WHILE his Vidalia onions won't bring tears to your eyes, it's more than likely that Charles White's "aw-shucks" all-American pitch will.
White, 20, who is known as "The Onion Man" to his friends and neighbors in the small town of Martinsville, Va., has been selling the large, sweet, "no more tears" onions for three years now. And business is booming. It's a combination of a quality product, word-of-mouth and good old-fashioned enterprise and energy. "My business is a little different," White concedes. "I'm not your average door-to-door encyclopedia salesman."
He says he gets some strange reactions to his short-season business. It's not every day you meet an onion salesman. "Like anywhere, people always ask, 'What did you do over the summer?' and I say, 'I sold onions.' And they look at me like I'm crazy," White says, "or try to smell my breath."
"I never have liked onions," says White, who wears a black and yellow cap emblazoned with "Charles the Onion Man." "They're just too hot for me. That's the truth. But I have no problems with Vidalia onions. No tears, no indigestion, no bad breath, no nothin'. They're just an unusual onion."
Unusually mild and juicy, Vidalia onions have garnered a national reputation. In onionese, they are officially the Yellow Granex Type F Hybrid, and can be found in other parts of the country. But when they meet up with the sandy South Georgia soil and humid climate, they mature into a large, sweet onion. "It used to be a big bermuda onion, and they found a sweet onion to cross with it," White says of the hybrid.
The onions contain as much natural sugar as an orange and are sweeter than an apple. In fact, it is possible to bite right into one, just like an apple--although they get hotter with age. But be prepared for a look of alarm from office mates or family if you choose to eat one raw.
First produced commercially in the early '40s, the officially sanctioned (by the Vidalia Chamber of Commerce) Vidalia onion is grown only within a 30-mile radius of the small town of Vidalia in Toombs County, Ga., population 12,000. Similar onions are grown in Walla Walla, Washington, and Maui, Hawaii, but there is only one Vidalia onion. "There's a county in Texas called Vidalia, too, and they're selling 'Vidalia onions' now," White complains.
A controversy over the coveted Vidalia name has been raging for years in Georgia. Farmers in areas outside Vidalia claim their onions are as sweet as any grown in the small town, and a statewide "legal Vidalia area" has been proposed. To bear the name "Vidalia," onions have to be Yellow Granex Type F hybrid, and would be labeled with the name and home county of the grower. But so far, there is only one true Vidalia onion.
The onion supply is limited because of the short season (about May 1 to June 10) and because the delicate onions need to be harvested by hand and carefully stored. For the most part, the onions have stayed down South, distributed through the Piggly Wiggly supermarket chain, but entrepreneurs like White and a few northern onionophiles are spreading the word.
Now an estimated 1.5 million 50-pound sacks of the onions are shipped out each year, and their harvesting season is celebrated with an annual Vidalia Onion Festival, complete with a cookoff, a cooking school, and of course, the Vidalia Onion Queen.
White got his start in the onion field three years ago, and has since juggled it with a load of college courses and finals as a business major at Wake Forest University. "A man in Martinsville always took a truck full of furniture down to Vidalia, and brought it back full of onions," White recalls. "My parents always bought them. Well, so many people wanted onions from this guy that he couldn't keep up. And he said, 'Well, I'm just going to sell to my special friends.' So I said, hey, I'll buy your lists. And that first week I sold 40 bags."
In the first year, White's sales totaled about 7,500 pounds of onions, and that was in Martinsville alone. Last year he expanded his selling area to include Roanoke, Greensboro and Winston, and unloaded 25,000 pounds. This year, White dreams of sales of 250,000 pounds. He is, after all, a convincing salesman.
"People are interested in buying from an entrepreneurial young person," White says, after delivering his telephone sales pitch, liberally peppered with "super!" and "gosh!" "It makes them feel there's still some hope for America and free enterprise and all that." This year, he's rented a refrigerated tractor trailer to haul his onions the 500 miles north from Georgia. White has had four telephones temporarily installed, and his mother, father and brother frequently help take orders.
