It is harvest time for many communities in America, which just happens to coincide with many a celebrated day in the upcoming months. Translation: food, and lots of it (for many fortunate people). Although ingredients for dishes greatly vary among culinary cultures, there is one humble vegetable that remains steadfast in its appeal to all, the onion. In the spirit of community, State of the Re:Union intern Melissa Lee shares her story of how this mighty bulb veggie continues to work its delicious magic to bring a community together.
My summer kicked off with a twenty five pound bag of onions. I really only wanted ten, but I was talked into the bigger bag. These weren’t just any onions, Sean, the onion grower, told me. They were Walla Walla sweets, famous for being “so sweet you can eat them like an apple.” They are, in fact, the official Washington State vegetable, signed into law in 2007. Maybe you’ve heard of them.
Onions run deep here in the Walla Walla valley. Onion growers can trace their roots back to the late 1800s when the sweet onion seed was brought from the Island of Corsica to Walla Walla by a Peter Pieri, a French soldier. The crop was cultivated by generations of Italian immigrant farmers, choosing the best from each crop to develop the next. It is the low sulfur content in the onions, as well as Walla Walla’s mild climate and rich volcanic soil that causes the sweetness. Sean’s family is one of about 30 onion growers in the Walla Walla valley, with farms ranging from two to three hundred acres, to those that are only half an acre in size.
“It’s always been part of this community. We have our wines and our colleges, but the onions were here first. And that was from back in the day when families lived off of their gardens. They called them truck gardeners back then,” said Kathy Fry-Trommald, director of marketing of the Walla Walla Sweet Onion Committee.
When it’s sweet onion season from mid-June to mid-September, little roadside onion stands like Sean’s pop up all over Walla Walla. These are usually the old-family growers, the ones that have been farming sweet onions for three or four generations. And it is not only the stands that indicate that onion harvesting has begun – it’s a community affair, culminating in the Sweet Onion Festival. Originating from the early days when farmers would help each other harvest, celebrating once they were finished, the festival eventually became an institution.
“Some of the older guys that I know remember as young kids how the families would all get together and help each other out. It was a big job, a huge job, so that was the way things were done,” said Fry-Trommald. “I think there has always been a harvest celebration once the work was done.”
This community celebration has become an official annual event; this summer’s being the 27th, though that’s just 27 since they’ve been counting. Hosting from 5,000 – 10,000 people over the weekend, vendors fill the streets with everything from onion mustard to caramel covered onions to little stuffed versions of “Sweety”, the sweet onion mascot.
Bands play on the street and chefs give demonstrations on the numerous options for preparing sweet onions. Next year’s festival may reinstate some older traditions – like producer competitions – offering a platform for farmers to show off their biggest, most pristine onions and pack houses to display boxes of extraordinarily well-packed onions. And should the trivia contest come back as well, here’s a fact to give you a leg up on the competition: On average, 32,500 pounds of onions are harvested from one acre of land.
As I spoke with Sean at his family’s roadside stand, he told me his family has been in the onion business for three generations. They invented the strain of onions that they were selling. In fact, every family has their own strain; each onion has its own family name. Literature on the sweet onions points out that growers are not just “raising sweet onions, but cultivating a tradition.” And I can see that in the pride Sean takes in his family’s onions, to the way it still brings people out to the streets when it’s sweet onion time. Sean also gave me a few tips about onions. Try placing an onion in each corner of the cellar to keep mice away and keeping a slice of lemon in your mouth while cutting an onion to keep the tears from falling.
Here in Walla Walla, onions aren’t only something you eat, they are a part of the history of the place; part of what created the community that it is today. Here onions are something to celebrate and are part of a tradition that brings people together. As a new-comer to Walla Walla, I was glad to get to know a little more about the place through this wondrous little piece of produce, and as the cold winter approaches, all I need to do is get out some of my remaining onions to bring a little of the sweetness of summer back.
This is the season of traditions. Some will continue on, while others will begin anew. What are some ways that you will celebrate community in the upcoming weeks? What unique item or quirky tradition represents the community you call home?