How sweet it is?To eat a whole raw onion would seem a skanky proposition, daunting to most sane people, except for a couple of things: first, Maui onions are not skanky, and second, there's a $100 prize.
The perennial winner of the
onion-eating contest will reign
as Maui Onion King at
this year's festival
By Betty Shimabukuro
"I just needed the 100 bucks," Eric Siegmund says in explaining why he bit into his first competitive onion in 1992. He's gone on to win six of the seven times he's entered the Maui Onion Festival's onion-eating contest. (As for his one loss, he was outsized by the winner, he says. "That guy -- he was large.")
Siegmund is sitting out the competition at this year's festival, which runs Saturday and Sunday on Maui. He's agreed to give some other onion eaters a chance and preside instead as the Maui Onion King, judging the recipe contest and posing for photos in his crown and scepter.
Over the years, he's become an expert in onion-eating, although his first venture into the territory was on a capitalistic whim. "At the time I was pushing burgers in Kaanapali and someone said, 'There's an onion-eating contest and there's a $100 prize.' I said, '$100 for, what, 90 seconds of work?' "
The only drawback: "You stink terribly for three days from every orifice known. Ask my girlfriend."
The onions were especially mild that first year, he says, because of the rain. With drier conditions in years since, he's found the onions to be less sweet.
These conditions, however, have allowed Maui farmers to send onions to market all year. Last year, they harvested about 2.7 million pounds of onions from a total of about 190 acres, according to Department of Agriculture statistics. Peak season runs late spring through early fall.
If competitive onion-eating has not entered your life yet, this is how it works: You're given a 16-ounce onion and 90 seconds to eat as much as you can. The remainder is weighed and subtracted from the original 16 ounces.
Siegmund's personal best is 14-1/2 ounces of onion consumed. He normally wins by at least an ounce, he says.
Since he's not competing this year, he's happy to reveal his strategy-- what he calls "my little secret": The outer two layers of the onion are sour. Pull those off and put them aside. The sweet, inner layers go down easier -- and they also weigh the most. "You want to concentrate on that part."
Did he practice? "Heck no, what are you, crazy? I'm not that sick." His secret strategy took a couple of years to develop. "I'm not the sharpest tool in the shed, so it took me a while to figure it out."
His other competitive suggestions are not as scientific: "You turn the mouth into a machine and think only about how you are going to process this onion." Chew, swallow and take another bite at the same time. In the last five seconds, "stuff as much as possible into your mouth at one time."
Now that you know all that, head to the festival. The onion-eating contest is a walk-on affair, no preregistration needed, and the field is usually just 10 to 15 contestants.
When not competing, Siegmund runs Maui's Done Right Lawn Care in Lahaina, and prefers his onions sautéed in butter, with a hamburger.
And by the way, he does have goals outside the onion realm. "In case someone wants to sponsor me, I'd love to go to Wyoming for the hot dog-eating contest."
To enjoy your Maui onions raw, just slice them into a salad, but if you prefer them cooked, try this recipe from chef Bobby Masters of Hula Grill in Whaler's Village, one of the festival's participating restaurants:
Coat the bottom of a sauté pan with oil. Heat until oil begins to smoke. Add onion and cook until golden. Add sake to deglaze; reduce 2 minutes. Add remaining ingredients, except bread slices and cheese. Cook 45 minutes to 1 hour.
Sake Infused Maui Onion Soup4 tablespoons olive oil
6 Maui onions, julienned
2 cups sake
2 quarts chicken stock, broth or water
1/2 cup Worchestershire sauce
1 cup sherry
1 tablespoon pepper
1/4 cup honey
Salt to taste
6 slices sourdough bread
1/2 cup Gruyere or Swiss cheese
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Cut bread to fit 6 ovenproof serving bowls; toast bread. Fill bowls with soup; top with toasted bread and cheese. Place bowls in oven for 30 seconds to melt cheese. Serves 6.
Approximate nutritional information, per serving (not including salt to taste): 480 calories, 14 g total fat, 4 g saturated fat, 10 mg cholesterol, 400 mg sodium, 50 g carbohydrate, 8 g protein.*
When: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Maui Onion Festival
Place: Whaler's Village, Kaanapali, Maui
Call: (808) 661-4567, Ext. 4
HighlightsMaui Onion recipe contest: Deadline to enter is Thursday. Call (808) 875-0457 or enter through www.whalersvillage.com.
Cooking demonstrations: Chefs include David Paul Johnson (David Paul's Lahaina Grill), Brendan Mahoney (Maui Marriott), Bobby Masters (Hula Grill)
Also: Maui Onion Ring booth, produce and flower stands, onion-themed games
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