Tomato Love stories from TomatoFest

A Celebration of Heirloom Tomato Varieties from Around the World

 

Tomatoes - A Love Story

by Gary Ibsen

In the course of communicating by letter and email with gardeners around the world as their "gardening friend, I have been entrusted with a legacy of tomato gardening stories. I call them "Tomato Love Stories" because they come from the heart, and are shared from the heart. Some of the stories are told in laughter, some are shared in tears of joy, they are all...treasured memories or creations from inspiration.

I recall times of being approached by folks in the marketplace while I was sharing tastes of our heirloom tomatoes. And witnessing how the tasting of some the tomatoes released a forgotten memory...kind of like when you go to a place where you were raised as a child, and breathe in the fragrance of that unique gathering of flower, tree, or neighborhood that can open you...open memories of your childhood that had been tucked away. I'd watch a face change in front of me, as if they were held captive by the memory...and then I'd hear sharing like, "I remember being in my father's tomato garden," and "I've never tasted a tomato as good as the ones I ate in my Aunt Ginny's Garden when I was 10," and "I'm hoping to find here a tomato that tastes as good as the one I tasted once in a farmer's market as a college kid when I met my wife-to-be."

When this occurs, I generally smile knowingly and assure them that "will never find a tomato that tastes as good as that one you have associated with the loves of your life. That tomato experience will remain unchallenged for the treasured place it holds in you. However, ...try this one."

There are stories shared with me that have had me in tears and chuckles and always had me flush with gratitude for the sharing. Like the one I received last year from an older man who lived in the backwoods of the Ozarks. He was dieing of cancer and accepted his leaving. His story launched with a request for tomato seed, was wanting to be told. This was to be the last tomato garden he was to plant. No more or less important than any of his tomato gardens. He shared of his father's garden and his grandfather's tomato garden, his gardening as a young man home from war, the garden he shared with his wife before she died...and how these tomato gardens had enriched his life and given him 'home.'. Aside from the tomato varieties he had seen planted for generations, he now wanted to try some new tomato varieties...some new flavors.

It was while freshly touched with one of these stories, I decided I wanted to encourage the unfolding of other Tomato Love Stories that wanted to be shared... with other gardeners (and non-gardeners)...with friends who shared in the wonder and delight of growing tomatoes from seed and plant, or just in the tasting experience.

So, in 2003, I invited guests to TomatoFest.com to write me, in prose or poem, their personal favorite tomato story. I would read the stories with my family and choose 10 stories that I would award with tomato gardening gifts. The top award winners would be given tickets to the Carmel TomatoFest.

What follows is some of those Tomato Love Stories saved by me, to share with you. I've not edited any of the stories. They are here, just as they were shared with me.

I'll continue to share some of these with you in the future. - Gary Ibsen

The Tomato Love Stories

First Place Winner: 2008
Submitted by: Larry Volpe, San Jose, CA

I started gardening with my students ten years ago, shortly after I started teaching fifth grade. Nothing gives me more joy than to spend time gardening with the kids and their families. Over the years it has allowed me to form very special relationships with the community I serve. Many children are tireless and cannot get enough. These kids can apply this hard working ethic, which many get from seeing their folks working in our garden, to many life skills, including succeeding in school.

I teach at Seven Trees School in San Jose in a low-socioeconomic neighborhood made up mostly of Hispanic immigrants. When I started teaching I quickly noticed that the non-English speaking, immigrant community I served was reluctant to come to school. I had very few parents coming to Back to School Night, and even less would come to various other school functions. Working in the garden has changed this to the extreme. When other teachers get fewer than ten parents coming to Back to School Night, I now get over twenty. Parents coming to school is extremely important to the academic success of the child. Gardening with my students is one of the activities that has allowed me to become a more effective teacher.

It all started with a few tomatoes and now it has bloomed into over fifty tomato plants among forty or so varieties of organic heirlooms. Summer is filled with watering, caging and caring for the plants so that they produce loads of luscious fruit for the families once school begins in a few weeks. Working in the garden over the summer gives the kids something to do and it allows me to stay in touch with some kids whom I love dearly.

Once the harvest begins so does the feast. The kids get great joy from eating the tomatoes right off the vine. Most of them have never seen so many colors and sizes of all the different kinds of tomatoes. They love to compare and choose their favorite kinds. Many kids bring home tomatoes to meet their families' needs and they use them in their traditional dishes. Some parents show their appreciation by sending back fresh salsas for the teacher to enjoy. If I am lucky they will send me some enchiladas. The best part comes when they invite into their home to share a meal. This is by far the best part of my job! While there, I bond with the kids, help them with homework and ask the parents to show me how they make their homemade salsas. The tips I have witnessed in the culinary arts of cooki ng with tomatoes the „Mexican way‰ are such a beautiful thing.

I would not give up my position in the community for anything. It is a very fulfilling part of my life that I would not trade for the world. I look forward to many more years of gardening with my students and sharing the food and culture with their families.

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Second Place Winner: 2008
Submitted by: Linda Brown, San Ramon, CA

My Tomato Story by Linda Brown:

I can remember my dad waking me up several spring Saturdays in a row, teasing me w/an early ride to the donut shop (which was a tremendous treat) to get our day started. I could hardly contain myself knowing that I would be out w/my dad all day, talking family stories, digging the weeds out (and you’d better have the root still attached to the weed), listening to the Giants ball game on our transistor radios all the while singing “when the Giants come to town, it’s bye, bye baby!!!” We’d image what the place was going to look like by the end of summer. He even let me stand between his legs and run the rototiller that he rented from the yard…WOW!!! What power I had.

After the yard was 100% ready to go, we’d take a drive to the nursery that was ran by the oldest man in the world…his English was poor & broken but my dad spoke to this man like they were brothers. This guy knew everything about gardens…from apples to zucchini but we were really only interested in his tomatoes. The seeds/seedlings came from the “old country” and were guaranteed to my dad to produce the best fruit you’d ever seen for making sauce. Big one pounders, sweet & meaty!!!

