Friday, April 20 is the release date for the 2018 new crop of Vidalia Onions, so Produce Buzz takes this opportunity to peel back some of the layers of this flavorful, bulbous veggie.
What do you mean? Onions can have a release date? Can they be like a new iPhone or a rock band’s latest album? Well, no. But yes it’s true there is a particular onion that has a release date. And while there was a time about 80 years ago that it was an exciting new discovery, it’s not because its growers have created a new, more up-to-date version. The release date is for the new crop for the year. This onion, known as the Vidalia Onion, is a sweet flavored onion that is grown in a very small region of Southern Georgia. The onion is not your typical pungent and spicy onion that burns the tongue and makes you tear up. No, in fact, it is so sweet that many people eat them right out of their hands like they would an apple. Because it is has a much higher moisture content than most other onions, one of the reasons it is sweeter, they do not keep as well in storage and each year’s crop is usually gone before the end of the year. So the arrival of the new crop is eagerly anticipated by chefs, foodies and onion lovers all over the world. But the growers agree on a release date so that none of those onions get harvested so early that they don’t have their signature sweetness. This protects the hard work they put in over the past few decades building the Vidalia brand.
Vidalia Onions are named for a town in Georgia which is at the center of the growing region for onions in the state. The soil in that region was particularly low in levels of sulphur which gives onions their distinctive bite. In 1931 a Georgia farmer discovered that onions growing in his fields were quite different than onions coming from other parts of the country. At first, people did not like them preferring the more pungent taste of regular onions. So the farmer had some difficulty in selling them. But in a few years word began to spread about the pleasant taste of this milder variety and demand for them escalated.
“The onion is the truffle of the poor”
-Robert J. Courtine, a French gourmet
Vidalia, Georgia had a state farmers market where onions being grown in the unique soil of South Georgia were sold in great volume. The location of the town and market happened to be at a heavily traveled junction were tourists often stopped on long journeys. As a result, people from all over the East Coast and beyond were hearing about those delicious “onions from Vidalia.” It wasn’t long after that farmers all over the region started planting hundreds of acres of them and began to build the industry into one that harvests almost a quarter of a billion pounds each year.
In later years those enterprising farmers would come together to market their unique veggie nationally. The name “Vidalia Onion” was trademarked and the Federal government put in force a marketing order preventing anyone from out of the 20-county growing region in Georgia from using the name on their onions. In 1986 Georgia made this particular onion its official state vegetable. After all that, production expanded dramatically and now there are over 200 farmers growing them on about 12,000 acres.
But Georgia was not the first and is not the only place where sweet onions were grown. In a little town in Washington known as Walla Walla, a French immigrant brought a variety from his home country and planted them there at the turn of the 1900’s. It has not enjoyed the marketing success of the Vidalia, but many people believe they are just as sweet. Texas also got in on the sweet onion craze but not until the 1950’s and now the name “Texas Sweets” have some recognition with cooks as a rival to the Vidalia. Hawaii has also found some success with an onion named for one of its islands, the “Maui Onion.” And another tropical island taunts its onions as just as sweet—“Bermuda Onions.”
Not only are sweet onions a little easier to eat raw, they do not irritate the eyes as much as other onions when they are cut or chopped. That is because they have a much higher amount of water and less acid in them. And why do other onions make us cry? Well the official detailed explanation is filled with a lot of scientific chemicals with Latin names. So let’s just say when the cells of an onion are broken down with a knife it releases some of those hard to pronounce chemicals and they begin to react with one another to create and release a gas that your eyes do not particularly like. The less acidic an onion is, the less likely it is to create tears.
“It’s hard to imagine civilization without onions.”
-Julia Child, American cookbook author
But who doesn’t need (or maybe even enjoy) a good cry every now and then, especially if there is a delicious meal waiting at the end of it? Yes, it is part of life to weep every now and then. One of America’s greatest poets, Carl Sandburg, told us with his subtle wisdom that “Life is like an onion. You peel away one layer at a time and sometimes you weep.” But from this beloved culinary delight we have a true friend. For as the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, wrote in his poem, “Ode to the Onion,” what else in the world can “make us cry without hurting us?”
No in fact, far from hurting us the tears we shed in our relationship with the onion are a promise of its service to us through its marvelous versatility in cuisine all around the world. The onion has been a staple in almost every culture for thousands of years because of how ubiquitous it is. They grow in almost every climate and region around the world and have since the dawn of time. Wild versions of them have been around for millions of years. Evidence of the first cultivation of onions goes back over 7,000 years ago in China. In Egyptian records they show up as early as 3500 BCE and the Ancient Greeks wrote about them often. The Pharaohs of Egypt took them into their tombs because they believed the many layers of onions symbolized eternal life. They often placed them into the eye sockets during the mummification process of the dead.
The onion offers always, and especially in winter, a little of
the springtime of the soil, preserved in its bulb.”
-French writer Raymond Dumay
We can’t promise you that eating your onions will give you eternal life but we do know that they can certainly help to extend your life if you eat plenty of them. Onions not only provide flavor, they also provide important nutrients and health-promoting phytochemicals. They are very high in vitamin C and are a good source of dietary fiber and folic acid. They also contain calcium, iron, and have a high amount of protein for a veggie.
So we hope you will seek out the new crop of sweet onions about ready to hit the market. But if you can’t find them, don’t worry, eat plenty of the other ones and have a good cry. You probably deserve one.