Sophia Cimino began her love affair with tomatoes at 8 months of age, so it was no surprise to her parents that the diminutive little girl was more than eager to sample heirloom tomatoes Sunday at the third annual Palmetto Tasty Tomato Festival.
The nearly 3-year-old Sophia, along with parents Wendy and Anthony Cimino, were among 2,500 who gathered at City Roots urban farm to pay homage to the tomato in all its splendid, juicy varietal forms.
“When we go to the grocery store we sometimes have to buy a pack of grape tomatoes,” so she can snack on them while they shop, Wendy Cimino said. “She loves her vegetables.”
Botanically, a tomato ( Solanum lycopersicum) is a fruit, but because it is not sweet and generally served in salads, most people refer to it as a vegetable. On Sunday, people simply basked in the joy of the harvest.
As the sun beat down on festivalgoers, the heirloom tasting was among the most popular of events as tomato lovers sampled varieties such as German Striper, Yellow Teardrop and Cherokee Purple grown at Thackeray Farms on Wadmalaw Island.
“I’ve got my favorites,” said Sarah Morgan, as she and Travis Kelly traveled down a table spearing succulent tomato pieces. “Originally, it was Yellow Teardrop and Cherokee Purple, but the Mixed Cherry Heirloom came in for the win.”
While adults listened to music and sipped on beer and wine, kids had fun bobbing for tomatoes and playing “Chuck the Commercial Tomato Skee-Ball” game, a sly reminder from festival organizers that industrially grown tomatoes just don’t have the juicy drip-down-the-arm taste or panache of a homegrown tomato. (The commercial tomatoes won’t go to waste, organizers said, but would be fed to City Roots’ free-range chickens or composted.)
Connor Hewson, 11, and his 9-year-old brother Tucker decided the best bobbing attack was a full head-on approach into the tub of water, coming up wet from the waist up and holding a tomato in their teeth.
The line was long, too, for what Marie Sutherland called “old-fashioned tomato sandwiches like your mama made.” She and her colleagues at the Rosewood Market tent did a brisk business preparing the $4 sandwiches ($2 for a half), which could be enlivened with some basil or chipotle mayonnaise, as well as the traditional spread.
Those willing to buy a $20 ticket to the event were also treated to a tomato dish potluck that showcased some novel tomato-based dishes, including tomato spice bread, quinoa tomato salad and tomato cream cheese brownies.
“People love to feed other people,” said Karen Sundstrom, who volunteered to organize the potluck and provided her own sumptuous tomato pie.
The organizers of the festival, Slow Food Columbia and Sustainable Midlands, just wanted to promote what most South Carolinians consider one of the simple joys of summer, biting down into a great-tasting, ruby-red orb.
“That’s the thing about tomatoes,” said Kristen DuBard, who heads up Slow Food Columbia. “It’s not just people who are drawn to sustainable or organic foods. It’s all about the tomato.”