Well we poured our heart and soul into this plot of dirt…we’d hoe out dirt for the watering trenches, staked the plants up as it was a mortal sin to have a tomato touch the ground… we’d toss in a few seeds for radishes and had one pumpkin plant planted but mostly, we drooled over those tomato plants. After about four weeks of babying them, I saw our first fruit forming….I asked my mom permission to call dad at work to tell him about this discovery…I just knew that he’d fly thru the front door that night to verify my finding. Finally, about two weeks or so later, our garden was loaded w/splotches of red all over…it was time.

My dad would go out in the garden and pick the ones that were ready. We had a method…he was the “tosser” and I was the “tossee”. He’d straddle the rows gently toss them to me (standing right on the edge) to be put into the cardboard boxes to be laid out flat…NO STACKING as we did not want to bruise them. Every now and then my dad would toss me a rotten, half eaten one that would explode in my hands upon catching…that dog. I knew it was going to happen every time we were out picking, just didn’t know exactly when. The best was when he taught me what to look for and how to pick them…I couldn’t wait to find a rotten one and toss to him. He’d always catch it w/such force that it would bust all over the place and make a huge mess. He’d then call my mom for clean up help but she was on our side and just laughed at him.

Those days were almost 40 years ago and I can still remember them like they were yesterday. My dad and I still drive together to get our plants for our respective gardens’; we have a grow off contests and make the family decide whose tomatoes are the nicest.

The one thing that he’s gotten really good at is timing, and I don’t mean growing. I often come home from being out and find a note on the kitchen table that my dad’s been by, took some tomatoes, & left a few empty boxes on the back deck. I will go out to the garden to see how bad he’s pillaged it and what do I find but a note attached to a plant telling me to stay away from certain tomatoes as he has his eye on it.

Dad…thanks for all the memories. I love you, your little flower LB

Ps…I want me house key back.

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Third Place Winner: 2008
Submitted by: Rosanne Simon, Redwood City, CA

Dear Gary:
Loving tomatoes, passionate about gardening (having read and experimented my way into it in my forties), my sister generously gave me the perfect birthday gift this past September. Originally it was to be just the two of us exiting everyday life for a fun get-away that would include the festival. As she relented to other family commitments it ended up being me and my husband that enjoyed the festival that lovely September day. What a great event! I shot a ton of photos planning to make an heirloom tomato thank you card that would show my sister my gratitude. I bought her a tomato cook book hoping she could glean just a fraction of the enjoyment, interest and fun she had missed out on. As events unfolded, she was able to stop by our house on the way back from her family affair and time did not allow me to include the tomato card in my thank you to her. However, we did get to rehash every aspect of our day at the festival and we swore to go together the following year.

Once I did finally get around to choosing a photo to use from the hundreds of images, I decided instead to make an entire set of blank cards adorned with my photos of heirloom tomatoes. It was just too difficult to impart to her the variety of tomatoes in a single photo. Now I embarked on my quest. Instead of just giving her the cards, I would put together a “tomato-themed” gift for her birthday in November that would include the tomato gift cards. The gift consisted of heirloom tomato soap, ovenware with hand-painted tomatoes, made in Italy, a pin-cushion, a grand tomato cookbook, tomato garland, even tomato earrings (my sister swears she wears these everyday as she takes her evening bath). I spent the better part of a month seeking out the most elusive tomato gifts I could find to complete the package. My criteria was that the item had to be in good taste, and had to be useful as I didn’t want to inundate my sister with useless tomato motif items. I hand-made or hand-picked each item that would eventually go into the very big package that I finally shipped in time for her birthday. I couldn’t wait for her to open it and finally see my appreciation for the wonderful day she gave to me at the Heirloom Tomato Festival.

Having told another sister about the Heirloom Festival we now have a pact for the three sisters and respective husbands to go to the Carmel Tomato Festival in 2008. Thanks for providing a fantastic venue that is a gift that keeps on giving!

P.S. My sister could start her own heirloom tomato festival with all that she lovingly tends on her “back forty”.

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Winner: 2008
Submitted by: Jenny Hattori Noll, Salinas, CA

My story actually is one that is actually very special to me because it has turned my husband Steve into my tomato hero. Since the inception of TomatoFest, I have always wanted to go - it was to me like the Masters of Food and Wine - an item on the list of things that are important to me to do in my lifetime. Last year, my wish came true - although on disability since February of 2006 - we saved and my husband, knowing it would make me happy - took me - hobbling as I was with my back injury. Needless to say - it was one of the best experiences of my life - and I didn't even get to try everything!

Fast forward to Valentine's day of 2007 - and as I got the daily mail, noticed a package from TomatoFest - I naturally thought that Steve was going to surprise me with tickets to this year's event. Little did I know (or did he!) what he was really getting himself into - as he had actually purchased 6 varieties of your heirloom tomato seeds, as well as your book. As I grown regular tomatoes the year before, I knew that this year I had wanted to use half wine barrels, and make sure that this year I "did it right". I won't gloss over the bickering we had over what kind of soil we would use, how they would be watered (In the midst of all of this I have had back surgery so have reallly been unable to do anything more than get the seedlings started), how to trellis them, etc. If there ever was a possibility of the divorce over tomatoes, this could have been it!

When I initially put the seedlings outside, Steve had his doubts of my ability to get them to survive, and actually suggested purchasing more seeds from you. I wish you could see my backyard now - even though I know I overplanted the containers because during the time I would have thinned them out was unfortunately the time period that my back surgery was done - the plants are amazing! The true love story in all of this though - is that Steve told me that he can't wait to do it again next year, and that he has enjoyed all the work he had to put into it this year. He has hand watered the plants, some mornings in his suit as he is rushing off to his job in San Jose.

The joy on his face as he picks a black cherry right off the stem and pops it in his mouth makes me so happy, as the past couple of years have been challenging for us. TomatoFest has become the highlight of my year and having the chance to get better at growing these amazing fruits just gives us more to look forward to.

So thank you for your passion - it is infectious, and has brought this couple closer and truly become our Tomato Love Story!

