“Eating a good creole tomato is just like eating a strawberry.” – Uber Driver
They’re here: back-road vegetable stand tables and farmer’s markets laden with baskets of huge red homegrown tomatoes. Some might say that the Creole Tomato is a season unto itself in Louisiana. I guess we can add it to parade season, crawfish season, and football season. But, then again, New Orleans has always had its own way of telling time.
Creole tomatoes are planted in the spring and arrive right about now. They are described as juicier, more robust, with deeper flavors than other tomatoes. Scientifically, they’ve no particular classification, but some locals believe that the rich soil of the Mississippi alluvial plains and slow vine ripening contribute to the taste.
The tomatoes historically arrive from small farms in Plaquemines, St. Bernard, and across the river. Like many in Louisiana, my father prefers to plant and grow his own. When asked about his first crop way back then, he waxes nostalgic about buying the seeds in 1955—from his neighborhood hardware store near Milan and Magazine. That year’s planting resulted in a summer walking the city with salt packets tucked in his pockets to lightly dust the fruit before eating the succulents like apples.
For many, salt is the only embellishment our tomatoes require; for others, none at all. Thick meaty slices of Creole tomatoes are also eaten between fresh baked bread as tomato sandwiches. Nothing else is necessary except butter and salt and pepper. Others talk of broiling, canning, preparing marinara, and others still, weeks of deeply red marinated salads.
In days past, for those who didn’t grow their own, the tomatoes arrived at the door, literally. For decades old man Joe sold them up and down the streets of Hurstville on his mule-drawn cart. Three generations of the Coates and Schaub families also sold tomatoes from their horse-drawn vegetable wagons and their corner trucks on the corner of Nashville and Claiborne and in front of the Carrollton Seminary.
Present day, I prefer choosing my own from the back of Mr. Okra’s truck. The sing-song cry of “We got Tomatahs!!!” rounding the corner signifies the end of school and the arrival of my summer. My aunts picked theirs out on weekly jaunts to the French Market.
My great-aunt Loretta waited all year to fill her tomatoes with fresh tuna and shrimp. I plan to follow that tradition this week. Her Shrimp Salad Stuffed Creole Tomato recipe is one of those family types lacking exact measurements. A few cups of chopped shrimp boiled with Zatarain’s and lemon mixed with chopped green onions, diced celery, Blue Plate mayonnaise, a bit of Creole mustard, salt and pepper and a dash of Tabasco. Sometimes I substitute a rémoulade sauce. Every family has a favorite preparation.
Whichever your preference, this weekend, the beginning of the harvest coincides with its namesake, The Creole Tomato Festival. The 31st festival of its kind will be held at the New Orleans French Market and the Old U.S. Mint.
Per the event’s sponsor, the French Market District Association, locals can participate in a two-mile Run/Walk, live music stages, cooking demonstrations, numerous food booths and trucks serving up tomato dishes and local cuisine. There is also the all-important Bloody Mary Market in Dutch Alley.
The Creole Tomato Festival
Saturday and Sunday, June 10th and 11th, 2017
10 a.m. – 7 p.m.
Location: The French Market District and the New Orleans Jazz Museum at the Old U.S. Mint
Free and open to the public.
Kristine Froeba is a fourth generation Uptown girl whose varied background includes food and travel writing, celebrity ghost writing, public relations, social media management, fundraising, preservationist, reluctant tabloid hack, and litigation specialist. She describes herself as part foodie, part writer, part historian, historic renovation zealot, and full time dabbler.