Born into an Alabama family true to their roots, LEIGH WRIGHT moved to New Orleans after graduating from The University of Alabama to pursue her passion for all things food related: society, culture, cuisine, history, politics, and economics. Her real question in life is and always will be “how can I eat more?” You can follow her on her own blog, Wright Writes, at www.leighdickson.blogspot.com.
The famous Shakespearean quote, “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet?” is the perfect explanation for a Creole tomato. Glorified in the culinary and cultural worlds, a Creole tomato is actually no different than any other tomato except that it is grown in soil from southern Louisiana. But despite origins that make it seem like it would be indistinguishable from other tomatoes, this tomato has received international recognition and honorary status. The ridges that may form on the top resemble a “crown” to its followers and the referenced, distinct taste raises it to its exalted ranks.
Although there is no official explanation as to why it receives such appreciation, it is said to be juicier, meatier, and more flavorful than regular tomatoes grown in other states, especially when they have endured the trials of a lengthy transit. At one time, Louisiana State University Agricultural Center even had a tomato hybrid named “Creole” but it has vanished and is no longer a sustained lineage.* The Creole tomato statute is preserved, however, as the official Louisiana State Vegetable Plant. (And yes, in true fashion this statute opened up even more debate: vegetable or fruit?)
In New Orleans, it seems peculiar that the tomato, a vital economic and cultural fruit, has only recently been given a festival status—merely 26 years ago to be exact— as the French Market has been operating much longer. The festival grew out of a need for a successful summer market and desperation among local farmers. As George LaFarge, decades-long market vendor and supporter, explains it, the director of the market during the 1980s would simply talk to the other vendors (there were about 20-30 at the time) about the attributes and shortcomings of the then-current market while collecting rent or cruising the market space. So, talk began of how to attract tourists and other customers during the heated summer months. Mr. LaFarge, in his thick South Louisiana drawl, continued explaining that the Creole tomato was only known and appreciated by the locals at that time. With very few non-residents knowing of its existence, the market was depleted of buyers in the summer.
Thus the Creole Tomato Festival was born! Farmers began toting in larger and larger amounts of tomatoes to be sold. Bands and other vendors turned out to participate in the event and a charitable auction was installed for Children’s Hospital. Each season, local chefs would crowd the market space and bid on the first box of “creoles”. The auction was generally successful, but with the ravage of Katrina and the passing of auctioneer/director Byron Hughey it fell to the wayside.
The Festival still happens every year, and attendance is boosted by the Louisiana Seafood Festival and Cajun-Zydeco Festival, which take place on the same weekend. The 20-30 vendors that occupied market floor space 26 years ago has decreased dramatically since, according to Mr. LaFarge, a lot of farmers cannot agree with the rent plus percentage of sales now enforced.
The French Market has given way to more and more to t-shirt sales and cheap sunglasses over the years but with so much emphasis on a single food item, the Creole Tomato Festival is a cool relief on this hot issue. Local residents have helped introduce tourists to the surprisingly delicious tomato and with the surplus of farmer’s markets located in multiple sections of the city, these tomatoes can be purchased almost any day of the week straight from the grower. However, the French Market carries with it the historical whispers of merchant squawking and nostalgic, more methodic ways of life. Even today one can imagine the heat kept at bay by the shaded openness of the stretched out market many decades ago.
*This email from a Louisiana State University horticulturalist helps explain what happened to the Creole hybrid that LSU had in 1956 and what the Creole tomato is today. It is an email originally published by CharlieK of Covington, Louisiana on http://www.helpfulgardener.com/phpBB2/viewtopic.php?t=13052
Lycopersicon esculentum is the Latin name that is applied to all tomatoes (it’s literal translation is “edible wolf peach”). Every tomato of every type grown around the world belongs to this genus and species and shares this Latin name.
Within this species are various types of tomatoes that are simply genetic variations, including vining types, bush types, small fruited types (grape and cherry tomatoes), meaty types (paste), medium fruited types, large fruited types and many different colors, including red, pink, yellow, “white,” green, “black,” and stripped. We generally make groups out of these genetic variations, such as cherry tomatoes, paste tomatoes, slicing tomatoes, etc.
Within the groups, there are different varieties (or more properly, cultivars). So, within the cherry tomatoes examples of cultivars would be ‘Cherry Grande’ (one of my favorites), ‘Sweet Million’ and ‘Cupid’. Among the bush types would be ‘Celebrity’, ‘Mountain Pride’ and ‘Florida 47′. See how it works. They are all Lycopersicon esculentum.
Now, getting to the Creole tomato. We use this name two ways. The incorrect way is to say that Creole is a particular cultivar of tomato. In other words, you would go out and plant ‘Creole’ transplants or seeds to grow Creole tomatoes – and this is the only way to produce Creole tomatoes. In fact, ‘Creole’ is the name of a tomato cultivar released from LSU breeding efforts back around the middle of the 20th Century. Over time it was superseded by new, more disease resistant, and more productive cultivars. As far as LSU is concerned, this cultivar no longer exists. Although you may see ‘Creole’ tomato transplants available at the nursery, we really don’t know where the growers are getting the Creole tomato seeds and or what these tomatoes actually are. LSU has not produced certified ‘Creole’ tomato seeds for decades.
The way Creole is used properly these days is for marketing purposes. Local tomato growers can call their tomatoes “Creole” because they were locally grown in the warm climate and fertile river soils of the area , and because they are grown close to the local market they can be allowed to vine ripen. All of this contributes to a very flavorful tomato. It doesn’t matter what cultivar they use. None of them use the old fashioned ‘Creole’ cultivar. They just have to plant cultivars that will produce red, medium to large tomatoes grow them locally. The same thing holds for the home gardener. Unfortunately, many of home gardeners still think they need to plant the ‘Creole’ cultivar to grow Creole tomatoes. But this is simply not the case.