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Winner: 2008
Submitted by: Mallika Nocco, Madison, WI

My parents became two opposite people every time we traveled to Bangalore, both trying to cram everything they missed about India into one month. They seemed to revert back into their adolescent selves, each staying with a set of grandparents three blocks away from each other, my father eating six meals a day to keep both his father and his mother-in-law happy. He would pick me up from my maternal grandparents’ house and take me in an auto-rickshaw to Gandhi Bazaar, a chaotic market filled with all varieties of snacks, spices, and trinkets. I loved these trips. My father seemed a rogue, eating the seductive forbidden street snacks and smoking cigarettes while I drank my grandmother’s specially prepared boiled, filtered water from a bottle. It was in the middle of Gandhi Bazaar, I saw him do something baffling for the first time. From a street vendor, he picked up a luscious, fragrant tomato and bit into it, like an apple. “DAD!!! That’s a TOMATO! You can’t eat it like that!” He shook his head sadly at my ignorance. “In India you can. You don’t get tomatoes like this in Minnesota, not even from the farmer’s market. They are fruits, you know.” When he dropped me off at my mother’s house (I preferred staying there due to far better mosquito control and food), she exclaimed at my dirty feet, making me scrub them on the stone floor before making my favorite dish of cucumber-tomato Raita, a salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, and home-made yoghurt. My mother’s true love of tomatoes only manifested itself in the dead of our Minnesota winters. Under fluorescent lights in the grocery aisles, she would look at the pale, dry tomatoes, and almost come to tears. “They look like vampires got to them first and sucked out all of their life! Do you remember how delicious the Raita was at your Ajji’s house, Malli?” “Yes, Mom,” I would say, embarrassed at her vivid show of emotion in the produce section. My parents, possessing strong ideals about the way I should live my life, showed little support for any of my life decisions: college major, husband, job, home. It is amazing—the first and only time I have ever glimpsed true pride in my abilities from my parents was last fall, upon tasting my home-grown organic Brandywines and Green Zebras. “They taste even better than the tomatoes in INDIA!” my mother exclaimed. My father, never one to verbally express his affection, picked one up and bit into it like an apple.

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Winner: 2008
Submitted by: Cheri Howard, Sacramento, CA

My tomato love story begins early in life.

As a child, I lived about 1/2 mile from a now defunct Libby's tomato plant. I wondered what this delicious smell wafting through the summer air could be. I asked my parents and my mother told me about the Libby's canning factory near our home. After all, this was "Sacra-Tomato"!

This smell was so heavenly I used to sit in my front yard each summer day for hours, smelling the stewed tomatoes. My friends could not understand my delight and mostly ignored my attempts to catch as much tomato aroma as possible. The scent reminded me when my mother made her own spaghetti sauce. Her recipe was from an Italian uncle. We grew tomatoes in our backyard. She used most of these in her cooking. Her sauce was the envy of the school cafeteria. I was offered many sandwiches and desserts in exchange for my mother's spaghetti. Not one day did I trade, but I offered a bite or two to my best friends.

When the Libby's plant shut down, I was sad. I cried! To this day, I cannot drive by the building without thinking about my childhood days. In addition and about the same time, my mother went back to work and, thus, she was unable cook dinner as often. When I was old enough to get my first apartment, I made sure I got a copy of the mother's spaghetti recipe. After several attempts, I was able to recreate the sauce. Still, something was missing: something fresh.

At my second apartment, I was lucky enough to have a small patio. I ventured to my local nursery and bought several tomato plants - one ordinary beefsteak tomato plant. one Roma tomato plant, and one Amish paste plant. Come July, the tomatoes were ready for harvest. I washed and chopped these for my sauce. In addition, I found a wonderful red wine to use. I was amazed at the difference! I was addicted to growing my own tomatoes.

The next year, I planted several other varieties of tomatoes, including a purple heirloom. I also purchased a good amount of heirloom and paste tomatoes from a local market. The taste was unbelievable! I was addicted. I purchased 8 pounds of quality tomatoes at a time, no matter the price.

Today, I now grow and purchase tomatoes in large quantities for fresh consumption and sauce-making. My husband and I recently bought our first home. Our first "real" garden will include tomatoes from our local nursery plus plants cultivated from heirloom seeds from my past. My husband has caught my enthusiasm. He has purchased a tomato press to make our tomato processing much quicker. I remind him to add back some of the seeds and juice, as some of the flavor is lost. He watches my every move as I add the seasoning as he aspires to recreate the wonderful scent of tomatoes and spices simmering throughout the home. He happily helps me with our gardening and has already asked me about what tomato plants we want this year (several months early!)

I may never experience the days of a large tomato processing plant, but now I have found much better. I can create my own tomato memories in my new home with my husband.

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Winner: 2008
Submitted by: Sharon Carpenter, Temecula, CA

Hello!
Okay so here I am one of 5 siblings - God love us all... And, as far as I know, we all find pleasure in consuming our share of tomatoes. Like most big families, we share some common interests, but often enjoy our own unique ideas and hobbies as well. One of my sisters however, (she lives in northern California and I reside here in southern California), do happen to share an avid interest in gardening and cooking. Most specifically; we have swapped many books, seeds, stories and growing tips on what might happen to be in our gardens at any given time and have long ago agreed; that by far, the most satisfying tomato to plant are of the heirloom variety! Though we speak often via the phone or email, we don't often have the luxury of spending as much actual time together as we would like. So for her birthday this year, I sent her tickets for her and I to attend the tomato festival together. Needless to say, we were both very looking forward to celebrate her birthday together, along with our joint excitement in finally being able to attend the festival and of course, to spend quality sister time.

Unfortunately, due to another circumstance and a conflicting timeframe, our "get-together" was not possible after all. Naturally we were both disappointed, though happily enough, my sister was able to attend and enjoy the festival with her husband.

Then, two months later on my birthday, I received an enormous and unexpected package of a lifetime! To my astonishment and downright glee, the gift unfolded in multiple surprises. My sister had included many, many very thoughtful, practical, time-consuming (some were beautifully handmade) and loving gifts that were ALL of tomato motif!!! It was incredible and it rendered me speechless...not easily done.

Let me just say, that to identify to you each wonderful inclusion of the package, would take me well over this essay's 500 word limit. However, let me give you a peek into that lovely gift; I found an abundance of every emotion - ranging from laughter to tears and everything in between. There were literally days and weeks of planning, purchasing, preparing and packing. With every crinkle of tomato red wrapping I heard literal explosions of love from her to me.

These two birthday gifts, both of mine to her, and hers to mine, sprung forth from our shared pleasure and excitement of the luscious tomato and brought us to an even greater level of appreciation for it.

