Streetcar: The Creole Tomato
Not to be bragging or anything, but I once happened to meet and talk to the Queen of the Creole Tomato Festival. The festival is held annually in the Dutch Alley section of the French Market. Given the demands on her schedule, our conversation was brief, but revealing. More on that later.
First there are a few things that you should know about the Creole tomato. One is that they are not the product of a long line of ancestry.
To the contrary, the Creoles get their swagger not from a pedigree but from geography. If ever someone offers you a Creole tomato grown, for example, in Shreveport, call the police. Classic Creoles are grown only in one small section of the world and that is two parishes south of New Orleans on the lower Mississippi: Plaquemines and St. Bernard. Those parishes are gifted with rich alluvial soil and warmed most days of the year by a tropical sun.
There is plenty citrus also grown in that area; including such indigenous classics as satsumas and navel oranges, but those are fall crops. Late spring and into summer, especially (ahem) June, is time to pick the tomatoes many of which are sold from roadside stands.
There are far-flung places where genetically altered tomatoes are grown practically year-round, plucked green, sprayed with a gas to hasten ripening and then shipped across the continent to be served tasteless on salads in need of blue cheese dressing to provide some sort of recognition.
Creoles, on the other hand, are the real deal of the tomato world. They are not necessarily perfectly shaped. Many are described as being “knobby,” but what counts is the taste and not the appearance. That taste is robust and juicy, a throwback to a flavor that generations might not have known existed.
One of the events at the Creole Tomato Festival were demonstrations by chefs whipping up casseroles, etouffees and other dishes featuring the tomato. Some spectators stood near the stage to learn the cooking techniques; many were up front to be first in line for the free sample.
No recipe was better than what was served from a nearby table. This would be the tomato at its most explosive best. (So as not to overlook any of the steps, you might want to write this down). First you cut the tomato into multiple pieces. Secondly, you shake black pepper on the pieces. Thirdly, you eat it. Save the etouffee recipes for the California-grown tomatoes.
In addition to the soil and the sun, what really distinguishes the Creole is freshness. If you live in the New Orleans area, theoretically the time lapse from vine to table might be only a few hours. The store-bought crop is probably no more than a week from being picked.
Wearing her crown and enhanced by a sash, assuring the world that she was indeed the legitimate Tomato Festival Queen, the monarch made a brief appearance at the cooking demonstration area to greet the gathering of tomato worshippers. I had a moment to speak to her before she resumed her royal stroll.
My question: “What is your favorite way to eat a Creole tomato?”
Her answer: “I don’t like tomatoes.”
Just as German princes have occupied the British throne and Spaniards have worn the Greek crown, monarchies can sometime make strange alliance. Fortunately, the Tomato Queen was college-age so there is still time for enlightenment. That might happen once she tastes what a dash of black pepper can do.