Each summer, largely mid-June through August, the Walla Walla Valley and a few nearby acres in eastern Oregon, produce a rare vegetable, the Walla Walla Sweet Onion, which is prized by professional chefs and home cooks.
Several years ago, the Walla Walla Sweet Onion Commission (yes, there is such an organization) established geographic boundaries within which this famous vegetable may be designated “official.” This hallowed area, like a wine appellation, sees the green sprouts, then the tuber, rise from carefully tilled soil.
Local growers, most with Italian antecedents, do whatever it takes to preserve the unique qualities originally inherited from the Island of Corsica in the Mediterranean Sea, the ancestral home of the Walla Walla Sweet.
Yearly taste contests are held to crown the nation’s sweetest onion. The Walla Walla Sweet frequently takes top honors from competitors in Hawaii, Texas, New Mexico, Georgia, and California.
What causes these delectable orbs to be sweet enough to eat like an apple? Help comes from natural chemical compounds, which contain sulfur, causing sweetness of sugar-quality. And Sweet Onions consist of about 80 percent water, so they need care in keeping them fresh. The watery delicacy and its sweet taste can be preserved for months if stored in a cool place with each bulb separated from one another. Experts frequently wrap onions in a woman’s nylon stocking and suspend them from a basement or garage ceiling.
Again, like a fine varietal wine made from carefully nurtured grapes, Walla Walla Sweets are grown on about 1,300 acres in southeast Washington and a patch of northeast Oregon. This light- yellow product can exceed 50 million pounds a year out of the ground.
As noted, competition to this delicacy can be found in the Maui Sweet Onion, grown year-round on Maui and Molokai, Hawaii. The Texas Super Sweet likes the Lower Rio Grande Valley, and the Noonday Sweet Onion thrives in East Texas. The Carzalia Sweet is a competitor from New Mexico, the Vidalia from Georgia, and the Imperial Sweet from southern California.
The Walla Walla Sweet is a crunchy bulb with a long history. It has earned its designation as Washington’s official and most famous vegetable.