NOW, we are planning and looking so forward to the "Tomato Fest" 2008 in Carmel and in fact, have enlisted an additional sibling, along with our husbands, into the act and to share in the joy.

With Best Regards,
Sharon Carpenter

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Winner: 2008
Submitted by: Monique Black, Modesto, CA

“I’ll never forget how he stole my heart. His name was Mr. Stripey, and on the shelf at the nursery we traveled to visit he looked like every other tomato I’ve ever planted. The card beside him assured me he was different. “A striped tomato,” I said to my husband, “I’ve never heard of such a thing! And yellow to boot!” I took him home and stuck him in his bed next to the old standbys I picked up every year at the local hardware store. Well, Mr. Stripey proved he was no Ace, and he was more of a Celebrity than any tomato I’d ever known! He introduced us to the world of heirlooms and we’ve never looked back.

A few years later I grew frustrated trying to find heirlooms closer to home, so I decided to try my hand at starting seeds. I’d read that if you end up with extras you can sell them to other people looking to try something different. I had extras, so I put them on a table by the street with a sign that read “Heirloom Tomato Plants $2 ea.” An hour later all thirty of them were gone. “Hmmm,” I thought to myself, “this has all the makings of a fund-raiser for our youth dance team and it gives me an excuse to start a test garden!”

Six years later we have grown over 120 varieties and counting in our test garden. The dance team just finished our 5th year of growing and selling heirlooms, still at our little table in front of the house. High school students, many who have never tasted a home grown tomato, let alone planted one, descend upon our home in February to begin transplanting tiny seedlings into 4” pots, labeling, watering and staking them before moving them to our little greenhouse out back.

Every year the scraggliest seedlings are singled out by students and given personal names with happy faces and hearts drawn on the back of their labels as their new “parent” wills them to live, and usually they do! I think sometimes they look at the seedling I would just toss and see themselves. So many people have written these kids off and tossed them aside, but they want to flourish and prove the world wrong. If they can prove it through a little, beat up plant, maybe they can prove it of themselves.

As heirlooms grow in popularity more and more people come. They knock on the door in February, “When are your tomatoes going to be ready?” They knock on the door in June, “Do you have any tomato plants left?” This year we sold out two weeks early. We grew and sold over 1600 plants, each lovingly transplanted one at a time. Each went to good homes, even Gidget (with a smiley face), Bob (with a heart) and Gidget #2 (with all the love and care of a mommy willing her on). You go, girl! Prove ‘um all wrong!

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Winner: 2005
Submitted by: Amy K. Thorkilsen, Somerset, NJ

Describing myself:
I'm that woman you saw at the beach jumping and playing in the waves like a six year old. The one you saw on the train reading so intently that she almost missed her stop. The one poking around in the wine shop looking for a certain cabernet or shiraz. The one ordering kangaroo or ostrich or ceviche at the restaurant. The one who went sky diving and bungee jumping and gliding and ballooning. The one who went to Australia and Thailand and Mallorca by herself. The one with the Nikon. The one walking on the beach in both July and December. The one hiking in the ancient redwoods or the vibrant foliage of Vermont last October. The one you think couldn't possibly be approached.

Describing my ideal match:
Do you have a passport? Is it already well-used? Do you love the ocean and swim, sail or snorkel? Love to cook and discover and drink fine wines? Grow your own heirloom tomatoes and basil because nothing else tastes as good? Prowl antique auctions and fleamarkets? Lose yourself in a wonderful book or terrific movie and not realize that hours have passed? Can the color of the sky make you stop in your tracks? Would you lie on a mountaintop and watch for meteors on an August night? Do you laugh easily - even at yourself? Are you open to new adventures?

I met him in a Starbucks on a Thursday night in February. He was going to be Robert #5. My ex-husband was named Robert, a five-year relationship following my divorce was with a Robert, I was briefly engaged to yet another Robert, and I'd had a perfectly disastrous trip to Madeira with Robert #4. Naturally, I considered canceling the date, but decided perhaps I was fated to continue meeting Roberts until I found the right one.

From: Robert Berger
Sent: February 6, 2003 10:41 PM
To: Amy Thorkilsen
Subject: Enjoyed meeting you

Amy, Dogs, geography, travel, jazz and blues, food, wine, cooking, Arts & Crafts furniture...Pretty scary don't you think?

I like how comfortable you are with yourself. I can sense it in the way you carry yourself. I admire your independence and verve for participating in life. I like that you look me in the eyes when you talk. I like that you put on your glasses. I liked how the shade of your lipstick matched your coral sweater. All of this combined within a smart, funny articulate woman who's attractive to boot!

I hope that you were as excited to meet me as I was to meet you. I would definitely like to get together this weekend. Give me a call and let's figure out something to do. If you'd like to meet Kyla and go for a walk that works for me as well...

Bob

P.S. I forgot to mention that I grow heirloom tomatoes and basil as well (Prefer Brandywines)..:-)

From: Amy Thorkilsen
Sent: February 7, 2003 11:35 AM
To: Robert Berger
Subject: RE: Enjoyed meeting you

Good morning Bob!

Gee, almost glad you didn't mention the heirloom tomatoes and basil until this morning - it might have been too much last night on top of everything else!! You might want to sit down for this: I went to Carmel, CA last September just to attend the annual Heirloom Tomato Festival...I am not kidding and I will show you the program (amazing list of varieties from A-Z) of what was available to taste! Scarier by the minute!

I am definitely excited and very pleased to have met you. I really appreciate your straightforward personality and willingness to be candid - it is incredibly refreshing...I loved that you brought the photos of Kyla and the Caymans to show me (and it was funny because I had photos of Cody in my hand as I left the house and then put them down - also a picture of Whitsunday Beach in Australia).

I would very much like to see you again this weekend. Maybe I could come by the park on Saturday morning and say hi and meet Kyla?

Let's talk later, Amy

Now, two and a half years later, inseparable since that Saturday, our gardens feature not only four varieties of basil but Dr. Carolyn, Stupice, Green Zebra, Cherokee Purple, Black Krim, Riesentraube, Hawaiian Pineapple, Yellow Pear, Mortgage Lifter, Andrew Rahart's Jumbo Red, and of course, Red, Pink and Yellow Brandywines.

