Vidalia onions aren't just the most famous onions in the world; I think they may be the only famous onions in the world. But you can't really understand what a big deal Vidalia onions are until you've been to Vidalia, Georgia.
Vidalia onion country surrounds the pretty town of Vidalia, making a 50-mile circle around it. What sets their product apart from the millions of tons of onions that grow in the rest of the country is the soil; their patch of ground is unusually low in sulfur (I didn't test it, but that's what the farmers told me). The onions are definitely the sweetest I've ever tasted, and the only ones that are so mild you can bite into them like an apple.
Over the last seventy years or so, farmer R.T. Stanley and others have figured out just how to irrigate and fertilize their onions to make them the best. But the weather has to cooperate. Stanley says, "When I'm growing them, I'm praying for it to rain; when I'm harvesting them, I'm praying for it not to rain." When the fresh onions come out of the ground, starting in April, they have green tops and soft skin. The sun helps them firm up and take on that dry, golden, papery shell. The farmers call this "curing," and when that's done, the onions go to market. But only between mid-April and Thanksgiving: That's how long one year's harvest lasts.
The only thing that's better than the onions in Vidalia is the people. They're great cooks, and friendly. Everybody wanted to help x my Northern accent so that I could say the name of the town right. To set the record straight, it's "Vah-day-lia." I think.
The best meal I ever had in Vidalia was made by four different local cooks. For my appetizer, I went over to Ruth Underwood's house. Every year, Vidalia hosts a festival to celebrate the onion harvest, and Ruth is a four-time champion in the food competition. Her baked onion dip -- chopped Vidalia onion, cheese, mayo, and garlic salt, baked together until rich and brown -- is just the kind of dish I'll indulge in on a cold Sunday afternoon. And I loved her onion marmalade; the onions cooked way down until the natural sugars are brown and caramelized, then mixed with cayenne and vinegar for some spark.
For my supper, I lined up at Vidalia's best buffet, the Chatters Café. In addition to fantastic fried chicken, biscuits, and pie, Kathy Mann introduced me to real Southern specialties you just don't see where I live -- like turnip tops, butter beans, fried whole catfish, and fried fatback. I said yes to everything, washed it all down with cold glasses of sweet tea, and moved on to my next stop: dessert.
Marcia Suber and Anita Estroff are Vidalia's mistresses of classic Southern desserts. Marcia told me, "Every buffet line in Georgia has a banana pudding or a sweet potato soufe at the end of it," so I asked them to show me both. It was like cooking class with your favorite kooky aunts as teachers: Having a good time is just as important to them as being good cooks. I liked their attitude, and I also fell in love with the way those Southern ladies say my name: "Bobbeh." Most important though, their rich, creamy desserts were delicious.
If you missed the Vidalia onion harvest this year, you can start looking out for the new crop the farmers are working on: Vidalia carrots, just as sweet and juicy as the onions. You know I can't wait.