Stop and smell the (Vidalia) onions

Vidalia, in southeast Georgia, is the sweet onion capital of the world. Atlanta Journal-Constitution file
Vidalia, in southeast Georgia, is the sweet onion capital of the world. Atlanta Journal-Constitution file

Pure maple syrup from Maine, cheese from Wisconsin, potatoes from Idaho — we can name plenty of places where food comes from, but the product becomes much more real and meaningful when we see its point of origin in person, rather than knowing it only as a dot on a map.

Vidalia onion season has arrived. And, like many home cooks, I am excited each spring to get my hands on the latest crop of Georgia’s famous onion. Until a couple of weeks ago, I’d never visited the sweet onion capital of the world. Now, having driven along U.S. 280 and viewed fields of sweet onions waiting to be packed into crates and shipped nationwide, I have a newfound respect for the price-look-up code 4159 sticker that identifies the mild, flat allium as having been grown in one of 20 designated counties in southeast Georgia.

Credit the pandemic for the impromptu detour through Vidalia onion country.

ExploreVidalia onions: Where you can buy them fresh

“I don’t have time” is a phrase I often uttered B.C. (before COVID-19). Prior to the pandemic, there were a million things on my to-do list, and they all seemed so important. It was a race to get them done, and there was no time to waste.

Like many home cooks, writer Ligaya Figueras is excited each spring to get her hands on the latest crop of Georgia’s famous Vidalia onion. Atlanta Journal-Constitution file
Like many home cooks, writer Ligaya Figueras is excited each spring to get her hands on the latest crop of Georgia’s famous Vidalia onion. Atlanta Journal-Constitution file

Credit: HANDOUT

Credit: HANDOUT

Learning to stop and admire onions is a direct result of schlepping back and forth in the past year to my hometown of St. Louis, to tend to aging parents. By now, I know the route by heart: I-75 to I-24 to I-57 to I-64. If you want, I can tell you the “good” gas stations along the way.

ExploreRecipe: Turn Vidalia onions into foil-wrapped French onion soup

Each time I make the trek, billboards tempt me to pull off the interstate. I long to see what’s inside the International Towing and Recovery Hall of Fame and Museum in Chattanooga. I’m just as eager to walk inside the National Quilt Museum in Paducah, Kentucky. (Will they scold me like an old-school librarian if I touch the stitching of fading fabric?)

That has yet to happen, because I’ve always let the ETA on the GPS dictate things. There can’t be a detour; we have to keep moving.

ExploreRecipe: Use sweet Georgia onions in this savory pie recipe

On the latest road trip, my husband and I finally gave in to impulse. We’d driven past the sign for Patti’s 1880s Settlement on Kentucky Lake many a time. But, this drive, we pulled off the highway to check it out. I now can report that the famed homestyle restaurant, log cabin village and mini-golf course are like Six Flags meets Silver Dollar City, and that you can’t — and shouldn’t — eat just one loaf of Patti’s airy flowerpot bread.

St. Simons Island is where we seek refuge when we need to recharge our batteries. The fastest route to the coast — I-75 to I-16, then south on I-95 — also happens to be the most boring. Now, we tell Siri to take a hike when she doesn’t want us to cut across Middle Georgia. Often, the drive is just 10 minutes longer, but the cars and trucks are fewer, and the scenery offers more than pine trees.

ExploreIt’s Vidalia season: Try these sweet onion recipes from Aria chef Gerry Klaskala

That jaunt through Vidalia was but one detour on the return trip from St. Simons. The first stop was 30 minutes north, in Darien. Local fish and seafood restaurant Skippers’ Fish Camp filled our bellies, but it was the local hardware store at the top of the hill that filled our hearts with all sorts of happy: trays of okra, tomato and cucumber varieties we don’t see at big-box garden shops in these parts. Who knew?

Actually, it has been there all along. I just was driving too fast to notice.

Explore3 ways to enjoy Vidalia onions

The New York Times recently published a special section, entitled “Transformation: How the pandemic birthed an awakening for many Americans.” Everyday folks from around the nation shared how the pandemic has reshaped their values, some offering moving responses in a couple of sharp sentences, others in essay-length tear-jerkers.

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“The questions of how we have changed will be with us in the months, and years, ahead. The process of reflection is just beginning,” wrote Times correspondents Elizabeth Dias and Audra D.S. Burch, in the introduction to those 24 pages of testimonials. “Where it takes us remains to be seen.”

I’m open to wherever the road takes me — and to the signs along the way that invite me to pull over. There’s a lot of diversion to be discovered when you are willing to take the detour.

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