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Winner: 2005
Submitted by: Mary Feltman, Hueytown, Alabama

My favorite tomato story comes from 1999. I grew up outside of a large city, but with "old country ways". My grandmother took us back to the realities of the wonderful country traditions that she grew up with.

I remember my mother telling me to "cultivate a taste" for foods that I didn't like. I'm very grateful now because I can eat all foods and love and appreciate their quality, taste, and uniqueness.

However, everything "had it's place" in my mind. I loved tomatoes - nothing could, nor can, beat a good BLT, which is now a BLOT for me (I had to have my onions!). And, I loved fruit, even though I never considered a tomato one of them. One of my favorite desserts was a dish of cottage cheese with pears or peaches.

Oh, how things can change as you get older! Only four years ago I was having breakfast at the office. We were allowed to come in early and eat before work started. My boss came in and sat down with a large bowl of cottage cheese and a paper bag. I just knew he was going to pull out a peach or a can of pears.

My jaw dropped and my eyebrows reached their all-time high when I saw him pull out a big, shiny, red tomato! Before thinking, I said, "You're not going to put THAT in there, are you?!" He grinned and said, "So....you've never eaten tomatoes and cottage cheese, huh?" "DIS GUS TING!", I thought to myself. Glad my Mother wasn't there to tell me to cultivate a taste for THAT! It was totally "out of place".

He lovingly washed and dried this prized possession and began to cut it up and put in into the bowl. He added a touch of salt then cracked some fresh royal peppercorns over it. He carefully mixed it together, then took a bite. The expression on his face looked like he had just had more than humble tomatoes and cottage cheese!

Curiosity is also something that I grew up with, and it hasn't diminished any. From the look I had just seen, I had to try this strange concoction. I meekly asked for a bite. He narrowed his eyes and skeptically looked at me. "You're NOT going to badmouth my favorite dish." I assured him that I wasn't....I truly wanted to taste it.

He hesitantly handed it over, ready (I think) to send me home, or fire me, if I said anything remotely negative about it. I looked at it - creamy white and bright red with flecks of black and pink and green peppercorns dotting the cottage cheese and tomatoes; it WAS pretty (presentation has always counted). I took a bite. I didn't realize, until I heard him laugh and OPENED them, that my eyes had been closed with the same look of ecstasy that had been on his face moments before.

"OH, MY GOSH!" I managed to say as soon as I could speak through the heaven I had in my mouth. I couldn't believe how absolutely wonderful it was. Thus, my yearly affair with tomatoes and cottage cheese was borne. I'll have to say that it is one of the most rewarding relationships that I have ever had, and leaves me totally guiltless and utterly satisfied! I would recommend this superb dish to anyone who loves tomatoes and unique food combinations.

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Submitted by: Tanya Gearhart

Dear Mr. Ibsen,
I purchased your seeds, thought I didn't get them and received a new batch only to find out I had indeed received the original purchase. When I called I was immediately sent a new shipment. I contacted your place to explain my mistake and offer to send the replacement seeds back & you called me direct and told me to go ahead and keep all the seeds and to share them.

Share them I have!
I have found a whole kind of tomato geek kind of environment and am tickled pink. I had no idea how popular growing special tomatoes was. I know that as a child growing up in CA I would grab a salt shaker and go to my mothers garden and gobble down tomatoes until I would burst, but I thought my love for them was just my thing. Not at all. I was odd in that as a child I always had a little salt shaker in my pocket. We had all kinds of citrus trees and avocados as well as tomatoes. If I had my salt shaker, I didn't have to come in and wash up because I was hungry! I was a Tomboy to say the least. I called my local very trusted nursery to see if my seedlings should go in the ground and the woman told me very strongly that there was one more frost due and "don't touch them" She then asked me what kind I was growing and when I told her she about squealed and said "if you feel the need, you can drop by and leave a black plum with me" I had many more seedlings doing well than I thought I would, so I went ahead and drove the 20 miles that minute and brought her one of each! What a joy to see her face and listen to her go on. I labeled all and also included your website address so she could look them up. She wants to actually make the trip to go to your event after I told her about it!

My best friends mom is from France, even worked for Winston Churchill during the war, and is also a tomato geek I've found out. Over lunch my friend was telling me her mother was disappointed that she would not attempt to grow tomatoes this summer. Seems her mother just gushes over them. I gave Maggie (the mother) two of each of the seedlings and again I was blessed with the joy of giving out the little gems. I have also given a few to a local women's shelter to grow and also to the local grade school. I never expected that MANY to take growth! I used germination mats, very basic humidifiers, heaters, loads of wire shelves, and fluorescent lights in my make shift green house, A shed I empty out in the fall to keep my plants alive over the winter. Now that it's truly spring, it's back to work for the shed and outside for the tomatoes. They have graduated to 3" peat pots, I've installed my drip system and cleared a good sized garden fenced in to keep the deer out and I hope North Carolina soil will do as well as CA soil. My husband works for the California State Firefighters Assoc., and I'm sending some seeds to the folks there, so they're actually making their way back home!

I've taken enough of your time but I just wanted you to know that I'm very happy with the product and when you said share, I did.

Tanya Gearhart

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Submitted by: Kayanne Jones

Gary,
Unfortunately, I won't be making your wonderful festival this year. When I was a senior, the guys in my class called me "Hot Tomato". I still remember it to this day. (I'm 52 now.) "It's Hot T T T T T T Tomato! She's such a hot broad, her hair's turned red." Thank you for putting a positive spin on "Hot Tomato". When I was a sophomore, the senior guys called me "Little Red Riding Hood". (I didn't mind that nickname.) When I was in college, I was called "Big Red II" as the fraternity already had a Big Red I. So, being Big Red II was a compliment. I blonded my hair for a while, but now I proudly wear my red locks. One day, I will have to venture out to your festival before my hair fades! Thank you for letting me share my story. K

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Submitted by: Sue Bonar, Fairacres, NM

