The foods we celebrate in Louisiana, and the foods for which we’re famous, tend to be decadent. It’s the crawfish boil and the cochon de lait, the oyster po-boy and the fried turkey.
In such bodacious company, what chance does the humble tomato have to stand out? Ah, but then if we’re talking about south Louisiana’s own Creole tomato, well, that changes everything.
We anticipate the first Creole tomatoes of the year like people in other climates regard the first snowfall, something remarkable and beautiful, a rite of the season. As we move into the final days of spring, they're spilling out from market bins, they're called out across blackboard specials at our restaurants and their images turn up on Facebook feeds as proud shoppers show off their first purchase of the season or snap a portrait of that simple Creole tomato and white bread sandwich just before they take a bite.
Those of us who love the Creole tomato are not bashful in our affection. To see someone really get after one, to bite in with the juice bursting is like the foodie equivalent of a big wet sloppy kiss.
These are mostly personal celebrations of the Creole tomato, but there’s also a public version, and this being New Orleans, naturally that means a festival. The French Market has been hosting the Creole Tomato Festival for a long time now. But last year the festival got a significant reboot, and it returns again this weekend, June 13 and 14, with music on three stages across the French Market grounds, lots of Creole tomato dishes from New Orleans restaurants served from festival booths and even some Creole tomato drinks, of the adult variety.
The festival has become a signature event of the French Market itself, and more recently a symbol of the renaissance taking shape there. We’ve seen some dramatic transformations of old time New Orleans institutions, but this one has been unfolding a little slower, maybe more methodically, and the festival is a good time to check in with what’s new. For one, there’s a lot more food now around market halls.
Within the past few months alone, new vendors have brought tacos and hot-off-the-griddle crepes, baked, not fried, fries, exotic doughnuts done up with blueberry sage or salted caramel and the grilled cheese sandwich of your dreams. They’ve joined longer-term market vendors who offer everything from muffulettas to gluten-free gumbo to an open-air oyster bar. You can bet these regular French Market vendors will be getting into the Creole tomato spirit for the festival too.
So what’s the big deal? Why has the simple tomato inspired such passion, and its very own festival? Well, to my taste, the Creole tomato just has the right texture and flavor, acidic but not too sharp, and heavy with juice like a tight red balloon about to pop. And, there’s something about the timing of the Creole tomato season, which hits right as the full wrath of summer arrives. Just when Mother Nature seems to be turning against us, she throws us these delicious, red bouquets of Louisiana flavor. That’s something to celebrate.
Creole Tomato Festival
Where: French Market
When: June 13 and 14, 11 a.m.-7 p.m.
For schedules, details and menus see www.frenchmarket.org