Love of tomatoes draws hundreds to festival at Arboretum in Lexington

jwarren@herald-leader.comAugust 11, 2013 

If you love tomatoes, and lots of us do, you know that the true color of summer is not green; it's red.

Of course, all tomatoes are not red. But red is the color that comes most readily to mind at the mention of tomato. And nothing says summer like a plate of juicy red slices.

A few hundred people dedicated to that proposition gathered Sunday afternoon at The Arboretum on Alumni Drive to celebrate the popular plant at the seventh annual Tomato Festival.

Festival visitors could taste varieties of heirloom tomatoes, sample tomato dishes from local restaurants, hear lectures on the finer points of growing tomatoes, compete for prizes by guessing the number of cherry tomatoes in a big glass jar, and generally dig tomatoes in all their glory.

"The general purpose is to celebrate the tomato, and the best part of celebrating the tomato is that it's so easy to grow," said Jim Wheeler, chairman of the Tomato Festival committee.

"You can buy a tomato at the supermarket, but who knows where it came from or who grew it," Wheeler said. "But if you grow them yourself or buy them from the local farmers market, you know the answers to those questions."

There are some other questions about tomatoes.

The perennial one, of course, is: do you pronounce it "to-MAY-to," or to-Mah-to? Apparently, that all depends on where you're from.

Is the tomato a fruit or a vegetable?

Again, it sort of depends.

"Both terms apply," said Roger Postley of Lexington, who raises and sells heirloom tomatoes. "Botanically, it's a fruit; commercially, it's a vegetable."

Of course, maybe it makes more sense to just enjoy the tomato and not worry about the particulars.

The tomato is generally considered the most popular garden food produced in the United States.

That's pretty impressive when you consider that tomatoes were considered poisonous when the first plants were brought to Europe from Central and South America in the 1500s.

Fortunately, the truth soon came out. And it's been a love affair ever since.

Postley, 69, said he plants more than 100 tomato plants most years and usually raises about 100 varieties of heirlooms. But it's been tough this year.

"Normally, I sell the plants, seeds and the fruit, but I'm not getting any tomatoes this year," he said Sunday. "The squirrels are getting virtually all of them."

Postley said he wasn't sure why squirrels are such a problem this year. But he speculated that a mild winter two years ago generated a big squirrel population, and the squirrels developed a taste for tomatoes last summer when they ate them for moisture during the drought.

The true tomato fan, however, is not discouraged by nature's fickleness.

"I'm hoping to save enough tomatoes this summer so that I can harvest the seeds and start over next year," Postley said.

Jim Warren: (859) 231-3255.

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