Where to start.... My dad really is my hero. He has seen more in his life than I will probably see in my own, but I am fortunate to have lived many things through his eyes. I've traveled around the world to experience the stories I've grown up on, and grown to love. Many of my favorite stories my dad tells revolve around his own childhood. He was one of ten children (five boys and five girls) and he grew up on a farm during the depression in El Paso, TX. I laugh to myself imagining him young and highly mischievous, and very intelligent. Along with various animals on the farm, they also grew their own vegetables to eat. For as long as I can remember, dad has always told me about how he would sneak into the tomato patch with a salt shaker and chow down on the sun-warmed treasures. He would say, "There's nothing that tastes better than home-grown tomatoes." Now, we grew some tomatoes while I was growing up as well, although never that many plants to constitute a "patch." I do remember with great fondness though, when no one else was around, how dad would "sneak" me out to the tomato plants. With salt shaker in hand, we would pick out all the ripe tomatoes, sprinkle salt and eat 'til there were no more ripe ones to eat. The tomatoes were warm, and dad had the twinkle in his eye like the cat who ate the canary and got away with it. I imagine he was picturing himself doing that very thing many years before, and it gave him a kick to pass that on to me. My mom would ask, "are there any ripe tomatoes?" and we would both say, "nope, nothing today" knowing full well that we had eaten them all and were not about to 'fess up. Every time I pick a tomato ripe off the vine, I picture him lying in his tomato patch, and I see the two of us eating all the tomatoes. It's funny, and may seem silly, how tomatoes became one of our many bonds, but it did, and it still holds true to this day. I gave him my first ripe cherry tomato this year. Other people were around when I presented it to him, and I know no one else thought anything of that event. But we shared a secret smile, both of us knowing how special it is to eat that ripe, home-grown tomato, and how important we are to each other. I can't imagine anything better.

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Submitted by: Marie Flori, Concord, CA

When I was a little girl (many years ago), I remember my Grandpa working in the garden. I always trailed after him, watching everything that he did, while my cousins played tag and other childhood games. He would carefully bend down and take some seeds out of his handkerchief with his knobby fingers, gingerly holding each one, and place it carefully in the soil. He would often give a sigh as he gently tucked the seeds snuggly in their beds. I swear he talked to them, saying things like .'there you be', `soak up the water', `drink up the sun', `grow tall and strong;, and `flower brightly'! I know he said that.

Grandpa would work tirelessly in the hot mid-day sun, gently guiding those tomato plants to grow straight and strong. He would make sure no branch was fallen and forgotten. Sometimes, he would tell me I was like a tomato growing stronger and taller! I remember his rough hands lifting me to the sun where I could see the little yellow top blossoms smiling at me. We would walk in the fields, my grandpa and me, not needing to say anything. He would lovingly touch the nearly ripe tomatoes, teaching me his ways, saying . "Oh, not yet, we must be patient for this gift".

Then, the days became longer and hotter, and Grandpa and I would gather baskets full of big and small tomatoes - red, yellow, green, orange, striped and every other color of the rainbow. I loved filling the basket, as I knew Grandma would prepare a feast with those precious tomatoes when we took them into the kitchen. Sometimes Grandpa would stop, squat down and call me to his side, holding his special pocket knife and carefully slicing open a juicy tomato, warm from the sun. He'd cut a perfect piece, just for me, dripping with juice, and say "You're my pet, you taste this one first!" We'd taste and roll our eyes, never uttering a word in the sheer bliss of those shared moments in the sun. Today, when I close my eyes on a hot summer day, and as I touch my tomato plants and smell their perfume, I can almost hear grandpa say "This one's for you, my pet".

Now, those times are fond memories, as I plant my own tomato seeds. My grand-daughter follows along with me, just as I once did with my Grandpa. She pauses with me to drop a seed in the tiny holes, covering them gently and speaking sweet nothings of encouragement to help those want-to-be plants. She tirelessly helps me water, and tends to these babies eagerly, waiting, just as I did, for the very first ripe tomato.

Soon, the summer sun will arrive and stay, and my grand-daughter and I will be eagerly searching for the first ripe, juicy tomato and share those magic moments, just as I remember sharing them with my Grandpa. We will pick our baskets full in the sun, while she dreams of tomato sandwiches and jam, and I know I will still hear my Grandpa whispering ."This one's for you, my pet".

I know that one day my grand-daughter will plant tomato seeds of her own. She will continue the generations-long process of sowing, growing and harvesting that will sustain her life, and the lives of those she loves. Her planting will ensure the promise of joys ahead with her own grand-daughter, as we continue to pass the `torch' of gardening from generation to generation.

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Submitted by: Lily Dioletto, Newark, CA

It happened last summer. My taste and appetite for tomatoes were forever changed.

I had never been a huge fan of the red veggie-fruit. Many evenings sitting across the table from my husband at restaurants, I had wondered why Mr. Frugal himself would pay up to $15 for a small plate of heirloom tomato salad. The few slices of tomatoes did not equate to even one fruit. I would curiously watch him pour salt onto the green and pink slices, sink his knife into the meaty stack, pick up a morsel of this strangely textured vegetable--or fruit--or whatever--and then finally placing it into his mouth, savoring each bite until his plate was clean.

"Was it good?" I mused. "Aaah! It was delicious," he savored as he wiped the corners of his mouth with his napkin. "Was it worth $15?" I pressed. He looked up and narrowed his eyes at me, "Well, if you put it that way, not quite. But, these are heirlooms." I had wondered, but my curiosity was not enough to prod me into trying some myself--let him enjoy it all.

I could not recount how many times this scene had replayed itself. Then I was assigned to 'the project from hell.' At the onset, I knew it was destined to fail for reasons I could not clearly explain--perhaps, that's why no one listened, or cared enough to. Soon, I developed apathy toward work and fell into a mild state of depression. So did many of my colleagues. To cope with our funk we embraced escapism by venturing into the Farmers' Market by the waterfront every Tuesday.

One sunny afternoon, my friend, and I were perusing the farmers' goods when she suddenly held up a toothpick with something dark on its tip to my face and said, "Try this." "What is it?" "A piece of tomato," she responded. "No, thanks," I said, turning away from the toothpick. She pulled me back and insisted, "You've got to try this."

So I relented and took the morsel into my mouth. Suddenly, as if being awakened from a long stupor, my taste buds all became alive in jubilation. It felt almost orgasmic. I could not believe the burst of flavors in my mouth.

