Washington's Favorite Sweet: The Walla Walla Onion

Now's the time to harvest and savor this distinctive northwestern crop

FRANK Magnaghi raised 11 children on the rich, fertile soil of the Walla Walla River Valley in southeastern Washington.

He remembers when his daughter Becky, then just a bit of a girl, used to dig up, peel, and eat the sweet yellow onions right out of his 50-acre field, earning not only the breath to prove it, but also the nickname "Onion" from neighbors.

Becky learned early the best way to eat Walla Walla sweets, probably this region's most famous product: Eat them raw. Take a bite, just like an apple. And enjoy a distinctively sweet, mild, and juicy flavor.

Cooks eagerly await the harvest of Walla Walla sweets, which are only in season for a short time, from early June to mid-August. Their high water and sugar content adds flavor to many dishes and the lack of stinging sulfur makes them easy on the eyes.

Like other onions, they have a multitude of uses, including being chopped up and tossed into salads, sliced onto burgers, sauteed with olive oil and spinach, or simmered into soups.

But Mr. Magnaghi doesn't bother with cooking them; he eats at least one Walla Walla onion by itself every day during the season. And it's common for fans to eat them the same way - straight from the 25-pound bag.

The Walla Walla sweet onion carries with it four generations of history; how it arrived is somewhat of a quirky story.

The onion's earliest seed was brought to Walla Walla in the late 1800s by French soldier Peter Pieri. He was serving on Corsica, a French island off the coast of Italy, when he secured the seed of an Italian onion. He shared the seed with his new neighbors, a group of 15 Italian immigrant farmers. Some of their grandchildren still grow Walla Walla sweets with the seeds that have been passed down through the generations.

Magnaghi's father was one of those original Italian farmers. Magnaghi took over the family farm when he was 17, and he has passed down the same seed each year.

"Each farmer makes his own seed, just like your own recipe when you bake a loaf of bread," he says.

There are other sweet onions, including Texas 1015s, Hawaii's Maui onions, California's Sweet Imperials, and the popular Vidalia of Georgia. But nothing matches the flavor of a Walla Walla onion - at least according to their growers.

"Vidalia isn't as big. The Walla Walla sweet is also more juicy. It doesn't have the fiber content," Magnaghi says.

"I wish they made Walla Walla chewing gum," jokes one America Online user who's an ardent fan.

The secret is the soil and the sulfur, specifically the lack of sulfur, which gives regular onions that bite that triggers weepiness. (Walla Walla, Vidalia, and Maui onions don't have this effect on the eyes.) The soil is so unusual that the Walla Walla Gardeners Association, a marketing group, has received a federal order stipulating that only farmers in the area can use the Walla Walla sweet name.

Raising these onions is a labor of love for farmers. The produce is more susceptible to disease and needs more water. It must be planted in the fall and left dormant in the winter. And the onions are so delicate that they can't be harvested by machine. Instead, they are dug up by hand, often when temperatures soar into the high 80s and heavy dust hovers.

Walla Walla sweet aficionados offer the following cooking hints:

* Slice and top with tomatoes, a drizzling of olive oil, fresh basil, and a splash of balsamic vinegar.

* Cut an onion in half, cover with butter and fresh Parmesan. Wrap in foil and barbecue.

* Saute with two bunches of fresh chopped spinach, two tablespoons olive oil, and a clove of chopped garlic.

* Don't wait long to enjoy them. Unlike other yellow onions, these onions have a short shelf life.

"It's like a peach, or a fruit. You have to get rid of it right away," Magnaghi says. "That's the sad part."

* If you can't find Walla Walla onions in your local grocery store, contact the Walla Walla Gardeners Association, 210 N. 11th St., Walla Walla, WA 99362, or call 1-800-553-5014 or 509-525-7070 to have them shipped.

Raising these onions is a farmer's labor of love. They must be planted in autumn, left dormant in winter, and harvested by hand in summer.

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