The weird, wide world of tomatoes

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Tomatoes are a weird and wonderful bunch.

Just ask the two guys dressed as ambulatory tomatoes wandering the Enjoy Centre last Tuesday. Roger Pullishy, the bigger and older one, said he was a Beefsteak tomato – a big, meaty breed that goes great on hamburgers.

“I think he’s a Tumbler,” he said of his younger, smaller partner, Marcus MacLean, referring to a cherry-sized variety that’s very prolific.

“I do not particularly like tomatoes,” said MacLean – he was only here because his mom made him go.

“It’s pretty fun, though.”

Pullishy and MacLean were just two of the many representatives from the wild world of tomatoes at the Enjoy Centre Tuesday for the inaugural Edmonton Horticultural Society Tomato Extravaganza! festival. Some 490 people came out to the afternoon event, which featured tomato art, tours, taste-tests, music, contests, and several zillion actual tomatoes. There were big ones, small ones, red, black, and yellow ones, round ones, mutant ones, even mariachi ones.

The latter was the work of Edmonton gardener Florence Nieberding. For the best-dressed tomato contest, she built an elaborate diorama of a tomato snowman with a black sombrero and a gold cello next to an orange donkey laden with red peppers.

“The donkey is hauling peppers and the tomato is a Mexican,” she explained, adding that the hat and donkey were authentic Mexico souvenirs.

“I hope nobody will eat it.”

Celebrating the tomato

The tomato is the fruit of Solanum lycopersicum or tomato plant.

Organizer, gardener and designated top-tomato Donna Bagdan said she got the idea for the Extravaganza! (with an “!,” she insists) after seeing some 76 varieties of tomato offered for sale at Arch Greenhouses earlier this year.

“I’m always interested in new and different things,” she said, and she was looking to add something other than the traditional store-bought hybrid tomato for her garden.

Bagdan said she was astounded to see all the different varieties on display and grabbed scores of them to try at home. Later, after learning that the food bank needed fresh produce, she teamed up with The Tomato magazine and Enjoy Centre co-owner Jim Hole to organize an event that would promote tomatoes and collect them for the food bank.

Hole said he finds people who grow tomatoes in virtually every crowd he addresses, no matter what the subject.

“It’s a fruit that really captures people’s imagination,” he said of them, noting that they can be used in all kinds of ways.

“People just love the taste, they love the variety, they love the shape.”

That love was on full display Tuesday in the form of tomato talks, teapots, paintings, and rocks. Professional chefs served up fried green tomatoes and salsa. Guests could taste-test tomatoes whilst the Skewed Tomatoes performed classics such as “The Ketchup Song” by Stompin’ Tom Connors.

There was also the Edmonton region’s first tomato contest, which included categories for heaviest and oddest-looking tomatoes.

Edmontonian Richard Heetun impressed passers-by with the grapefruit-sized tomatoes he had raised for the heaviest tomato event.

“I had a bigger one,” he said – he pegged it at about five pounds – but it fell off the vine. And these ones are small compared to some of the other varieties out there.

“There are tomatoes that can grow up to soccer-ball size,” he said.

Wide world of tomato

Those giganto-models are a long way away from the original tomato, which is thought to have originated in the Andes in South America in around the Year 0, said John Hubensky, a University of Alberta agricultural student who spoke on the history of the tomato at Tuesday’s event.

“They started out as a very small, yellow fruit, almost like an unripe tomato,” he said.

Thereafter, they grew bigger and redder through selective breeding and evolutionary pressures (big, tasty tomatoes got eaten more and had their seeds spread more).

Europeans learned of the tomato through Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s, Hubensky said. While many believed them to be poisonous at first (as they are part of the same family as nightshade) and grew them as ornamentals, people eventually realized they were safe to eat. The tomato soon caught on, especially in Italy, where the fruits were packaged and sold commercially within 10 years of their introduction. Within 60 years, they had already spread to Asia.

“There’s almost no culture today that doesn’t use the tomato in some way.”

Today there are easily thousands of varieties of tomato available, Hole said. The Enjoy Centre grows about 20 kinds in its greenhouse for use in its restaurant.

Hole plucks two tomatoes from some of the 500 plants he has on site. One is smooth, round, firm, light red and flawless. The other is leather-soft, deep red, and looks like it was mauled by a bear.

The first is a hybrid breed called the Cobra, Hole said. Hybrid tomatoes are the ones you find in most stores and are crossbred for shipping, yield and shelf life. They’re durable, but sometimes sacrifice taste in the process.

The second is an heirloom breed called the Cherokee Carbon, he continued. It’s much more fragile (as evidenced by the many splits in its skin), but is also meatier with a more intense taste. It might look ugly, but it’s actually delicious.

Bagdan’s husband, Brian Heidecker, brought some 45 varieties of heirloom tomatoes to the festival from his home garden, as well as a suit that was so red you could probably see it from Mars.

This one that looks like a small red pumpkin is a Mortgage Lifter, so named because its inventor used sales of it to pay off his mortgage, he explained. This Tomatillo is from Mexico, and grows in a paper shell that makes it look like a Chinese lantern on the vine.

“If you leave these wrapped up, they’ll keep for many, many weeks.”

The Golden Oxheart, Yellow Pear and German Red Strawberry look like their namesakes, while the Polish Linguisa is more like a green yam or pepper. The Brandywine Pink has watermelon-like flesh, while the Great White is, inexplicably, yellow.

“Nobody said the names had to be accurate, did they?” Heidecker quipped.

And the one over there that’s labelled, “?”

“I lost the tag,” he said.

Fruits of love

Bagdan said this year’s festival was a big hit, and hoped it encouraged more people to garden and grow tomatoes. She wasn’t sure if it would happen again, as it would depend on donations.

Tomatoes are a pretty fruit that anyone can grow, Hubensky said, when asked about their popularity. They’re also easy to harvest and eat.

“You just pick them right off and eat them.”

Tomatoes are low in calories, high in vitamin C and cancer-fighting antioxidants, and can be used in many different dishes, said Stephanie Levy of Edmonton’s Food Bank. They’re also hard to get at the food bank, which is why they encourage gardeners to donate them through the Plant a Row, Grow a Row program.

Pullishy and MacLean had different opinions on what real ambulatory tomatoes would think of this week’s tomato-fest.

“I think they’d be really impressed,” Pullishy said, and would be glad that people were propagating tomato culture.

“I think they’d be scared for their lives,” said MacLean.

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Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.