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A tearful confession

I am a proud son of Georgia, a graduate of the University of Georgia and I still pray that my soul will pass through my native state on its way out into eternity. I realize what I am about to say will be taken as blasphemy by the homefolks, but I'm going to say it anyway _ Vidalia is not the last word in onions.

Don't misunderstand. The Vidalia is a fine onion but, in my view, not a divine one, and certainly no better than a number of other sweet onions. It comes with more hype and often with more bite than I care for. If this heresy gets back to my friends and family in Georgia, I will be ostracized or, even worse, dropped from their MCI calling circles. In Georgia, you don't put down religion, barbecue or Vidalia Onions.

I used to be a Vidalia chauvinist. Back when we lived in Washington, some of the Carter-era Georgians in our circle of friends used to build parties around the season's first delivery of Vidalias. We put them on the grill and in casseroles, and ate them on, or with, everything. There was one among us who even seasoned his martini with a small slice of the Vidalia.

In those days, I ordered Vidalia onions by the 25-pound bag. But the quality became increasingly unpredictable. Too many of the sweet things were biting my tongue and bringing tears to my eyes. Then we moved to Florida and I discovered the Florida Sweet, and how sweet it is. No doubt some of my Georgia kin will wonder if it was just a coincidence that I became a fan of Florida onions.

I've been thinking about coming out of the onion closet for years, but it was an Associated Press story out of Chula, Ga., that finally moved me to weigh in on the sweet-onion issue. According to the story, Buddy Talley claims the onions he grows are sweeter and milder than Vidalias but fetch only about half the price. It's a sore point with him. Talley and other South Georgia onion growers are pressing the state to expand the official growing area for Vidalias so they can market their onions under that famous name.

To hear Vidaliaholics tell it, the Vidalia is to onions what Cuban tobacco is to cigars _ the best in the world. It's the soil and the climate, they say, that make the Vidalia and the Havana special. But University of Georgia onion specialists say the soil and climate throughout South Georgia is ideal for growing sweet onions. That includes the soil where Talley has been growing onions for 10 years.

The onions were first grown on farms around Vidalia, a small town about 80 miles west of Savannah. The official Vidalia onion growing area now encompasses about 13 counties and parts of seven others in southeastern Georgia. Only onions grown in the designated counties are certified as Vidalias, which command a premium price. (The five official growers who live outside the official growing area were grandfathered into the state's 1986 Vidalia Onion Act.) These onions are big business, about $50-million last year, and it is no wonder the Vidalia onion establishment doesn't want to expand the growing area.

Talley doesn't have a prayer of getting in on a sweet deal, but at least he called the Vidalia growers' hand on one thing. He suggested that Vidalia onions should have to pass a pungency test before being marketed under that label. If Vidalias are as uniformly sweet as their promoters claim, that should be no problem. I think the Vidalia cartel ought to let Talley in. If his onions are as sweet as he claims _ he says five years of tests prove they are _ they would be a credit to the Vidalia name.

If you have read this far you are entitled to ask: With all the important things going on in the nation and the world, what kind of editor writes about onions? A fair question and you deserve an answer.

Consider some of the other topics I could have spent this column on: O. J.'s glove size. Senate rejects Dr. Foster's nomination to be surgeon general. Supreme Court holds that parades are a form of speech and gays have no constitutional right to muddle the message. Senate moves to censor cyberspace. House and Senate Republicans agree on tax cuts and balanced budget plan. Steinbrenner signs Strawberry. Politicians wail about base closings. Waste and mismanagement discovered at the United Nations. Congress moves legislation to protect corporate fraud. Tough times for Democrats in Arkansas (and in Washington). Michael Jackson deletes "Jew me" and "Kike me" from lyrics of a song on his new album. The St. Petersburg City Council still in denial about Bay Plaza. Some guy wants to make a 385-foot statue of Columbus the tallest structure in downtown St. Petersburg.

It just seemed like a good time to get onions off my mind.

Philip Gailey is editor of editorials of the Times.

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