"This is tomato?" I asked suspiciously, eyes wide as an owl's. "Yes, it's an heirloom from this vendor here. I think it's called Brandywine. Have you ever tasted anything like it? Come, let's check it out."

From that day forward, every Tuesday I'd bring home this amazing creation of Mother Nature's, and together with my husband, we'd clean off our plates.

Early this summer I planted my own Brandywine. The day I noticed three green tomatoes the size of tangerines hanging against the wire rack, I screamed so loud that my neighbors all peeked vigilantly through their windows. I had never been much of a gardener, you see. More plants died under my care than I'd like to admit. It's a miracle to see my plant actually bearing fruit. Perhaps, my confidence in gardening just might return.

With each warming day more green tomatoes are beginning to emerge, and growing bigger each passing week. Every morning upon waking prior to doing anything else, I check on my tomato plant and search for new babies. My husband thinks I have become a fanatic. But now that the project from hell has returned to whence it came and I am unemployed, what better way to pass my time than with my beautiful, precious Brandywine tomatoes? Look! One is blushing.

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Submitted by: Leslie Thomas, Santa Barbara, CA

LOVE AND THE HEIRLOOM TOMATO

Like each Saturday morn, the Farmer's Market beckoned me. Only this time I was on a quest, a special journey, To find a unique item from the local land's bounty, For making an impressive dish for a first date at 3:30.

I searched all the stands for something of rare quality, When I saw a booth of heirloom tomatoes displayed attractively. So many shapes, sizes, and colors showcased dazzlingly. And each of the vendor's tastes was a revelation of the sensory.

An heirloom tomato salad for my date was the answer clearly. So with the vendor's help I chose my specimens carefully, Imagining how this inviting fruit of the vine would look perfectly With some sliced cheese, and balsamic drizzled sparingly.

Then I left the market with a vision of a meal quite dreamy, And an hour before date time I started the prep excitedly. Slices of mozzarella and heirloom tomatoes alternating colorfully, Sprinkled with basil leaves and balsamic, presented strikingly.

Half-past three arrived, and so did my date most timely. He looked a bit anxious, perhaps not unexpectedly. We were both hungry, so we sat down immediately, To a glass of Sauv Blanc, and the heirloom tomato plate so pretty.

"Are those natural tomatoes?" he asked somewhat quizzically. "Green and purple and striped, I've never seen such variety." "And they're not only in wild colors but incredibly tasty!" From there we conversed on other topics, very pleasantly.

After several hours, both the meal and I had piqued his curiosity, And he requested another rendezvous, to occur very promptly. Now four years later my boyfriend and I still enjoy each other's company, And we reminisce about the plate of heirloom tomatoes very fondly.

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Submitted by: Darcy Puente, Carmel, CA

When I was a girl growing up in Michigan, my Grandmother and I on hot summer nights, while everyone else was getting cozy with a bowl of ice cream, would slice a bowl of her just picked, ripe tomatoes and curl up with a salt shaker on the couch in front of the television.

I loved them from a very early age and still do even more passionately. However, I have yet to come across or be able to grow a tomato that tastes like Grandma's, that is until once a few years ago.

There was a Portuguese gentleman who was growing a small field of "U-Pick" tomatoes right off of River Road in Salinas out of the Medicine Wheel Horse Ranch pasture and selling them from the fruit stand adjacent to the horses. My experience has been that tomatoes do very well with horse manure, and let me tell you he proved it that year! I use to go down to the field with my buckets that he supplied and would pick away, working in the middle of all these plump, red beauties. I would come out stained green and smelling like the green pungent tomato vines. I hauled my buckets up to my new Portuguese friend and filled a vegetable crate, about 20 lbs. worth and would take them home to slice and eat with my saltshaker.

This went on all during the tomato season, but about 3 weeks into it at one trip a week my Portuguese friend asked me, "Wow, what are you doing with all of these tomatoes, making a lot of exotic sauces or canning them?" I turned to my new best friend and said, "No, I am just eating them like this." He quipped "but there is like 20 lbs. of tomatoes there..." I said "Yea, just enough for a weeks worth!" and we both laughed, as he shook his head in disbelief. I found out from him that they were the "Shady Lady" variety. That was unfortunately the one and only year that I remember him being there for that. I have since tried everything to have a successful, full-bodied flavored tomato and can't seem to accomplish what I grew up with, that is except for when I get to enjoy all of the different varieties and gourmet tomato dishes at TomatoFest.

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Submitted by: Maria Iacovazzi, UK

MY FAVORITE CARE PACKAGE

Parents have always sent packages to far-away children. The contents may vary, but always share the taste of something from home. My parents were no different when I was in college. Sometimes it was homemade chocolate chip cookies and packages of Cup-o-Soup. Once it was a case of crisp Seven Day Sweet Pickles, once an Italian Valentine with olive oil, good pasta and Locatelli cheese. But the most unexpected - and outstanding- arrived one day in late September. I picked it up at the Post Office counter, my mouth watering at the thought of cookies. When I lifted it, I was surprised by its weight. Too heavy for cookies, too light for pickles. It was packed too securely to open without a knife, so I took it home to open. Imagine my pleasure when after cutting through brown paper and packing tape, the smell of ripening tomatoes was released. Several layers of bubble wrap and newspaper remained but the mystery was over: A box of home grown tomatoes, just approaching perfect ripeness. A few were even ready to eat that day. Words can't do them justice. Love and craziness showed all over that box. It was a complete experiment. Packing green tomatoes with just a little color into a box full of bubble wrap, my parents had hoped they wouldn't arrive as mush. They were as surprised as me when they were delivered in good shape. But the meaty texture of the home growns had protected them from bumps.* The tight wrapping contained the tomatoes' gases, helping them ripen. The speed of U.S. Parcel Post over 600 miles had given them time. The only flaw was that they eventually ran out. Mom and Dad are both dead now, so its hard to recount this story without some sadness. But it's offset to some degree by thinking of Dad standing in the garden at that moment of inspiration, saying "I bet Mary would love some of these..." * New Zealand Pink Pear

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Submitted by: June Flowerdew, Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire, UK

Tomato harvest time is here, So everyone should give a cheer. I've picked some Sungold, so juicy and sweet, Although it's a Hybrid it is such a treat.

