grow, marvel, eat, laugh, persevere

Monday, August 24, 2009

Tomato Contest: Winner!

On Saturday I entered the Show Me Your Tomatoes contest hosted by this awesome Tapas restaurant called Cafe Ba Ba Reeba. I'd first read about the contest on Chicago Garden and since I had what I thought was the ugliest tomato (one of the contest categories) in town growing in my backyard, I decided to enter. And since there were two tickets to Las Vegas being awarded for the Tastiest Tomato, I thought I'd be crazy not to enter that, too. I've got 18 tomato plants growing in my garden for God's sake! I bought some from our community garden, some from Chicago Tomato Fest plant sale and a few from Jewel grocery because they sold organic heirlooms again this year and, well, they were right there while I was shopping. I had no choice!

Big Ugly is a Brandywine tomato grown organically by Forest Park Community Garden for their plant sale. I didn't do anything special to this particular plant and if you've grown Heirloom Brandywine before, you know they have a tendency to get pretty mutated. But, the flavor! Holy smokes they are amazing. In the days leading up to the contest I had a lot of fun showing the picture of Big Ugly to people and watching them grimace. My husband was so creeped out by it that he would only agree to go to the contest with me if I "covered that thing up so that he didn't have to look at it again."

I'd planned to enter a Heirloom Mortgage Lifter (I'm growing it for the first time this year) for the tastiest because I think the flavor is really interesting. But, Saturday morning when I went out to harvest the Mortgage, I was horrified to find that there was not a single ripe one that didn't have some flaw. Thank you, squirrels! But, I did find a couple of nice looking Heirloom Cherokee Purple (pictured above) tomatoes. I'm growing them for the first time this year, too, but the problem was that I had not tasted the Cherokee Purple myself. The first ones were literally just ripe on Saturday morning. So, while I'd read that these tomatoes are one of the most delicious heirlooms you can grow, I had no personal evidence of that.

Cafe Ba Ba Reeba has hosted the Show Me Your Tomatoes contest for four years. We found all the staff extremely warm and friendly and we'll definitely be going back there for dinner soon. The judges were Lyle Allen, Executive Director of Chicago Green Market, WGN's Mr. Fix-it, Lou Manfredini and Doug Tomek, owner of Uncle Dougie's. All very nice gentlemen and as I watched them taste the tomatoes, I could tell that they really love and savor tomatoes, just like me.

Just before the judging started, I was admiring all the entries in the various categories (Ugliest, Famous, Biggest, Heaviest and Tastiest) when a lady asked from her table "which one is yours". When I pointed out Big Ugly, she said "yep, that's the winner!" I was pretty confident.

Then, after I thought the entry deadline had already passed, a lady walked by me with a really big crazy looking tomato and I groaned "oh boy, I may have some competition."

Let me just cut to the chase - they did not call my name for ugliest tomato. This late entry won that prize and dinner for four at Cafe Ba Ba Reeba. I was pretty disappointed and to be honest, just wishing they'd hurry up and finish so we could go home (it was really cold on Saturday and we'd been sitting there freezing for a couple of hours by then.)

When they called my name for tastiest tomato, it was like I'd won the lottery. I screamed and my husband jumped up and high-five'd me. As I walked toward the front to claim my prize (round trip tickets for 2 to Las Vegas including 3 nights/4 days hotel stay and dinner for two at Cafe Ba Ba Reeba, Las Vegas), the judges and the restaurant owner seemed really happy. "I would like to introduce the 2009 Tomato Queen." They put a leaf tiara on me and snapped a couple of pictures of me and the chef. I really never dreamed I'd win for tastiest. In my head I'm still a novice gardener - I'm lucky to get anything to grow much less grow something that is tastier than like 15 other tomatoes probably grown by much more experienced gardeners. It was the happiest my husband and I have been in quite a while. And it's been a rough few months so we really needed this.

A word of advice about tomato contests - know the variety you are entering! The girl who won for Heaviest Tomato was asked what variety it was by the crowd and she said "I have no idea." I didn't think too much of it until my husband told me later that, after I won and somebody in the crowd asked me the variety; they were all "well at least she knows what kind it is!"

I don't think I've ever won any contest where skill was involved. It's an amazing feeling, especially considering it involved a tomato, the most perfect food on the planet.


  1. Congrats! Looks like a great tasting tom!

  2. Congrats again on the win.

    And just remember if the husband gets out of pocket, I can be packed and ready to go to Vegas, ok?

  3. Congrats on the win. And the reason we were asking what variety they were was a) curiosity, since my friends and I grow many different varieties of heirloom tomatoes and every year we vote a different one as the tastiest, and b) because the girl who won for heaviest tomato won overall last year, and admitted that she won with a farmers' market tomato! Which I think goes against the spirit of the contest. So we figured in asking her that she wouldn't have a clue as to what she bought at the FM this year......

