Winter Onions: Menifee County Bounty
Knowing of my enthusiasm for Potato Onions, asparagus, and perennial vegetables, last fall a scholar-friend offered to introduce me to real experts. Onion Experts. So on a cold February day, with Kentucky dressed in white, we took a 70-mile trip I wish each interested gardener could take. We spent a wonderful day with Gloria and Don Williams, Menifee County natives who grow both Potato Onions and another round-the-year type, the Winter Onion, which adds more months with fresh onions.
Gloria and Don gave me Winter Onions and information about how to grow them, and so much more. These extraordinary stewards of land and place gave me a day to remember, and more useful information in four hours than I will be able to put to use in four years. The visit was a whirlwind Master Gardener class concentrating on Kentucky's finest foods, punctuated by a wonderful meal, about which more later.
As planned, Gloria and Don told me about Winter Onions, also known as Walking Onions, Topset Onions, Egyptian Onions, and Tree Onion. These odd creatures produce bulblets at the end of their long green stalks each summer. Left to the laws of gravity, the bulblets fall over and begin growing new onion plants, so established beds can offer some form of onions for the home cook nearly year-round.
Don and Gloria say Winter Onions are easy to grow, and online conversation confirms the sturdy, hardy ways of Allium cepa var. proliferum. I'm excited about that "proliferum." I hope our own Winter Onions, added to Potato Onions, supplemented by chives, will mean we have abundant green onions for use most months, and fully grown bulb onions for most of the rest of our needs.
Don and Gloria both grew up in Menifee County. They have used organic methods for more than a decade, and practice seed-saving and skillful processing as they continue producing the grand Kentucky foods they and their elders have eaten for centuries. Thank goodness neither of the Williamses objected to the tape recorder that captured a lot of their advice.
Our midday meal offered opportunities to learn more about the provenance of the vegetables in the best vegetable soup I have ever tasted, and the naturally sweet-tasting cornmeal in Gloria's cornbread. Flavor, flavor, flavor: That's the word that came up over and over as we talked about provisioning a family in ways I know about but have never done myself and have nearly forgotten.
Here's a small portion of what the Williamses do themselves, and for family, and neighbors each year, investing levels of skill and knowledge (and time) that seem extraordinary to outsiders:
- Grow proper varieties of corn, dry it, shell it, mill it into cornmeal, sift it, store it, and cook with it. Key point: Tennessee Red Cob and Boone County White are both good corn varieties; Tennessee Red Cob tastes sweeter.
- Maintain, sharpen, and use a stone burr mill to grind corn, with a tractor as the power source. Key point: Don't grind the corn too fine; it overheats the stones and changes the taste of the resulting meal.
- Grow and keep seeds for the most flavorful varieties of potatoes -- Irish Cobbler -- green beans, onions, garlic, tomatoes, squashes, cayenne papper, carrots, sweet peppers, and many other vegetables. Key point: Knowing how to store vegetables successfully becomes as important as producing them in the first place. Gloria and Don like to can their green beans for winter. They have dedicated cool, dry storage space for their onions. Cayenne pepper and seed corn keep well in opaque plastic coffee containers. Gloria said keeping the peppers away from light protects their bright colors. Some vegetables will stay right in the ground through winter and be edible all along. Don had carrots in the ground under the snow the day we met.
My friend and I left Menifee County with heavy boxes packed with the living evidence of Gloria and Don's generosity. Each of us brought home freshly shelled black walnuts (!), freshly ground Boone County White cornmeal, fresh eggs from their Doms (Dominique or Dominicker hens), potato onions, winter onions, cayenne pepper. I really did intend to share those eggs, but somehow each morning they called to me, begging to be poached so I could really taste them, and .... I did, at least, share the luscious cornmeal, making a triple recipe of spoonbread for Cornbread Supper.
I left Menifee County with such gifts from these stewards of the land and its produce. It's not that the knowledge of several lifetimes can be handed over in a few hours, but something else can: a sense that we can take care of ourselves and live our best lives doing it, a sense of what is possible if we apply ourselves, a sense that the flavor of fine homegrown foods is beyond compare, and worth the work of learning and the work involved.
A few more useful tidbits:
- My visit with Don and Gloria made me want to know a lot more about perennial vegetables, to increase food security and (maybe) reduce some forms of work, while caring well for the soil. This looks like a good source: Perennial Vegetables for the Cold Temperate Zone
- Snow and cold kept us from seeing Don and Gloria's mill, but I'm imagining it may be something like these here and here.
- Menifee County's striking beauty and fine people make me want to keep coming back. Read more here and here.