Down in south Georgia on a sticky spring day one brand of beer tastes as good as another. Fresh peas, ham and corn bread for lunch can be found in any town diner.
But only one kind of onion -- the seductively sweet Vidalia -- will be fried in rings or sliced onto mayonaise and white bread sandwiches.
It is indigestion and bad breath -- proof and sweet enough to eat as an apple. And thanks to Piggly Wiggly Southern inc., which started marketing it as a gourment item several years ago, the Vidalia onion put Vidalia Ga., on the national map.
In season from middle May through middle June, the Vidalia and other South Georgia white onion varieties not as familiar to the public are shipped to Europe and across the U.S. where they are sold at a premium price. Cooks gladly pay more for this onion they can chop and mutilate without fear of a tear.
(Unless a Georgia friend or relative comes to visit, or you have a Georgia connection at the White House or on Capitol Hill, you'll have a hard time finding Vadalia onions in Washington. According to Sol Salins, described by one retailer as "the onion broker of D.C.," there are none available locally. "I've been trying, but I can't get'em," he said last week.))
The South Georgia onions are the Granex variety and an offspring of year-round "hot" Texas onions. Most farmers will tell you it's the soil, humidity and some mythical "Gulf breezes which flow into the state" which make an onion grown here taste sweeter and milder.
However, a University of Georgia horticulturist and researcher argued the onions are not magical at all. Doyle Smittle of the state's Agricultural Experiment Station in Trifton said he could grow Vidalias in Washington State if he wanted, "but they spoil the farmers' good time," he added.
So, you would think southerners wouldbe content with a little recognition and leave it at that. Not the case. The Vidalia onion is currently suffering from fame.
Counterfeit, pungent Texas onions are being bagged under the Vidalia label. Thus, the Vidalia reputation suffers as does the eater.According to Toombs County extension agents, Vidalia bags sell on the blackmarket for $1 each, and one man rebagged regular onions in Vidalia bags in Atlants last year and made $10,000 in two weeks.
Between counties there is bickering about who grows the sweetest onions. Max Smith, Tattnal County extension agent, said "it's the very same onion." But competition between farms is so dramatic that Smith said some farmers sneak into each others fields with a refractometer to measure sugar content of onions and determine who's growing the sweetest onions.
Because the onions contain more moisture than regular yellow or white onions they have a shorter shelf life. A shame since you pay dearly for them. A bad onion will spoil the bunch, so check your cache closely. Then put them up in one of the following ways.
With pantyhose: Find an old pair of stockings or buy a new one. Stick one onion down the leg, tie a knot, add another onion, tie another knot. And so on. When you're ready to cook, snip off the bottom onion.
If you have a spare refrigerator, plug it in and set at 45 degrees. Onions will keep well there unitl next year's harvest. Or, simply spread them on canvas, burlap or boards on the basement floor.
When cooling with Vidalias, remember simplicity is best. Eat them raw. Peel, core them and fill with butter and black pepper. Bake in a covered pan at 325 degrees for 45 minutes.
Or, eat them as the farmers do -- in a sandwich. Joy McNair and her family in Vadalia have been growing onions for 10 years. McNair sells them at a stand alongside Georgia Route 1 where she educates passing motorists from the North about the virtues of South Georgia onions. It's not uncommon for her to start slicing onions while customers drive to the nearest store for a loaf of bread and a jar of mayonanaise.
McNair's favorite recipe is Vidalia Onion Rings. Light brown, crispy and so sweet, you savor every bite knowing onions won't taste this good until next year. VIDALIA ONION RINGS 2 to 4 Vidalia onions, peeled 1 cup all-purpose flour 1 teaspoon baking powder 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 egg, beaten 1 cup milk 1 teaspoon vegetable oil Deep fat for frying
Heat deep fat to 365 degrees. Combine dry ingredients in a mixing bowl and add liquid ingredients one at at time. slice onions as thick as you like and with your fingers dip them in batter. Fry in fat until golden brown and fluffy.