop plays a prominent part in the Beach Club’s oceanfront dining experience, integrated into dishes that reflect Hawaiian, Baja, Jamaican, Gullah and Southern coastal cuisines. One recipe that has become a Sea Island staple is hush puppies, simple fried concoctions that are enhanced by the mild flavor of the Vidalia. Southern Tide serves these hush puppies solo or along with fried, chilled or steamed wild Georgia shrimp and fries. “Vidalias are cleaner, crisper and sweet,” Fullem notes. “Sometimes you eat an onion and get that bitter taste in the background. You don’t get that with Vidalias.”
The Sea Island Shrimp & Grits is another Southern Tide offering featuring Vidalia onions. Here, they are presented along with sweet peppers in a Cajun-spiced andouille sausage broth.
Now that distribution has stretched beyond Georgia, the crop is a challenge for modern farmers. The seeds are put in the ground by hand, with harvesters also hand-picking the onions by clipping both the root and the top of the onion to free it. This labor-intensive process could be improved by modern machinery, but the very nature of the sweet vegetable makes it nearly impossible to avoid bruising by machines. The softness just won’t allow them to make it through the process.
Stafford knows mechanical harvesting is likely the future for Vidalia onion farmers, they just haven’t gotten there yet—though the state’s competing colleges are working on new technology. “Those Bulldogs in Athens [at the University of Georgia] might come up with it. Georgia Tech says they’ll come up with it,” he says. “You get them competing against each other, … [one of them will eventually] come up with it.”
Until then, we’ll all benefit from the artisanal aspect of Vidalia onion farming. Whether they are charred on a grill, baked whole and stuffed with bread crumbs and herbs, pickled and placed atop a juicy burger, or fried into sweet onion rings, Vidalia onions are a one-of-a-kind, mouthwatering ingredient that signals the start of the warm Southern season.
Servings: roughly 100
1 quart Atkinson Milling Co. hush puppy mix
1/2 small red bell pepper, diced
1/2 small green bell pepper, diced
1/2 small yellow bell pepper, diced
1 cup corn, removed from the cob
1/2 small Vidalia onion, diced
1 small jalapeño, brunoised
Cooking oil, as needed
Sparkling water, as needed
Place all ingredients except sparkling water in a bowl and mix. Slowly add water while stirring until the mix is thick. Refrigerate dough for at least 1 hour. Heat oil to 350 F in a heavy-duty pot. Roll dough into 1-ounce balls and drop them into the oil using a small ice cream scoop. Fry until browned and cooked thoroughly (approximately 4 minutes). Remove and place on paper towels to drain excess oil. Immediately season with salt, then serve.