Lowcountry Food: Vidalia's On My Mind
By Pat Branning | One of the surest signs of spring arrives each year with a sweet crunch – and a promise not to make your eyes water. Seeing them on store shelves, I’m all of a sudden 24 years old again, living on the Beaufort river at the far end of Lady’s Island during the 1970’s.
I hadn’t lived there long before a neighbor from Lucy Creek, Mr. Ed, came by and asked if I wanted to be put on the Vidalia onion list. As I was standing on the porch, he called out to me from the cab of his pick up truck, his tanned forearm resting on the open window. A ruggedly handsome man, he spent his days working out in the tomato fields by his house, and hunting quail and wild turkey.
“What kind of onion?”I asked. “An onion you can eat like an apple,” he replied. “Really?” I wasn’t sure it was up my alley, regardless of how eager I was as a newcomer to put my finger on the pulse of what makes those south of the Mason Dixon line different from those in the rest of the nation.
I admit it. I was a little skeptical. “Never heard of ‘em,” I said.
With that he got out of the truck, reached around into the flat bed and pulled a large onion out of a twenty pound burlap sack. The bags in the back were all marked with names ready for delivery. Taking a pocket knife out of the front pocket of his bib overalls, he peeled back the skin, then took a bite.
I’d never seen anything like it. There were no tears coming down his cheeks and he wasn’t even making a face.
“Sign me up,” I said. It’s hard for most of us to remember a time when those sweet Georgia-grown Vidalias were available only across the border deep in the heart of Georgia. But that was the way it was in the years before they caught on and reached their current star status.
So each year, Mr. Ed, took onion orders from friends across town, got in his rusted Chevy pick up truck and despite the 3 hour drive, made the pilgrimage several times each spring to pack up enough onions to last through the summer months, on into the fall and, if stored properly, on through Christmas. Keep in mind that gas prices were running around 35 cents a gallon in the ’70’s.
Just how would I store twenty pounds of onions? One thing for sure, if I needed to find out about anything in Beaufort, lunch at Harry’s restaurant on Bay Street was the fastest way. As I was soon to discover, even casual conversations would more than likely get into something about those Vidalia onions coming to town.
“Save all your old pantyhose,” I was told. “Onions must be stored in the legs of old, clean pantyhose. Tie a knot between each onion, and cut the knot when ready to use one. They’ll keep better if they never touch. Then be sure to hang them in a cool, dry, well ventilated area. “ And that was a universal practice amongst onion enthusiasts throughout the Lowcountry on up to Augusta, Columbia and Atlanta. Walk into just about anyone’s basement and you would find dozens of pairs of pantyhose hanging from the ceiling filled with those delicious sweet Vidalias.
There’s more to the humble onion than you might think – today it’s as synonymous with the South as sweet tea, pimento cheese and watermelon slices.
Here’s a delicious way to enjoy Vidalia’s and our ocean fresh shrimp.
A Fresh Take on Pickled Shrimp
Often served in a bowl with toothpicks, pickled shrimp may be passed as an hor d’oeuvre or skewered on sturdy bamboo picks and served on little plates. They’re also delicious served on top of buttery lettuce to create a lovely salad.
1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
2-3 tablespoons Old Bay seasoning
1/2 teaspoon celery seeds
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup capers
1/4 cup flat leaf parsley leaves, finely chopped
1 tablespoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon crushed red chile flakes
2 cloves garlic, minced
10 dried bay leaves
1 medium sweet Vidalia onion, thinly sliced lengthwise
Using a 4 quart stockpot, bring 8 cups of water to a boil and add the Old Bay. Add shrimp and bring to a second boil. Shrimp should be pink after about 2 minutes. Be careful not to overcook. Drain and transfer to a bowl. Refrigerate.
In a bowl, pour in the oil and stir in the celery seeds, lemon juice, capers, parsley, sea salt, crushed red child flakes, garlic, and bay leaves. In a 1 quart glass ar, layer shrimp and onions. Pour oil mixture over the shrimp and onions. Cover with a lid and allow to marinate in the refrigerator overnight. Yields: about 6 cups.
This Pickled Shrimp Salad is mixed with both vidalia
and red onions.
Pat Branning is the local author of the best selling book, “Shrimp, Collards and Grits,” recipes, stories, art and history from the creeks and gardens of the Lowcountry. For more information, or to purchase her book, visit https://www.shrimpcollardsgrits.com