At roadside stands, with menu shout-outs and at its own festival, the Creole tomato is the center of attention as its brief season hits its stride.
The foods we celebrate in Louisiana, and the foods for which we’re famous, tend to be decadent, bodacious or just inextricably tied to our sense of place here. It’s the crawfish boil and the cochon de lait, the oyster po-boy, the fried turkey or the turducken. The humble tomato does not at first seem to fit with that gallery of glutinous delight. But then, when 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. Yes, these days some enthusiasts even turn to Facebook and Twitter to share their first Creole tomato sightings. Soon, the Creole tomato begins appearing all over menus, getting the sort of bold-faced treatment normally reserved for caviar and other such luxuries.
And then there’s a whole party held each year to honor the harvest, the Creole Tomato Festival, which happens this Saturday and Sunday at the French Market. Food vendors and restaurants set up booths around the twists and turns of the French Market's alleys, selling their own tomato-based creations. Throughout the weekend there’s also the Louisiana Cajun-Zydeco Festival, which is held outside the adjacent Old U.S. Mint Museum, in such close proximity that the two events essentially fuse into one.
So what sets the Creole tomato apart? Why does it generate such excitement? The term Creole tomato once referred to a specially cultivated variety of the plant, one bred by LSU horticulturists in the 1950s. That's no longer the case, however. Today, Creole tomato generally means any tomato grown locally in southeast Louisiana. In the same way, some old-timers — or the old-fashioned of any age — still refer to just about anything grown in south Louisiana as Creole, so there’s Creole cucumbers, Creole string beans, etc.
But don't dismiss the Creole tomato name as mere pride in your local produce. Some farmers and aficionados talk about the influence of the area’s alluvial soils and climate on these tomatoes in the way winemakers discuss terroir. Most of all though, the tag “Creole tomato” is a promise of local freshness, indicating a tomato grown close to where we’re likely to buy it, and eat it. Since they didn't need to travel very far, Creole tomatoes can ripen on the vine longer and they likely weren’t trapped in chilled storage, refrigeration being a sure way to stanch a tomato's flavor.
Acidic but not too sharp, prized for its texture and heavy with juice like a tight red balloon about to pop, these are the attributes of the Creole tomato that have endeared it and inspired countless recipes on the Creole table. Still, for many, there is just nothing like eating one from hand or slicing it thick for a simple Creole tomato sandwich with black pepper and a slather of mayonnaise.
We are, right now, in the narrow window of prime Creole tomato season, which also happens to be when the sweetness of Louisiana spring changes with a vengeance to the severity of summer. Maybe that’s another reason why Creole tomatoes are so beloved around here. Just when Mother Nature seems to be turning against us, she throws us these delicious, red bouquets of Louisiana flavor.
The Creole Tomato Festival is held at the French Market (1008 N. Peters St.) on June 9-10 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The Louisiana Cajun-Zydeco Festival is held at the Old U.S. Mint Museum (400 Esplanade Ave., New Orleans) June 9-10, from 10:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.