Because of the high sugar content, the onions are perishable. So proper storage is important. If stored correctly, they can last up to a year, but the average life is four to five months. They store best in a cool, dry, ventilated place. They need to be kept from touching each other because they bruise easily. White recommends two methods of storing them individually: drop the onions in the legs of old panty hose, tying a knot between each onion to keep them from touching, or store them on racks made of window screen or some other material that will not bruise the onions. The onions should be very dry before storing. They can also be wrapped in foil or put in individual sealed plastic bags and stored in the refrigerator.
Vidalia onions are quite versatile and can be used in any recipe calling for onions. Here are some recipes recommended by White and the Vidalia Chamber of Commerce: VIDALIA ONION PIE (Makes a 10-inch pie) For the crust: 1 1/2 cups sifted flour 3/4 teaspoon salt 1 1/2 teaspoons caraway seeds 1/2 cup butter 4 to 5 tablespoons ice water For the pie: 3 cups chopped Vidalia onions 3 tablespoons butter 2 eggs, well beaten 1/2 cup milk 1 1/2 cups yogurt or sour cream or a combination of both 1/4 teaspoon pepper Salt to taste 3 tablespoons flour 3/4 cup grated muenster cheese
To make crust, combine flour, salt and caraway seeds. Cut butter into flour until mixture resembles small peas. Add water, a tablespoon at a time, until dough can be formed into a ball. Wrap in waxed paper and refrigerate for 20 minutes.
Turn dough onto a floured board and roll to about a 1/8-inch thickness. Fit into a 10-inch pie pan. Prick bottom and sides of crust in several places with a fork and bake in a 425-degree oven for 15 minutes, or until lightly browned.
Cook onions in butter until translucent. Spoon onions into pie shell. Beat eggs and add milk, 1 1/4 cups of the yogurt and/or sour cream, salt and pepper. Stir to combine mixture. Blend flour with the remaining yogurt or sour cream and stir to combine with egg mixture. Pour over onions and sprinkle with grated cheese. Bake in a 350-degree oven for about 45 minutes, or until top is puffy and browned. Adapted from "The Original Vidalia Onion Cookbook" GRILLED VIDALIA (1 serving) 1 Vidalia onion 1/2 chicken bouillon cube 1 tablespoon butter Salt and pepper to taste
Remove plug from onion and set aside. Place 1/2 boullion cube and butter in the hole, salt and pepper. Replug the onion and wrap in foil. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Serve as a side dish. CHARLES WHITE'S ONION SANDWICH (1 serving)
This is White's favorite way to eat Vidalias. Mayonnaise 2 slices bread 1 slice Vidalia onion (about 1/2-inch thick) Salt and pepper to taste Cream cheese and smoked salmon (optional) Spread mayonnaise on bread. Place onion slice on one piece of bread and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Cover with cream cheese and smoked salmon, if desired, then the other piece of bread. Where to Buy Vidalia Onions
Vidalia onions are sold in regular, medium and jumbo sizes, and are available locally at Safeway and Giant food stores in Virginia, Washington and Maryland. White sells them 50-pound increments ($35 a bag), which he says averages out to about 85 large onions, four to five inches in diameter, and in 25-pound bags, for $24.95. White will take orders by phone and will deliver June 2 and 3 to the Hechinger Mall, 17th St. and Maryland Ave., NE. Call (703) 632-9050, (703) 632-5723, (703) 632-8235 or (703) 632-7811 to order. The onions can also be mailed direct from Vidalia through the following:
* Cato Farms, Rte. 5, Lyons, Ga. 30436, (912) 565-7749
* Deloach Delights, P.O. Box 557, 202 E. Barnard St., Glenville, Ga. 30427, (912) 654-3111
* G & R Farms, Rte. 3, Box 35, Glenville, Ga. 30427, (912) 654-2100
* Goodie Garden, 211 E. First St., Vidalia, Ga. 30474, (912) 537-9051
* Malcolm Taylor Farms, Rte. 4, Box 127, Lyons, Ga. 30436, (912) 526-3962
* New Brothers Produce Co., P.O. Box 426, Vidalia, Ga. 30474, (912) 537-3447
* Todd Farms, Rte. 1, Uvalda, Ga. 30473, (912) 565-7672
* Wynn Farms, P.O. Box 1163, Vidalia, Ga. 30474, (912) 537-9010