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For sweet-onion lovers, bad and good news

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 5, 2002

Higher prices this season could moderate the taste for sweet onions, regular accompaniments for hamburgers, salads, sandwiches and many seasonal favorites.

Georgia's Vidalia onions, possibly the best known of the sweet onions, are in short supply this year. Bad weather and disease have killed a large part of some growers' crops.

"Mother Nature has dealt a severe blow, and we're dealing with just better than half a crop," John Shuman, president of Vidalia Growers Inc., a cooperative, said.

"We should have some available throughout the summer months, but I would expect a higher price. A lot of growers are seeking disaster relief from the USDA. Some growers were completely wiped out."

Shuman blamed freezing weather in late February and March for damaging the crop, which normally is harvested from late April to around June 10 in Georgia's Tattnall and Toombs counties. Vidalia onions get their name from a town of the same name in Toombs County.

For sweet onion fans, though, the shortage of Vidalia onions should not be cause for utter despair. Other varieties of sweet onions do exist. Among them are Walla Walla sweet onions, grown in the Walla Walla Valley in southeastern Washington, the 1015 sweet onion from Texas, Maui sweet onions from Hawaii and Mayan sweet onions from Peru.

Among the rivals, bragging is not uncommon.

"When Vidalia was coming about and strengthened their marketing program, there were taste tests done and they showed that consumers prefer the 1015," declared Jeff Bretchler, sales associate for J&D Produce Inc., in Edinburg, Texas.

"Georgia," he said, "has done a very, very good job of marketing their onion."

Texas' 1015 sweet onion, whose name derives from its planting date, Oct. 15, was developed at Texas A&M University. Bretchler touts its versatility.

"You can use it on anything. You can use it to cook, make onion rings, slice it on burgers. Its taste is a very mild-flavored onion taste. It's the mildness is what people are looking for," he said.

Watch out for imposters, he warned.

"There are a lot of different varieties claiming to be mild onions. Everybody is on the sweet, slash, mild onion trail."

Shuman, a second-generation grower of Vidalia onions, spoke of the variety's "unique, mild flavor."

In addition, he said, "You can eat it fresh. You can eat it uncooked. You can eat it raw like an apple. ... You cut it, and the tears aren't there."

Of course, to Kathy Fry, director of marketing for the Walla Walla Sweet Onion Marketing Committee, Walla Walla onions are tops.

"They are very mild, very crisp, very juicy and just delicious," she said.

"They are really a tradition in this area. They have been around here since the 1900s," she said of the onions, which originated in Corsica.

To celebrate its sweet onions, Walla Walla holds a Sweet Onion Blues Festival each year.

"We like to say that the blues will make you cry, but the onions won't," Ms. Fry said.

The festival, not surprisingly, features onion bowling, onion sack races, contest for the largest and most pristine onions and Walla Walla sweet onion recipes.

Harvesting will begin in mid-June, Fry said.

"We've pretty much got most of our crop sold," she said. "I hope we sell every onion we've got."

Whatever variety one buys, experts say that sweet onions, which have a high water content, require a little more care than their ordinary cousins. They suggest storing the onions in a cool, dark area or in the refrigerator.


June typically is a good month to buy apricots, avocados, snap beans, berries, cabbage, corn, cherries, peaches, cucumbers, lettuce, mangoes, okra, papayas, peppers, plums, summer squash and watermelons.


Shrimp continues to be a bargain. There is a glut of the mostly imported, farm-raised shrimp from South and Central America and Asia, said Gib Migliano of Save on Seafood in St. Petersburg.

Of course, that's good news for shoppers.

"Shrimp prices continue to remain low because there is so much production," Migliano said.

"The farms are getting much more efficient at growing shrimp. The more people get into it, the more we get and down goes the price. Medium shrimp, I've seen some people selling it for as low as $3.99."

This month, Migliano said, shoppers can expect to buy large shrimp from around $5.99 to $6.99 a pound and jumbo for about $8.99 to $10.99 a pound.

Prices for fish also should be affordable this month, he said.

Yellowfin tuna and swordfish from the gulf probably will cost around $7.99 to $8.99 a pound, he said, while grouper prices will run about $7.99 to $8.99 a pound.

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