Chow Town

Annual tasting allows chance to feel love for the tomato

About 80 feet of tomatoes were sliced and arranged on the tables for attendees to sample.
About 80 feet of tomatoes were sliced and arranged on the tables for attendees to sample.

About 150 people gathered Aug. 2 to show their deep affection for this summer’s crop of the “love apple,” commonly known as the tomato.

No matter what you call it — tomato or tomahtuh — the Sixth Annual Tomato Tasting at the Local Pig was the juiciest yet, with almost 100 varieties to sample.

The event was started by James Worley of Kansas City, whose shirt emblazoned with the red script “Tomato Whisperer” said it all about this understated homegrown gathering.

“I am overwhelmed and amazed,” Worley said. “When this started six years ago, we had more tomato varieties than people in attendance.”

As I stepped out of my car in Kansas City’s East Bottoms, it was unseasonably cool, with low humidity for an August morning. The smell of bacon was in the air as I made my way to the Local Pig at 2618 Guinotte Ave.

The sound of the Dixieland jazz playing and the sight of 80 feet of sliced tomatoes on the tables for attendees to sample made me want to dance.

Heirloom varieties in jeweled-tone colors of yellows, oranges, purples and reds made it was a feast for the eyes as well as the palate.

With names such as Lucky Tiger, Honey Drop, Black Magic and Hippie Zebra, the heirlooms were a backdrop to conversations that were flowing as freely as the juice from a lightly salted tomato.

Worley brought 43 varieties of his own tomatoes to share, but some of my favorite beauties came from Catherine’s Naturally Home-Grown Vegetables.

Cards written in beautiful calligraphy with names such as Cherokee Purple, Garden Peach and Carolina Gold identified Catherine Pavicich’s tomatoes. She grows them using seeds from the previous year’s crop on her farm in Kansas City, Kan. (Get to the Merriam farmers market early if you want to buy some of her tomatoes, because she usually sells out within the first hour.)

Attendees were as varied as the tomatoes. Keith Mueller of Waldo studies the science of tomatoes and is trying to build a better fruit by using heirloom varieties as “parents.”

Using the same expertise sommeliers demonstrate with wine, “tomatelier” Mueller describes his favorite fruit with words such as “tart, sweet and tropical.”

Four-year-old Ella Kafka’s favorite tomato was the Snow White variety, which wasn’t large and red as one would imagine. It was a small, orangy-gold cherry tomato that was easy to pop in her mouth, and that appeals to the princess in all of us.

Remy Orlowski from Buffalo, N.Y., is owner of the Sample Seed Shop and timed her vacation to come to Kansas City for the tomato tasting.

A highlight of her trip was going to Jasper’s in south Kansas City, where Jasper Mirabile Jr. made mozzarella tableside and fashioned a Caprese salad for their party using tomatoes Worley had just picked from his garden.

The most popular tomato variety — with an unscientific voting process — was the Black Cherry, with Sungold (another cherry tomato) a close second.

The Local Pig served up its succulent pork belly confit, alongside hearty bread and tomatoes of your choice. A bulgur salad with fresh tomatoes, garden parsley, lemon juice and a drizzle of olive oil was the perfect healthy complement to a table of sweet treats that attendees brought in Midwestern potluck fashion.

“Tomatoes are the symbol of summertime and epitome of the garden,” Worley said as the event wrapped up and the remaining sliced tomatoes were placed into food-safe bins. “These tomatoes are going to make some of the best salsa you’ve ever tasted.”

While I’m harvesting my own tomatoes now, I’ve already started a new list of tomato varieties to grow next season.

So when the cold winds blow, nothing is more delicious — all due respect to Worley’s Tomato Tasting salsa — than the promise of growing next summer’s crop.

Mary G. Pepitone is a freelance writer who lives in Leawood. She also writes the nationally syndicated home column and the much beloved Star column weekly Come Into My Kitchen featuring home cooks and their recipes.