In 1931, a Toombs County, Georgia farmer named Moses Coleman discovered the onions he had planted didn't turn out as expected. Rather than being hot, they were sweet. Coleman struggled to sell the onions but finally managed to sell them for $3.50 for a 50lb. bag, a whopping price for onions at that time. Other farmers thought Coleman had discovered a gold mine and began to do the same thing. During the 1940’s, the State of Georgia built a Farmer’s Market in Vidalia that subsequently developed a thriving tourist business. Consumers called the onions Vidalias thus giving them their famous name. Vidalia Onions began to appear in Piggly Wiggly and A&P grocery stores. In the 1950s, Piggly Wiggly stores opened a distribution center in Vidalia, bringing with it a large influx of jobs as well as railroad business. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, production increased slowly but steadily reaching 600 total acres planted with Vidalias by the mid-1970s. Efforts began to have Vidalia Onions distributed throughout the country.
In 1986, Georgia’s legislature gave the Vidalia Onion legal status and went on to define a strict 20-county production area. The Vidalia was named Georgia’s Official State Vegetable in 1990. At that time, a USDA program established the Vidalia Onion Committee. Beginning around 1990, a technology adapted from the apple industry called controlled atmosphere (CA) storage (CA) began to be used for storing onions. Currently some 20,000,000 pounds of Vidalia Onions are put into CA storage for up to six months resulting in an extension of the marketing season. The onions can be called "Vidalia" only if they are grown in one of the 20 counties designated by the Vidalia Onion Act of 1986.
So what makes the Vidalia onion so sweet? The onion's flavor is due to the low sulfur content of the soil where the onions are grown. According to the Vidalia Onion Committed, three things are necessary to grow a sweet Vidalia: weather, soil, and water. Winters where the onion is produced are mild with few prolonged freezes. There's a combination of the right amount of rainfall supplemented by irrigation water during periodic dry spells, and the soil in the area is low in sulfur. Farmers grow Vidalias on more than 12,000 acres. Annual sales total $90 million and account for 40 percent of the nation’s spring onion crop. Around 5-million 40 lb. boxes are shipped each season.
The Vidalia was named Georgia’s official state vegetable in 1990. Seed of the short-day yellow Granex variety of onion, the only variety that meets the legal definition of a Vidalia onion, grows only in regions with short, mild winters. Regular moisture is critical because the high water content rather than a high acid content gives the onions their mild, sweet taste. Onions grown in soil high in sulfur compounds tend to have a hot, bitter flavor due to the sulfur compounds which are what cause people to cry when they slice an onion. Cutting the onion releases enzymes that break down the sulfur compounds and generate unstable chemicals called sulfenic acids. These acids, once released, turn into a volatile, airborne gas called sulfuric acid that drifts into the eyes.
(USDA NRCS photo)
Bland Farms of Glennville, Georgia, designates itself the nation's largest grower, packer and shipper of sweet onions and has filed a legal challenge to a Georgia Agriculture Department amended rule that establishes a fixed date before which a licensed Vidalia onion grower may not pack and ship Vidalia onions. That date is Monday of the last full week of April of each year unless the Onion Advisory Panel recommends a different date to begin the Vidalia marketing season. To ensure quality and protect brand identity, farmers who want to grow under the Vidalia umbrella must register with the state and keep the agriculture commissioner aware of what varieties of onions they are growing. They are restricted from their onions until a date that the commissioner determines. This has become the source of the current legal controversy.
Grilling is a popular way of cooking Vidalias. Peel, wrap them in foil, and grill until soft. Vidalias are good for using raw in tossed salads where stronger onions might overpower the other vegetables. Slice and use on burgers and sandwiches. Chilling Vidalia onions enhances the sweetness and gives them an even better raw flavor. In the Southern United States, pickled Vidalias are often served as a popular side dish. The Vidalia Onion Committee’s website lists numerous recipes and uses for the onions. Enjoy these recipes from Southern Living magazine.
Vidalia's are planted in the fall and available in grocery stores from late April to mid-September. If you can't find Vidalia onions, they can be ordered by mail.
(Georgia Senators Zell Miller and Saxby Chambliss deliver Vidalia onions to their Senate colleagues, public domain photo)
(https://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/business-economy/vidalia-onions; https://www.mnn.com/your-home/organic-farming-gardening/stories/the-bitter-legal-battle-behind-the-sweet-vidalia-onion; http://www.vidaliaonions.com/history/; main image By ryan griffis (originally posted to Flickr as Vidalia Onions) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons); baked Vidalias By NatalieMaynor from Jackson, Mississippi, USA (Baked Onions) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)