Museum celebrates sweet Vidalia onion

Vidalia onions

VIDALIA, Ga. -- Did you know that Vidalia onions were once a murder investigation clue on the television show "C.S.I. Miami"? That it was also a clue of another kind on "Jeopardy!" and "Who Wants to be a Millionaire"? Or that Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf once wrote a letter about his love for Vidalias?

Since 1931, Vidalia sweet onions have been grown in only 13 counties and portions of seven others in southeast Georgia, and it's such a sweet success story that it was only a matter of time -- well, some 80 years -- before a museum honoring them would come along.

The Vidalia Onion Museum opened in April to much fanfare, and as Wendy Brannen, director of the Vidalia Onion Committee, notes, "It's not every day that an onion gets its own museum."

She says tourists come from around the United States to see where the sweet onions are grown, and the museum, a living history of the Vidalia, tells its story through educational, colorful, eye-catching exhibits such as antique farm equipment, videos, photographs, newspaper stories and an interactive children's exhibit.

"Vidalia onions are the No. 1 value vegetable crop for this state," says Brannen.

Just learn to say Vidalia properly before you come. It's not Vah-DAY-lia, as it's often misspoken. Instead, says Georgia Department of Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, "It's pronounced VIE-day-yah in our wonderful Southern dialect."

What makes this $200 million-a-year gourmet onion so sweet and beloved enough to earn its own museum? Just start peeling away the layers of its history to find out.

During the Great Depression, farmers were looking for new crops in addition to corn and cotton that grew easily in south Georgia's sandy, low sulfur, easily drainable soil. Onions seemed the easy choice, as they could be planted in late winter for spring harvesting.

Just about everyone knows that most onions are pungent and hot, but the first ones grown in Vidalia weren't. They were sweet, mild and flavorful with the taste created from a perfect storm of soil, water and climate. With plenty of rain or regular irrigation, the Vidalias have more water content than their more pucker-worthy counterparts, so it's more about the water than sugar.

When Moses Coleman, one of the first farmers to pioneer the Vidalia, met with a local grocer to sell his product, he reported, "I pulled out my onion and I ate it there in front of him. He'd never seen anything like it. There wasn't any tears coming out of my eyes, and I wasn't making no face."

The state built a farmers market near Vidalia, which is at the crossroads of several major highways and about equally distant from Savannah, Macon and Augusta. Word traveled about those "sweet onions from Vidalia" that could be had at the farmers market, the name stuck and the customers came for them.

And then one day a pig and an onion crossed paths.

Piggly Wiggly, that Southern institution of grocery stores affectionately known then and now as "The Pig," also was based in Vidalia. Piggly Wiggly put the Vidalia onion on it shelves, the public gobbled them up and the rest is time-lined history.

The first Vidalia Onion Festival was held in nearby Glennville in 1977, with Vidalia following with its own in 1978. The Vidalia Onion Festival, named one of MSNBC's "Five Don't Miss Festivals," is held each spring and includes air shows, onion-eating contests, beauty queens and even the Vidalia mascot named Yumion.

During the mid-1980s, farmers battled to have their growing region protected by both federal and state law, and then in 1990 the Vidalia Sweet Onion became the official state vegetable of Georgia.

Don't mess around with the onions, either, as there is such as a thing as Vidalia onion fraud. It's a felony to label other sweet onions grown outside the area as Vidalias. Fines begin at hefty $10,000 for slapping a Vidalia label on, say, a Peruvian or Texas onion.

Vidalias are widely available in the spring and early summer across the United States and Canada before they sell out. And they always do. They make it to the menus as far away as Vidalia, the similarly named restaurant in Washington, D.C., the Tribeca Grill in New York and Woodfire Grill in Atlanta.