Tomatopalooza 2012

About a year ago, I was visiting my friends Russ and Deborah Savage in Pinehurst, NC. They had several magazines on their coffee table, and I picked up an “Our State” issue and started looking through it. I happened to see a short article about Tomatopalooza, an event to honor heirloom tomatoes. I remember thinking that the day the event was held was one of the hottest of the year and that although I would like to go, “Next year,” I wasn’t sure I could take the summer heat.

A couple of months ago, I remembered to check online to see when Tomatopalooza 2012 was going to be held. It was scheduled for July 28th, in Efland, NC. I had to go to Google Maps to find where Efland was located (north west of Chapel Hill and west of Hillsborough).

I’ve been moving for a little over a month, had a conference to attend a couple of weeks ago in Boone, NC, and various other things pressing upon my time and attention, but, I still had it in my mind to “make time” to go to this year’s Tomatopalooza.

With all the travel, etc., I found that my Honda Civic was warning me that it was past time for a scheduled oil change. I had to go to Google Maps to determine the travel time from Lumberton (where I bought my Civic) and Efland, NC. It was about 2.5 hours, mostly on interstate highways (I95|I40|I85). So, Tomatopalooza 2012 was schedule to run from 1 – 4 pm on Saturday, July 28th. Travel was manageable as long as I got up early enough to have breakfast, get to Lumberton for my oil change and then head to Efland.

On Saturday morning, I ate breakfast at the Rainbow Restaurant because the New York Restaurant is small, and I’ve been when it is packed and there is a wait time. I got in and out of the Rainbow is a short time and headed down I95 to Lumberton. There was a little discrepancy between the time shown on my phone and that in my car. When I got in the car, I had a few minutes less than I had hoped, but ended up getting to the Honda dealer a couple of minutes after my scheduled appointment at 8:15 am.

They took me in, and I walked around, and then slept briefly while watching TV in the waiting room. I told the service techs that I was planning to attend Tomatopalooza later. One of the techs grew Beefmaster (and another type that I don’t recall the name of right now) tomatoes.

I was back on I95 a little after 9am, so was ahead of schedule and feeling relaxed. I stopped back at my apartment briefly and then headed up I95/I40 to Raleigh. I stopped at the Farmers Market and bought some herbs and some peppers before I headed over to Crabtree Valley Mall. There is a massage business in the mall which is run by Koreans (I think that is their nationality.) and I don’t think they speak much English other than to know you want a back or foot massage, and for how many minutes. Any conversation beyond that and you are relegated to sign language.

I get a 20 minutes back massage in their kneeling chairs. It is surprising how long the 20 minutes seems (they have a little digital timer that beeps when time is up) as they go about massaging your neck, upper & lower back and your arms down to your fingers. I have them sign my “dance” card each time, because you get a free 10 minutes massage when you’ve had 10 paid sessions.

I had just gotten off the Beltline and was in front of Crabtree Valley Mall about to turn into it, when I looked at my phone and saw that I had a text message from Ray Sharpe. Ray is perhaps my favorite cousin. One of Mary Ann’s three children. Ray let me know that Jacqueline’s water had broken earlier and they were at the hospital (Onslow Memorial in Jacksonville, NC). I gave him a call and told him I was heading away from them, but would be down there either later that night, or by Sunday morning.

I had my massage, and headed up I85 to Efland. I had printed out driving directions from Google Maps in case my GPS stopped working… which it did when I got so far out into the “boonies” that I was getting no bars for service. The directions worked, but shortly after turning off of I85 (at Efland, but I didn’t know it at the time) and turning on several country roads, I noticed that my gas gauge low fuel light had just come on. I thought I had seen a gas station a couple of miles back and instead of turning around now thought I could attend Tomatopalooza and then get gas on the way back. Still, later there was some apprehension as I was about to leave the event and had no map or GPS signal to show me possible gas station locations. One of the event hosts had said that Efland was the nearest gas and that was about 9 miles away, but not to make a wrong turn because there wasn’t anything closer.

I headed out the dirt driveway and started to backtrack my path. I pulled out my Google Maps directions and attempted to work in reverse. Still, there came a stop sign when I couldn’t determine if I needed to turn left or right. Fortunately, with nothing looking familiar, I turned left and then self-doubt began to weigh upon me. Still no GPS signal. No map function, no “Gas Buddy” suggestions, etc. I was on my own, and as we often do, “praying to God” for His guidance and direction.

