Vidalia onions, a Georgia blessing

Published 8:40 pm Friday, May 14, 2010

If I want to pucker a few know-it-all Yankee fannies, all I have to do is start bragging about how the Great State of Georgia is most blessed among these our United States.

There are majestic mountains to the north and the Golden Isles to the south. In between, we have the University of Georgia, the oldest-state chartered university in the nation, located in Athens, the Classic City of the South. We have Augusta National. Corn-fried shrimp. Lots of lakes and trout streams and the greatest state song of them all, “Georgia on my Mind.” I could go on but it gets a little embarrassing.

Granted, we have Atlanta and the Georgia General Assembly to remind us that we aren’t perfect, but we could have had Jersey City and the U.S. Congress within our borders, so even our deficiencies aren’t all that bad.

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As surely as God made little green apples—which we also have in Georgia, except ours are big green apples—when I start bragging about Georgia I hear from people who moved down here from the North and who wouldn’t go back at the tip of a bayonet. Still, they like to carp about the fact that Georgia isn’t all that special. After all, it doesn’t snow here 10 months a year and our buildings aren’t rusted like they are back home.

When they get too righteously indignant, I hit them with two words: Vidalia Onions.

No other state—none, nil, nada—has the ability to grow the sweet Vidalia. (By the way, pilgrims, it is pronounced “VI-DALE-YAH,” not “VAH-DAHL-IA,”) They are grown primarily in Toombs and Tattnall counties and portions of 11 other counties and you have to have a license from the state in order to grow them.

Wendy Brannen, the whiz-bang executive director of the Vidalia Onion Council in—yes—Vidalia, says some four to five million 40-pound bags of Vidalia Onions are en route now to stores around the country and in Canada. You have from now until the end of August to get your Vidalia fix or you will have to wait until next year. They sell out every year. The Atlanta Braves should be so lucky.

Brannen calls Vidalia Onion aficionados “fanatical” and says people from all across the country call her to report a store masquerading regular onions as Vidalias—sometimes by accident and a few times on purpose.

Brannen, who is sharper than a thumb tack, has organized these diligent sentinels into the Vidalia Onion Police complete with a certificate adorned with a sheriff’s badge and signed by the High Sheriff of Vidalia Onions. She says her deputies number in the hundreds. I’ll bet the Pennsylvania tomato growers don’t have six.

How did Sweet Vidalia Onions come to be?

By happy coincidence, the executive director says.

Back in the Depression days, farmers had about depleted the sulfur in their soil from cotton crops and some enterprising souls decided to try growing onions. Voila! The soil, the mild South Georgia climate and some prescient people in the State Department of Agriculture who recognized what the farmers had created brought forth this state treasure. The rest, as they say, is history.

The future? Can you say “Shrek”?

Brannen and Steve Langston, of Langston Communications in Atlanta, have worked out a deal with Hollywood’s DreamWorks Animation SKG to tie in with the latest Shrek movie, “Shrek Forever After,” using the theme, “Shrek Forever After, Vidalias Forever Sweet.” The idea originated, says Brannen, from Shrek’s comment in the first blockbuster movie that ogres are like onions; they both have layers. Meaning, I guess, that ogres are sensitive. Frankly, I’m not much of an expert on ogres.

The national marketing plan will be extensive and is designed to educate those few poor souls who have not yet been introduced to this unique delicacy. Brannen also expects the program to develop the next generation of Vidalia fanatics.

To this fanatic, the Sweet Vidalia Onion is just one more reason why Georgia is so blessed. No wonder Yankees want to move here. And no wonder that the rest of us don’t want to leave.