  4. Congratulations!!! Looks mouth-watering... I tried growing these last year, but no luck (Toronto was mostly cold and rainy last summer - and this one, come to think of it). Will definitely add this to the list to try again next year!

  5. Are you sure you didn't do something to that tomato, Gina ? Wow, that's fantastic that you won. Being the tastiest is certainly better than the ugliest ;-)

    Remember, what happens in Vegas...

  6. Monica - thanks!

    MBT - you got it!

    Tasha - thanks for visiting my blog! I completely agree with you that buying tomatoes to enter goes against the spirit of the contest and as a gardener and tomato lover, I'm pretty offended by that. It took me a good 24 hours to figure out how you could possibly enter a tomato contest and not know the variety but I had realized she must have bought it and even considered writing about that in this blog post but decided against it. But hey, you brought up, not me ;)

    I'm curious to know which heirlooms you are growing this year. I've got 9 different varieties of heirloom tomatoes this year. Some are great, some not so much.

    Jay - thanks vor visiting my blog. We had much cooler weather in Chicago this year and our tomatoes have really struggled. I'm lucky to have gotten any, much less a prize winning one.

    Carolyn - do you know that my brother-in-law tried to say that the reason that ugly brandywine was so ugly was that I didnt use any pesticides or fertilizers? He's really been giving my sister a hard time about going organic in her garden. She was so thrilled to show him the prize winning (organic!) tomato.

  7. Super duper congratulations! I don't think you give yourself enough credit for that which you do.

  8. Congratulations, Gina! Cherokee Purple is such a lovely old tomato. I hope you & your husband have a blast in Vegas!

  9. Yep, bought it this year I'm sure, just like she did last year. When she didn't even bother to notice what variety she was buying! Ugh, maddening. As for my varieties this year - my friends and I grow from seed so we usually wind up with some pretty exotic varieties. Umm, I think this year I started up around 80 different kinds? Which is down from the usual - generally it's over 100! But over the past few years I've winnowed down my favorites, which are usually the large pinks: Marianna's Peace, Marizol Bratka, Earl's Faux, Kalman's, Italian Sweet. I also like Hugh's, which is a yellow, but I might be giving up since that one falls to disease every year, sigh. Faribo Gold and Dr. Wyche's Yellow are great too. And the greens are good - Moldovan Green is a fave. And German Black is a great black/purple.

    Though quite honestly, so far I haven't tried any this year that have been outstanding! I wish I had tried your CP - I didn't realize that we were allowed to taste the tomatoes after the judges were done. Just a bad summer for tomatoes in general......though I'm about to go try a bunch that I picked yesterday, so if there are any that are truly yummy, I'll report back. ;-)

  10. Okay, I'm back - having just made a huge batch of bruschetta, because that's what the tomatoes were good for. In other words, nothing to write home about. The blacks in general were the best, and some of the pinks were good, but definitely none of the "wow" factor of previous years.

    Btw, I know 80 varieties sounds insane, but....that's just one 72-cell tray.....and there are so many different varieties out there....and....and....okay, never mind. I'm insane. :-)

  11. Katie - Thank You!

    Jackie - Thanks for the well wishes and for visiting my blog!

    Tasha - WOW - I've never even heard of those tomatoes! I have to say that mine have all been just devine and I feel really lucky after talking to people at work. It seems like I'm in the minority this year due to the weather. I planted really really late (like mid July) and I wonder if somehow my procrastination helped me this year? Speaking of bruschetta - do you make your own bread for that? I've never made bruschetta but have been wanting to give it a try.

  12. Hmm, I wonder about the late planting. That could have something to do with it - I think since May/June were SO cold, the tomatoes themselves grew VERY slowly, which I've read makes them less tasty. So maybe you planted at just the right time, when it was warm enough to get the toms to grow quickly and thus taste better? Not sure....

    And for the bruschetta, I don't make my own bread/toasts - I use the NewYork Style brand Panetini. I tried making my own toasts once - and they were really crunchy, not the slightly-crunchy-but-still-soft toasts like they have at, well, Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba. ;-)

    The bruschetta is great way to use up tomatoes that have cracks and will rot quickly - or if you have a bunch of tomatoes and want to taste the different kinds but don't know what to do with the rest. Fresh tomatoes, basil from the garden, olive oil, garlic, salt. That's it. Always a big hit. :-)

  13. Congratulations Gina! I know your dedication to tomato-growing, so this must be a great milestone.

  14. Congratulations Gina! Your Cherokee purple is (was) beautiful. I'm very excited for you, and hope you and your husband have a wonderful time in Vegas.

  15. Congrats!!! And that Cherokee Purple is making me drool... yum those are good tomatoes. :)

  16. Hysterical! Nothing like a leaf tiara...

  17. Have you tried doing sub irrigation planters for your urban garden? I'm doing tomatoes in DIY rubbermaid containers. Pretty neat way of growing veggies...