Finally, the map function began to work, and I saw that I was retracing my original path in reverse. And, “thank God,” Efland was along the route… so small that I had not noticed it as I came through the first time. But, in Efland, I found perhaps the only gas pumps, along with a good sized convenience store (or small grocery/hardware store. I filled up on gas, and then went inside and bought a small milk, and an ice cream cone. *At the time, I did not know how close I was to Hillsborough (which is civilization).

I headed east from Efland and very quickly found myself in the city limits of Hillsborough, NC.

Let me backtrack and tell you of Tomatopalooza 2012. A sign appeared on the country road which pointed to Tomatopalooza. I turned down a winding sandy dirt road (grass in the middle) and shortly turned into a newly mown field where about twenty cars were already parked. I pulled up as near to the entrance as I could and as I stepped out the muggy heat hit me about the time my sandaled feet stepped into the field. I eyed my feet hoping that there were no snakes that had returned to their home after the field had been mowed.

A welcome sign appeared affixed to a fence and I entered, following a few other people. There was a welcome table with a couple of hostesses and a registration sheet. One sheet for presenters (tomato bringers), and one for the others, which I signed. There were strips of paper with two choices to fill in: Best Tasting and Most Unusual tomato (at least that is how I remember the choices).

There was already a good sized crowd there milling about the tables of assorted tomatoes. There were dwarf and cherry tomatoes, red tomatoes, yellow tomatoes, purple tomatoes, green tomatoes and oddly shaped ones, in paper plates, all labeled with their names, etc. I saw some women cutting the tomatoes into small sample sizes… toothpicks were available, but I am glad that I had stopped somewhere (before Saturday) to get some packets of salt & pepper. *I think I will come with a plastic fork next year (yes, I would like to attend the event again), attached to my arm with a rubber band, so I don’t lose it, and some better system for salt than the little paper packets.

The event organizers were just bringing the tasting event to a start, so I arrived at the right time (about 1:30 pm). The women slicing the tomatoes were harried and few… but “Thanks” for their time & efforts. I started to take some pictures and even a brief video, which I posted to YouTube later. There was a table with salsa and chips and I really liked a corn salsa that had some kind of sausage diced into it.

The lines quickly formed as we stepped from plate to plate down each side of the lined up tables. Toothpicks sticking the various tomato samples, and some (self especially) making comments regarding interesting tastes or colors. One of the first red tomatoes that I tasted that I found unusual (in flavor) was the “Flat Head Monster”. This tomato had an “earthy” flavor, somewhat like a mushroom. It was different and good. It was interesting to taste the nuance of flavors as you progressed down the line.

The other unusual tomato that I enjoyed was the “Cossack Pineapple”. This was a small yellowish fruit that had a paper shell (much like a China Berry, or a Tomatillo – but much smaller). I peeled the paper shell off and popped the berry like fruit into my mouth and “Wow!” It was very sweet and tasted like a “pineapple”. I don’t think I would have called it a tomato, if it wasn’t at the event. I think a chef could leave these in their paper shells and place a few on a salad. I would call them, “little gifts” and as you eat your salad you can peel the paper off and eat one of these “every so often”. A “Black Cherry” was another honorable mention, which was sweet and dark red, but nowhere near as sweet at the little yellow fruit.

The people were friendly, but I chose to mill about tasting and stopping periodically to listen to the experts. Since I had done no research, I was at a total loss to glean from their expertise and knowledge, but definitely want to try my hand at growing a few of these heirloom tomatoes for next year.

*I’m thinking the event needs a “corporate” sponsor, that could provide salt, pepper, mayonnaise packets, and maybe the plastic forks (with a corporate logo). This might be offensive to the organizers, but if not, would provide some of the event necessities that would make the experience even more enjoyable. Also, no one seemed to be “hawking” seeds of the displayed varieties. This seemed “wrong”. If you have something that people think is delicious or unusual, then why not “sell” while the iron is hot? After all, it’s no longer marketing or sales, if the customer is ready to buy. You are providing a service, which is appreciated.

Jackson Cooper "RaYzor" SharpeWell, I do hope to attend the event again next year. It was fun, and although Ray’s baby boy (Jackson Cooper “RaYzor” Sharpe) waited until the next morning to be born, I will tie the two enjoyable events together as I tell the story in the future. RaYzor was almost born on Tomatopalooza 2012.