If you haven’t spotted a Creole tomato yet, it might be right behind you. As summer revs up, these ultra-seasonal, big red beauties are everywhere.
They tumble from bins at farmers markets and groceries. They’re on restaurant menus, too, where the Creole tomato often gets star treatment. And this weekend, the French Market fetes them once again with its Creole Tomato Festival, now in its 30th year.
You can even spot them in our neighborhood gardens, pulling the fuzzy green arms of the tomato plant down as if just asking you to pluck them and relieve the tension of so much seasonal ripeness.
Hey now, it’s just a tomato. But it’s hard to overstate the spell that Creole tomatoes cast on the New Orleans palate. It has a broad appeal. But, start asking around as to just what makes a Creole tomato Creole, and that’s where the unity ends.
Today, the term Creole tomato isn’t about a type of plant so much as where the plant is grown. Some people apply the term only to the crop harvested from land adjacent to the Mississippi River, and others cast a wider net, claiming a large swath of Louisiana as Creole tomato country.
Because the name Creole tomato can turn heads, it has become a marketing term, and because it’s one without regulation, it’s the subject of debate. And as much as Louisiana people like to talk about food, they’re also not shy about arguing over it. So on it goes.
But to me, as long as you’re eating local tomatoes grown here in southeast Louisiana during their season, you’re on the right track, no matter what you call them. Local means these tomatoes can ripen on the vine longer because they don’t have far to travel, and on the way they aren’t likely to get refrigerated, which messes with their flavor big time.
One of the most memorable sales pitches I’ve ever heard for produce came one summer day years back at the Crescent City Farmers Market, from the late, great Jim Core, of Folsom. His tomatoes were huge, irregular, creased and gullied. They looked so distinctive and delicious.
He didn’t describe them as Creole; he described them to me as ugly, and he left no doubt that this was a high term of endearment.
“They’re so ugly,” Core told me, “you gotta sneak up on ’em.”
Of course I bought a bag of them and ate the first one in my car driving away, seeds and juices running. Clever marketing isn’t necessary with these things. If you’ve experienced ripe local tomatoes in the Louisiana summertime, you’re already sold.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.