It was a bright, sunny Saturday back in 2013. “It’s a tomato tasting. You’ll have fun,” my wife said.
I know when my wife says I’m going to have fun, I’m probably not going to have fun. After all, I’m thinking to myself, a good tomato is a good tomato, right?
As we round the corner at The Local Pig, I see a 40-foot table covered with tomatoes. I see Sungolds, Brandywine Sudduth strain, Carbon, Pineapple, Bumblebee. … In fact, there were more than 100 varieties spread out for us to try. I had no idea there were so many varieties. And, I didn’t know anyone who grew more than two or three different kinds at their home.
“Oh, this is nothing. You should see my back yard,” says this booming voice. “Over the years I’ve grown over 600 varieties of tomatoes. My bucket list goal is to have grown at least 1,000 different varieties in my lifetime.”
I think my mouth just dropped to the floor. “Who is this guy?” I asked my wife. “That’s James. He’s the tomato whisperer, James Worley.”
Since that first encounter, I’ve gotten to know James. And he’s so much more than just his tomato whisperer designation, but that title always seems to be the one that sticks.
James loves nature and the outdoors. He grew up connected with the food that he ate. As a kid, his family had a big garden and hunting and fishing were just a way of life. If you spend some time with James you see that he is always observing the balance of nature.
“I’m constantly scanning the skies looking for birds. I’m obsessed with waterfowl in particular,” he says. “The spring and fall migrations provide me with a sense of awe and wonder.”
Now retired from more than 18 years of teaching, James now has his “dream job.” He works as an education specialist with the Missouri Department of Conservation at the Anita B. Gorman Conservation Discovery Center (4750 Troost Ave.). There he leads public programs for children and adults to teach them how to conserve Missouri’s fish, forests, and wildlife. He guides field trips for school groups and teaches them about trees, habitats, bear and many other nature-related topics.
One of James’ favorite events at the Missouri Department of Conservation is his Field to Fork Program.
This is where he invites local chefs to prepare meals from fresh-caught game, fish and fowl for an intimate group of 30 participants. According to James, his goal is to teach people to have an appreciation for wild game and fish.
“Hopefully we’ll make people get a little closer to food they can get locally by hunting and fishing,” says James. This is truly the convergence of his passions for teaching and nature. To learn more about one of these coming events, call 816-759-7300.
Now back to that “tomato whisperer” thing. Where does that come in?
Let’s just say that James doesn’t have a normal backyard. You know how most people have a lawn, maybe a garden plot here, and a planter there?
Well, the tomato whisperer has more of what I would call a maze of produce that thrives behind his house in carefully tended raised beds. And yes, that includes a lot of tomatoes.
“If it will grow in Missouri and is edible, I’ll try to grow it!” says the Whisperer. He grows all year long using succession planting. “I plant spinach in January under double tunnels. I plant salad crops and cole crops (cabbage, kale, broccoli, etc.) in late February and early March under low tunnels, and I grow all sorts of summer and fall crops as well. And, I have a 100-plus container garden in my driveway where I grow peppers and eggplant.”
Want to taste some of James’ tomatoes? Now is your chance: The 8th Annual Tomato Tasting is Saturday, Aug. 6, from 9 a.m. to noon at The Local Pig, 2618 Guinotte Ave.
Come out and taste the extensive varieties that will be presented. Although the event is free, the coordinators ask that you bring any labeled tomato varieties you have and/or a tomato-themed dish or something you think folks would like to eat. It’s a celebration of summer, gardening, and the ubiquitous tomato!
And of course, you’ll also get a chance to meet the tomato whisperer in person.
Craig Jones is a live-fire cooking expert, the Grill Mayor for Food Network (2012), and owner of Savory Addictions Gourmet Nuts. He’s also a certified KCBS barbecue judge, a student of pizza crafting and an enthusiastic supporter of the Kansas City food scene.