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Nashville Scene Beyond the Peel

The dirt on designer onions

By John Bridges

JUNE 29, 1998:  It is not as if I grew up in New York City. It is not as if I should have expected to live a childhood of complete ignorance and deprivation. I grew up less than 100 miles from the Georgia border, in a town called Slapout, Ala. I thought I knew what it meant to be Southern. I thought it meant large-breasted women with tinted hair. I thought it meant singing "Dixie" and being vaguely ashamed of yourself. I thought it meant George Corley Wallace. I thought it meant football.

You'd think somebody would have taught me about Vidalia onions. You'd think somebody would have saved me from making a fool of myself.

I did not know the Vidalias were out there, lurking under the loamy soil of an otherwise useless stretch of Georgia. On the other hand, I did not know about William Faulkner or Walker Percy or the taste of Jack Daniel's whiskey. These were the secrets of being Southern that were never shared with me--they were the good secrets, the ones that Northerners wanted to ask questions about. They were not the ones Southerners really wanted to talk about. They preferred the more ghastly secrets--the ones about half-wit cousins and squandered family fortunes and bastard babies born to low-life girls, who either sold them to traveling carnivals or buried them under the porch. If Southerners wanted to talk about anything, it was either a three-legged dog, a car wreck, or Paul "Bear" Bryant. It was certainly not going to be an onion.

Then--it has to be 15 years ago now--somewhere in a newspaper (it may have been The New York Times) or a glossy-print, four-color magazine (it could well have been Gourmet, for chrissake), I saw a picture of an onion from Georgia. There was an accompanying article that told me this was a "Vidalia" onion, one of the long-cherished, carefully guarded "treasures" of the Deep South. There were recipes for roasting Vidalias, for stuffing them, for slicing them and eating them raw with a zingy tarragon-and-Dijon vinaigrette. There was even an address--with accompanying toll-free phone number--for ordering them. They cost something like $176 per seven-pound box (shipping not included). Each Vidalia, the article guaranteed, would arrive wrapped in colorful tissue, still warm from the hot Georgia earth. You would have thought they were talking about truffles rooted up by a talking pig somewhere in France. You would have thought they were talking about pomegranates, ripened at the foot of a sacred mountain somewhere in Greece. You would have thought they were talking about pictures of Rosalynn Carter in nothing but her underwear.

I thought to myself, Yankees are ordering onions through the United Parcel Service. Surely, I thought, the world has gone fiercely, irretrievably mad.

I had grown up my entire life, and nobody had ever stuffed an onion and told me to think of it as supper. I knew Southerners did not like to eat things that come of the ground. We remembered Scarlett O'Hara and her rutabaga. We were congenitally suspicious of turnips (except for the green part), potatoes (unless they were crinkle-cut), and, most especially, beets. For 37 years, my mother was a member of a Home Demonstration Club; never once did they publish a cookbook including a recipe for borscht. Southerners knew that, when you eat things that grow in the dirt, you're likely to get grit in your teeth. They knew things that Yankees could never imagine. They had actually seen where a rutabaga comes from. They knew that, if you are eating something that comes out of the ground, you are probably eating a root. Maybe in Wisconsin or somewhere, people get hungry enough to eat that sort of thing. Not in Alabama. We had opossum and catfish. We had our own version of shame.

I knew there were really only three possible uses for onions. They could be chopped up and pickled for chow-chow, which sat on a kitchen shelf and went bad because nobody would eat it. They could be stewed up and served on top of a hamburger patty, where they went virtually unnoticed amidst all the gravy. Or they could be hacked up and sprinkled over a hot dog, where they gave everybody bad breath and made innocent children cry.

In short, an onion was no reason for any sort of rejoicing. Back in Alabama, I swear, they did not even come in colors. We did not know the phrase "mince finely." We had no concept of "marinate," much less "macerate." We had never even heard the word "saut." Certainly, an onion was nothing that could possibly be cherished. Even yellow banana peppers were farther up on the Alabama food chain.

Then, I figure, somebody in Georgia--it may have been somebody working part-time in maintenance at a state university--started trying to figure out what he had that he didn't really want but that Yankees would probably buy a lot of, provided they thought it was something they'd never heard about before, and provided it was something you could cook in vermouth.

He must have known, right off, that Yankees would never understand pecans and that they'd just keep substituting walnuts. He must have known they already had all the peanuts they could stand. That must have been when, lying in bed in the sogginess of a Georgia June night, he patted his wife on the behind and said, "You know what, Baby? I'm gonna send them people some onions."

That's when she said, "What they gonna want with a bunch of onions?"

That's when he said, "I don't know. I was just thinkin', if Barbara Mandrell can have her own show on the TV..."

That's when she said, "Honey, there's only so crazy even a Yankee can get."

That's when he said, "Well, what if you and me just see about that?"

That's when she said, "Luther Jr., you are a certified nut case."

That's when they had incredible sex, right there under the window fan. The next morning, he mailed a box of onions to somebody at Bon Aptit magazine. Two months later, he'd put in air-conditioning and was driving a brand-new Ford Mustang with "UNYUN" on the tag.

All this happened, however, without me actually knowing it. By the time Vidalias happened, I was already away from Alabama, distrusting anything that grew in truly Deep Southern soil. I kept my distance from watermelons. I was wary of cantaloupes and mush melons. I scorned the sweet potato, the scuppernong, the butterbean, the humble black-eyed pea.

Then there was The New York Times, telling me to go bake an onion. There was Gourmet magazine telling me to brush a Vidalia lightly with extra virgin olive oil before broiling it under a topping of homemade breadcrumbs and freshly grated Parmesan. I clipped out the recipes, and then I invited Yankees over for dinner.

I served them the Vidalias, accompanied by a Chardonnay and big hunks of ripped-apart baguette. They sat back from the table, as if they had just had a pork chop with dressing, and they said, "How do you Southerners know how to do these things?"

I said, "I don't know. Must be something I learned from my mother." And then I didn't say anything else. I figured I knew what kind of secrets were best worth the keeping. I figured, being a Southerner, I knew how to keep my mouth shut.

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