This one is the tale of the man with the Creole tomato tattoo. It’s a story for the season and, really, a reason to take heart as another New Orleans summer descends.
This is the time of year when we see Creole tomatoes everywhere. They’re tumbling from grocery bins and stacked up at roadside stands. They get bold face treatment on menus and this weekend they’re back in the spotlight for the annual Creole Tomato Festival at the French Market.
Still, one place I didn’t expect to find a Creole tomato was tattooed across a friend of mine’s skin. But there it was, the tomato tattoo, inked up in red bulbs and fuzzy green vines, starting around the ankle and climbing towards his knee. I knew it was a Creole tomato because he told me it was, and this New Orleans native told me that with pride.
And that's when it struck me. The Creole tomato is no mere vegetable. It’s become another emblem of southeast Louisiana, a symbol, like the fleur de lis, but more specific, more esoteric, a wink from one insider to another. That’s because the emblem has to get down to the nitty-gritty of local pride to make any sense.
After all, to those who are unfamiliar, it’s just a tomato. But it isn’t. The Creole tomato has a special taste, acidic but not too sharp. It’s prized for its texture and it’s heavy with juice. It also carries a sense of place.
The term Creole tomato is open to a few different definitions, but all of them point to a tomato grown here in southeast Louisiana. Some people will only consider a tomato Creole if it’s harvested from alluvial soils adjacent to the Mississippi River, and some zero in closer still to individual parishes. Others are more expansive, allowing a wider swath of Louisiana as Creole tomato country. For me, as long as you’re eating local tomatoes grown here 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, the enemy of fresh tomato flavor.
Gorgeous tomatoes are beloved wherever people grow them, so we don’t have any monopoly on our tomato lust here. But in New Orleans we don't just love them, we need them. We need a region-specific treat like this to call our own to come along this time of year.
We only get them in the summer after all, and that’s a season we have more reasons to wish away, with termites billowing, hurricane threats always in the background and the heat and humidity always on our minds, to say nothing of our clothes.
In the midst of all that, the Creole tomato is a symbol of simple pleasures and sweet relief. If you know what it means to love a Creole tomato, then you know what it means to love Louisiana, not just during the mild winter or the wild Carnival season, but now, in the thick of it, when on some days it can really feel like this place does not want to be loved.
But that’s when a sense of place gets hardcore. Around here, when the going gets tough, the tough still take some comfort from a big red Creole tomato.
When: Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m.
Where: The French Market