WALLA WALLA -- Tears will be flowing in Walla Walla on July 17-18, but they'll be tears of culinary joy as people celebrate the valley's famous sweet onions.
The annual Walla Walla Sweet Onion Festival is centered in the streets around the Walla Walla County Courthouse at the intersection of West Main Street and North Fourth Avenue.
The free festival, with music, games and contests, runs from 9 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. July 17 and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. July 18.
The featured event July 17 is the Sweet Skip, a self-guided walking tour of 10 Walla Walla restaurants and bakeries where you can -- in exchange for a token -- sample a variety of Walla Walla sweet onion-inspired foods.
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"We have a couple of bakeries this year, which should add an interesting twist," said Kathy Fry, executive director of marketing for the Sweet Onion Marketing Committee.
Tickets -- actually a clear plastic envelope with 10 tokens, a map and a list of rules -- are $25 in advance. Tickets on the day of the event will be $35 and available only at the festival information booth.
"You spend one token per person at each stop," Fry said. "We've encouraged each place to have someone designated to trade the tokens for food, but if they don't, just tell one of the servers that you're a 'Skipper.'
"Last year was the first time we did this, and it was pretty popular. We had just under 100 people participate, which is pretty good turnout for a first time," she said.
The Sweet Skip is limited to 200 and runs from noon to 4 p.m.
If you're in Walla Walla before the festival, you can buy the tokens and map at Sterling Bank, 2 E. Main St., at the Walla Walla Chamber of Commerce, 29 E. Sumach St., and at the Saturday Walla Walla Farmer's Market, at Fourth Avenue and Main Street in the city hall parking lot. Or call the Sweet Onion Marketing Committee at 509-525-1031.
There will be a variety of food and craft vendors, and the beer and wine garden opens at noon both days. The Walla Walla Farmers Market will open at 9 a.m. July 17 at Fourth Avenue and Main Street in the city hall parking lot.
The festival entertainment includes musician Daniel Mark Faller playing from 9 a.m. to noon and the Jim Basnight Band from 1 to 4 p.m. both days.
There will be children's games and contests, including onion sack races, onion bowling and Mr. & Mrs. Onion-head decorating, from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. both days on the county courthouse lawn at Fifth Avenue and Main Street.
The Thundering Hooves' Chef's Challenge on Saturday will feature about 10 of the Walla Walla Valley's finest cooks, who will demonstrate a favorite dish featuring those famous, pungent onions.
"Copies of their recipes will be available so people can buy some sweets and go home and try them out for themselves," Fry said. "This will be an ongoing event throughout the day."
It couldn't be an onion festival without an Onion Eating Contest -- at 11 a.m. July 17 and at noon July 18.
"We peel the onions so they're ready to eat and put two or three on each plate," Fry said. "Then they have 30 or 45 seconds to eat as much as they can."
Whoever eats the most is the winner.
"This contest goes so fast that the crowd gets really loud instantly. It's a lot of fun," Fry said.
Right after the onion-eating contest comes the Bald as an Onion Contest.
"Basically we encourage the guys with no hair to come up on stage and let us, by crowd noise, vote for who has the nicest-looking onion head," Fry said.
A free street dance is set to begin at 5 p.m. July 17 at Fourth Avenue and Main Street. The Vaughn Jensen Band of Basin City will begin playing at 8:30 p.m.
"They're excellent," Fry said. "I had them play during the day last festival, and I knew when I heard them I had to have them for the dance this year."
On July 18, Bob Blumer of Food Network Canada's Glutton For Punishment show will attempt to break two records in the Guinness Book of World Records.
At 12:30 p.m., he will try to peel 200 pounds of Columbia Basin "hot" onions in less than an hour.
"These aren't Walla Walla sweets, which don't make you cry. These are the ones that make the tears run," Fry said. "To break the record, he'll have to do 201 or more."
At 2 p.m., after he dries his eyes, Blumer will try to eat one of those "hot" onions in less than 48 seconds, which is the record.
For more information, call 509-525-1031 or go to www.sweetonions.org.
* Loretto J. Hulse: 509-582-1513; email@example.com