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Monday, February 20, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Kate Riley / Times staff columnist

Any way you slice it, this legislation has a peel

Get ready for a food fight today in the Washington state Senate.

No, there won't be any tomatoes thrown over partisan wrangling. Rather, the verbal volleys will be aimed at the darling of Washington's vegetables, the Walla Walla sweet onion. Expect incoming from none other than producers of its less-attractive, more-utilitarian rival, for the honor of being the state's official vegetable — the potato.

The hearing in the Senate Government Operations and Elections Committee is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. Pleading the case for the sweet onions are ninth-grade students from Kirkland Junior High. They drafted the one-sentence bill and rounded up legislative sponsors. Rep. Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla, was a natural.

Granted, this isn't the most pressing of state issues, but instructor Toni Miller is teaching a lesson in civics these students won't soon forget. The bill passed the House last week 94-1. I'm rooting for kids and their vegetable of choice. The potato lobby should take its lumps and get out of the way.

Potatoes are a reliable, nutritious, tasty meal accompaniment, whether mashed, hashed or twice baked. But they are the meal equivalent of a canvas, dressed up by other ingredients. Walla Wallas add color — sweet with a bite.

They stir passions in cooks. Grocery stores hail their arrival in June with specials and promotions. Kidd Valley restaurants feature them in their onion rings.

Think about it. Who rushes to the produce department to pick out the new crop of signature russets?

The Walla Walla sweet onion is a unique vegetable developed right here in Washington, and it probably is the nation's oldest sweet-onion variety and its most naturally propagated.

In the late 1800s, a French soldier, Peter Pieri, brought a sweet onion seed from the Isle of Corsica to the Walla Walla Valley. Impressed with its winter-hardiness, Italian farmers in the valley embraced the onion. Over time, they selected seeds to ensure sweet taste and large round shape. Thanks to a federal marketing order, only sweet onions grown inside of a defined area with unique soils can legally be sold under the Walla Walla Sweet label.

In the valley, you will still find sweet-onion farmers with surnames like Arbini and Cavalli. They will say you can eat the onions like apples, and maybe even demonstrate it. I prefer mine grilled in large chunks on the barbecue. My husband usually plops a bag on the counter and demands soup.

The potato industry, which earlier killed a version of the bill in the Senate agriculture committee, is not impressed.

"I don't have anything against the Walla Walla sweet onion," demurred Randy Mullen, chair of the Washington State Potato Commission, to a Seattle Times reporter. "But if you ask me, it's a county onion, not a state onion."

Sure, it's grown in one county, but has a strong following with Puget Sound foodies and beyond. They serve it, not merely as an onion, but — ta da — as a Walla Walla Sweet.

Potatoes are important, a $1.5 billion industry in the state, not counting French-fry processing, the potato commission reports. And the growers are no slouches. Though they stand in the marketing shadow of the famous Idaho potato, they grow almost twice as many tubers per acre as those in the Gem State, the National Agriculture Statistics Service says.

Yet, they lack the Sweet's devotion-inspiring mystique.

Last spring, I was enjoying a lunch with a group of editorial writers at a Portland restaurant — that is, until someone ordered the onion soup. I found myself in a tense and decidedly chauvinistic debate with an opinionated Fort Worth columnist, who favors the Texas SuperSweet 1015, and an Atlanta newspaper consultant partial to the Vidalia Peach-of-an-Onion. I tried to behave. I resisted accusing the 1015 of being a lab-generated onion — the result of rich research grants at Texas A&M. Nor did I say the Vidalia is an overrated hybrid with the essence of onion all but bred out of the poor, bland thing.

To break the tension, I promised to share my sweet onion soup recipe, which is made with white wine and a bit of saffron. "I'm sure it will taste almost as good with your onions," I said in spite of myself.

People get worked up about their sweet onions.

By the way, no one said a word, good or bad, about the potatoes.

Kate Riley's e-mail address is kriley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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