STOCKTON, Calif. — Stockton's contribution to local culinary lore is simultaneously incredibly popular, incredibly hard to find, and, sometimes, absolutely unknown.
The Stockton Red Onion, also referred to as the Stockton Early Red, is a curiosity, existing as a popular onion that no one seems to be able to find or know much about.
Calls to large California onion packers and even the California Garlic & Onion Research Advisory Board revealed that many across California never heard of it, and, in the case of many nurseries, they sold it at one time but eventually lost their supplier.
"A lot of growers used to plant it every year. It became really popular with home gardeners because it was an easy onion to grow...and it was widely used all over that area for home gardening as well as commercial use," said Ean Lockhart, whose family was partly behind the Stockton Early Red's development.
It's flavor profile made it popular as a raw addition to salads, burgers, and sandwiches.
"It became really popular because it was large, and it was sweet. It had a really unique sweet flavor to it that's hard to find," Lockhart said.
What happened to the Stockton Red Onion?
There's a fandom for this onion, but many people and nurseries either don't know where to find them or lost their provider.
Merced Gardens and Nursery, a nursery more than an hour's drive south of Stockton, was one of the few places still selling the elusive onion.
It happens to be one of their most popular varieties and fairly easy to grow. The nursery says some enthusiasts grow up to 300 of them in their gardens.
Despite a noted Stockton Red fandom, they aren't easy to find in person or online.
Lockhart said newer varieties with more preferable qualities replaced it as the years went by. One variety developed by his father actually helped push the Stockton Red off the shelves.
"The Early Red Burger... largely replaced a lot of the Stockton Early Red sales. It was a little earlier. It was flatter (and) had a better color, so a lot of people went to that variety and dropped the Stockton Early Red," he added.
Lockhart's company stopped producing Stockton Early Reds back in the 80s because those Early Red Burger sales replaced them.
"That's partially why you don't really find it much anymore," he said. "It's been largely replaced by newer varieties that have more of the qualities that onion growers look for."
Even though some local gardeners deem it the "best", many onion growers and packers in California never heard of the Stockton Red Onion, but to Lockhart, that came as no surprise.
He explained that onion varieties are generally bred for specific areas. The Stockton Early Red ended up being better suited to Central Northern and Southern Central California.
While some growers still produce their own seeds and sell them, the Stockton Early Red is currently a rarity on the market.
Why is it a Stockton red onion?
The exact origin of the name wasn't known by the historical society or by Lockhart. However, Lockhart says it likely got its name because it was developed in the area.
According to Merlo, onions have been grown in and around the Stockton area since the late 19th Century.
We owe this layered bit of Stockton culinary lore to the UC Davis University Farm. It developed the Stockon Early Red from the Italian Sweet Red Onion.
Merlo says the farm was instrumental in developing seed cultivars and hybrids between the 1920s and 1950s.
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