Forever Sweet

The Vidalia Onion has grown from a local favorite to a nationally-known delicacy; it has even made it to Shrek’s swamp

Even a casual wine lover will tell you that if the bubbly wine that you drink after a toast does not come from the Champagne region of France, then it is not champagne. Very few other flavors of the world inspire that kind of firm protection of authenticity, but you don’t have to travel far from Savannah to find one.

The sweet onions of Vidalia, Georgia, are among the most well-loved and sought after vegetables in the country. Their fame grew with such fervor that Vidalia farmers were eventually granted state and federal protection of their region and their name.

The discovery of the now-famous sweet onions was actually a fluke. Farmers in the 1930s were disappointed with results from traditional “row” crops like cotton and tobacco. So they tried planting onions.

“Imagine their surprise when the fledgling crop turned out sweet instead of hot like regular onions,” says Wendy Brannen, Executive Director of the Vidalia Onion Committee. While an instant hit with the farmers, the onions needed more time for word to spread beyond the Vidalia fields. In the early 1940s, the State of Georgia built a farmers’ market at the junction of many of the state’s most bustling roads, and word soon spread of an amazingly different onion, repeatedly described as “those sweet onions from Vidalia.”

Production was slow over the next two decades, but the Piggly Wiggly grocery store happened to have a distribution center in town, and it wasn’t long before this pioneer vegetable reached every corner of the state. No sweet onions existed in supermarkets before Vidalia’s sweet onions grew to fame. By the mid-1980s, farmers realized they needed to unite to seek state and federal protection. Bootleggers bringing in inferior onions and bagging them in Vidalia bags were a threat to the product’s reputation and the farmers’ livelihood.

As the onion became nationally known, local support soared. Vidalia onions soon had their own annual festivals and their own mascot, Yumion. In 1990, the onions became the Official State Vegetable. A year earlier, the growers, packers and shippers of Vidalia onions created a nonprofit organization, the Vidalia Onion Committee, with federal regulatory backing to help protect the integrity of their crop.

“What’s great about Vidalias is their versatility,” Brannen says. “Since they’re not as pungent—or hot—as other onions, children and folks with digestive issues enjoy eating them. And whether they’re cooked into recipes or simply chopped up and served raw with salads or burgers, they please the palate without producing tears.”

The recipes that fans of the onions have created reflect the widespread appeal of their flavor.

“We’ve see people of all ethnicities embrace Vidalias and introduce them into their traditional meals,” Brannen says. “Anything from Indian cuisine to foods from South and Central America.”

Brannen is especially excited about offering healthy, kid-friendly recipes that encourage kids to become familiar with not just Vidalias but also other vegetables.

“If we can get kids used to eating healthfully at a young age, where they know what a Vidalia onion is and how to cook with it, that’s a win for everyone—parents, children, retailers, our farmers,” she says. To that end, the Vidalia Onion Committee has partnered with DreamWorks Animation SKG, Inc., to promote the original sweet onion in conjunction with the release of the latest Shrek movie, Shrek Forever After.

“Shrek set this up for us in a conversation with Donkey in the first Shrek film in which they talked about ogres and onions both having many layers,” Brannen says. “So the question became, ‘What do ogres and onions have in common?’ In the case of Vidalias and Shrek, it’s layers of originality and appeal.”

The Vidalia Onion website,, has recipes that Brannen hopes will encourage kids to eat more vegetables and get more hands-on with their parents in the kitchen. She has seen how the sweetness of these onions can go beyond their flavor.

“We see time and again that Vidalia fans—and there are hundreds of thousands of fans across the United States—love to share their Vidalia stories,” she says, “whether it’s shopping at a farmer’s market for Vidalias at the start of the season with a favorite aunt or cooking casseroles with their grandmother.”

“The one consistency with all our fans,” Brannen says, “seems to be that they have their very own, special story about Vidalias.”
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