Stupice is lovely and nice 'cause it's early, And some of the others are so big and burly. But I am so excited and just have to say, What happened on my allotment today.

I picked my first Paul Robeson, and am so extremely proud, I have shown it around to everyone, And created quite a crowd.

A large red tomato with a dark bloom, It certainly brushed away all of the gloom. Oh! it is such a wonderful sight, Should I perhaps just take a small bite?

No, I think I will wait and watch it glow, I've never tasted one before you know. It looks so scary sitting there, Perhaps I will wait till I have a pair.

But what if it spoils and wastes away? It could do that in only a day. I think I will eat it, You really can't beat it, Hooray, hooray, hooray!

Now, as I have stated somewhere before, And hopefully I am not being a bore, But I really must shout it, For there's no doubt about it....

I've always grown lots of tomatoes, No troubles, no hassle, no woes. Then I joined the Tomatomania Group, And learnt to make salsa, sauces and soup.

Little did I know what was in store, That Heirlooms would make me want more and more. Big ones, small ones, all shapes and sizes, They certainly should take all the prizes.

No longer content with just round red fruit, I must have weird, wonderful and Beaut! So many colours it is intriguing, I am a Mummy to every seedling.

I must be a Maniac, so silly and mad, They have taken me over and I am so glad. But will I ever grow tired of these, No? not ever? reassure me, please.

Growing tomatoes is so wonderful now, I can't wait each summer to say wow, wow, wow, I know I have never had such fun, And my adventure has only just begun.

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Submitted by: Charlie, Saint Charles, MO

I have gardened all my life. My mother grew up the country in an almost self-sufficient family. My dad's family had a victory garden during WWII. My parents taught my three brothers and I how to grow a family garden. My wife's family was city people that thought all vegetables came from cans.

When we were first married we moved to a new house in a far away state, fifteen hundred miles away from the nearest family or friends. I started a vegetable garden with 12 tomato plants, some zucchinis, cucumbers, broccoli and peppers. I thought that 12 tomato plants would be more than enough for the two of us and would allow enough extra to give away to our new neighbors and friends.

A few days after planting I came home and my wife met me on the driveway all excited. She had run into a half price vegetable plant sale. I thought to myself `This is encouraging I will make a gardener out of her yet".

I had staked all the plants in the garden and had a few stakes left over so I asked, " How many plants did you buy?". She replied that she didn't know exactly but she bought all they had.

She led me out to the garden area and pointed to more tomato plants than I had ever seen in one place, not to mention zucchinis, yellow squash, crook neck squash, acorn squash, butter nut squash, cucumbers and broccoli. The look on my face must have gone from that of shock to that of laughing idiot. After explaining that you got more than one tomato per plant, I walked up and down the street pushing a wheel barrow with a big smile on my face, ringing doorbells introducing myself and giving vegetable plants to all my new neighbors.

My wife and I then planted the remaining vegetables and that included over sixty-two tomato plants in my newly expanded garden.

Sixty-two highly productive tomato plants for two newly wed people sounded about right! We had enough squash to feed the entire state of Florida with enough left over for export! Remember all my new neighbors now had vegetable gardens too thanks to my new wife's sharp bargain shopping. By the way, my wife had never cooked nor eaten squash before.

All summer long I dragged shopping bags and boxes to work to get rid of the surplus. Luckily I worked on a Naval Air Station with thousands of people that loved fresh vegetables! I was soon known as the tomato guy!

Well here we are 23 years later in another state 1000 miles away and guess what? I'm growing about one hundred plants for the five of us and I'm known as the tomato guy!

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Submitted by: Paula Banda, Phoenix, AZ

It is appropriate that it is closing in on midnight as I write this story, because it is a story that first began many years ago with a presentation to my students by Dr. Don Bartlette, a Chippewa, who talked about "macaroni at midnight." This young man had led a terrible life, had over come strife and misery because a bowl of macaroni and a sympathetic soul at midnight had given him the hope and the courage to make better of himself.

In my New England family, macaroni was often a staple through the lean years, and often the macaroni was embellished with nothing more than milk and butter. However, the richest of times brought us macaroni, tomatoes and cheese. There was nothing better than succulent tomatoes steaming on a bowl of macaroni!

As I grew older, times were sometimes lean and sometimes rich. I raised my daughter alone while I taught school, advanced to head teacher, and finally to running my own little school. Throughout the years, however, there has always been the lesson of "macaroni at midnight"...my family's version with steaming tomatoes. There have been the midnights just talking with my daughter...sometimes only with the tomatoes and cheese filling the bowls beneath our wandering Socratic musings. There have been the days with students sharing our strange tomato concoction while they sought advice or my patient ear. Too, there were the moments shared with my mother, a stroke victim, as we silently smiled over the "family recipe".

And then this spring, "macaroni at midnight" came back to me full force, as my son-in-law (who also teaches) mentored a young Pima boy by immersing the youth in a theatre tech class. I saw perpetuated in my home, the same care and concern that Dr. Bartlette had received as a boy. But now the story has become "macaroni, tomatoes, and cheese" in the evening as the young Pima boy smiles and says, "I have never had anything so good."

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Submitted by: Michelle A. Iosco

My favorite tomato story includes my father who has passed on and my sister in Pleasanton, California. My father an avid gardener for years in Chicago, Illinois always bragged about his garden, when my sister in law moved to California her joke to him was, that with the California weather she could plant all year round where my father couldn't.

And the both of them would have what we call the tomato wars and who could grow a "bigger tomata." One day when I showed up to my fathers home unexpected, in his large yard he had a tomato tied on to a fishing line hanging from a tree that was close to the house and further in the yard he had a wheelbarrow and there was endless Polaroid's on the table, with him trying to master his photo skills and trying to see if he could take a picture so far away that it would look like there was a giant tomato sitting in a wheel barrow so he could send to my sister in law, he did finally accomplish this picture and did fool my sister in law (I think! ) he eventually took videos of his claimed giant tomato of how Chicago tomato season might be shorter than California but Chicago can produce a larger tomato w/ a shorter season! If you could try to imagine all the hard work he put into this little gag of his it has to make you laugh! My sister in law and myself still laugh about that today!

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