0402VidaliaAUDVidalia onion farmer Ralph Cavender instructs reporter Ashley Bates on the correct way to pronounce "Vidalia."
Of all the onion varieties — white, yellow, brown, green and red — there is one onion in Georgia that reigns supreme: the Vidalia.
The seasonal sweet onion, which is only produced in 13 counties and in parts of seven others in South Georgia, is the favorite and most popular onion throughout the state.
“Well (Vidalias) are just much better,” said Ralph Cavender, owner of Antioch Farms Inc. in Claxton. “It is a sweet onion and it has more sugar in it and less of the sulphinic acid, the stuff that makes your eyes tear and water.
“So, it’s a mild sweet onion and it is a seasonal onion that is only available from April to the first of September.”
The Vidalia onion has been celebrated in Vidalia for the past 30 years, with this year being no different. The Vidalia Onion Festival celebrates the state’s No. 1 vegetable crop by having an onion eating contest, a cook-off and crowning the Vidalia Onion Queen, according to Wendy Brannen, executive director of the Vidalia Onion Committee.
“The festival is important in that it gives people an event they can look forward to surrounding the Vidalia onion and we certainly have thousands of visitors come to the town just for the festival,” Brannen said.
“Its (the Vidalia) farm gate value is over $132 million, and then the trickle-down effect from the economy is over $200 million ... and that is probably on the low end.”
To be called a Vidalia onion, the bulb must be grown in 13 counties and parts of seven others.
“The predominant counties are here in Toombs and Tatnall,” Brannen said.
The roots of these sweet onions actually started in Toombs County, according to www. vidaliaonionfestival.com, when farmer Mose Coleman discovered in the late spring of 1931 that the onions he planted were not hot. Then, the State of Georgia built a farmers market in Vidalia in the 1940s, and the word began to spread about the Vidalia onions.
In 1986, the state legislature passed a law officially defining the Vidalia onion and defining its 20-county production area. The onion was named Georgia’s official state vegetable by the state legislature in 1990.
And so the tradition continues with the festival and locals whipping up Vidalia onion recipes for the annual Vidalia Onion Cook-Off and Dish Tasting.
“We usually have about 20 to 30 people enter,” Brannen said. “And the interesting thing about the entries is we get everything from traditional Southern dishes like Vidalia Onion Casserole to Vidalia onion sushi recipes and Vidalia onion chowders, even Vidalia onion cheesecakes. So it’s really exciting; particularly the miscellaneous category is always fun.
“One year we even had a gentleman that did a Vidalia Onion Wine ... I have actually tasted it and it’s actually pretty good, it’s more like a dessert wine.”
The cook-off is set for April 24 at the Vidalia Community Center and festivalgoers are invited to try free tastings of the creations.
“We usually do either cash prizes or we do grocery store certificates, and they win a ribbon,” Brannen said. “This year we are adding two categories: We are adding a youth category and a corporate or a business category.”
Sabrina Toole of Vidalia has been participating in the cook-off for years now, and she won two first-place ribbons and a second-place ribbon last year.
“Sometimes I see a recipe and that (second place winner Sweet Vidalia Pie) happened to be one of them that I tweaked,” Toole said. “If you change one ingredient then it becomes your recipe. I tweak them to my taste and what I think will appeal to the judges and always put lots of onion in it — the onion has to have a dominant flavor in the recipe.”
The Sweet Vidalia Pie, for example, uses a store-bought nine-inch pie shell, a pound of bacon, three large tomatoes, mozzarella and cheddar cheeses, mayonnaise — and a couple of Vidalia onions.
“I either cook the bacon in a cast iron skillet and sometimes in the oven, which is quicker,” Toole said.
Toole also placed first with her Vidalia BOLT dip and her Vidalia Onion Shrimp Pasta.
“One thing is you have to have a recipe that is unique,” she said. “Tons of people have done onion soup, onion dip, really that you can buy but you have to find something that is unique that you haven’t seen in the cook-off before.
“You will think this unusual but a lot of times I will cook things that I’ve never tried ... I actually just cook it and take it. I think you get an eye for it”
The Vidalia BOLT dip includes bacon, onion, lettuce and tomato along with sour cream and mayonnaise
Toole suggested serving the dip with toast points or melba toast.
“That is another dip that I found that I tweaked,” Toole said. “You don’t think about a BLT dip that is something else that is unique. I have eaten it without the bacon or onion, and I tweaked it to my own recipe and changed some things in it, I have never been anywhere that I had anything like it.”