(Reuters) – The air has a distinctive pungent smell and vendors offer fried, grilled, caramelized and fresh fare at the Vidalia Onion Festival, the annual celebration of the onion in south Georgia.
Not just any onion though. Vidalia onions, which are sweeter than those grown elsewhere. The lack of sulfur in the red, sandy soil and closely guarded farming techniques give the onion its signature flavor. To carry the Vidalia name, onions must be grown within a 20-county region in Georgia.
An onion-eating contest, country music and new onion museum will draw tens of thousands of people to south Georgia for the festival that started Thursday and finishes on Sunday. “Vidalias are a staple in my kitchen, and we always have them,” said Kevin Gillespie, a former contestant on the TV show Top Chef. “They have such a distinctive flavor, I don’t think you can substitute them for another.”
Gillespie joined other celebrity chefs, including James Beard Foundation award-winner Jeffrey Bubun, owner of the Vidalia restaurant in Washington, D.C., at the opening celebration of the Vidalia Onion Museum. The museum documents growers’ struggle to preserve and protect the Vidalia name, which the Piggly Wiggly grocery store chain originally trademarked in 1972. The state of Georgia acquired the trademark in 1986.
This year’s Vidalia onion crop is a big one, said farmer Aries Haygood. “It’s a good crop with good quality.” The entire town serves as the setting for the annual festival. Farmers sell their produce from wagons alongside recipe contests and public tastings. On Saturday, the festival features an air show and concert by country music singer Kellie Pickler. The festival’s most popular event on Saturday afternoon features competitive eaters coughing and hacking their way through the onion-eating contest. Participants will try to consume as many onions as they can in three minutes. Last year’s adult winner ate 25 1/2. (Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Greg McCune) (This story was corrected in paragraph four to say festival runs Thursday through Sunday)