The Unconventional Tomato

How to Survive a Tomato Tasting

Here is the To Do List that Suze and I developed for the South East Texas Tomato Festival over the years. All told, it takes about 10 hours of planning and execution to put on an informal tomato tasting, yet it seems to greatly intimidate people. Hopefully this document helps allay some fears about hosting such an event.

3-6 months Before the Event:

1. Pick 2-3 possible dates for the event that fall right in the middle of peak tomato harvest times for your geographic area.

2. Pick a location (typically a state park) that is relatively central and convenient to reach by major roads.

3. Contact the state park service and ask which dates are available for a family get-together and for details about the facilities including pricing for different pavilions.

4. Pick a name for your event that is memorable. Make sure not to use ‘TomatoFest’ or ‘Tomato Fest’ in the name as they are copyrighted by Gary Ibsen. Tomato Festival is OK.

5. Once you have selected a place, date, and time, name for your club/event, make an announcement on gardening forums like Tomatoville, Dave’s Garden, Helpful Gardener, etc.

6. You might want to make up a flyer and distribute it at garden centers/nurseries in your area.

The Night Before the Event:

1. Make a list of all the tomato varieties you plan to bring. If possible, get other people who will bring tomatoes to e-mail you their lists 2 days in advance of the event.

2. Write or print the name of each tomato variety on a foam plate, along with the name of the person who brought them (or you may divide tables into different people).

3. Place the foam plate along with the tomatoes (washed and thoroughly dried if Daconil was used) of each variety in individual bags.

4. Place the bags of tomatoes in a single layer into one or more accounting boxes, Rubbermaid tubs, or laundry baskets in a cool, dark place.

5. Prepare ice chest with ice and diet sodas.

6. Everything should be packed and ready to go before you go to bed.

The Day Of the Event:

1. Schedule at least 1 hour of Setup time BEFORE the event time, and arrive 30 minutes BEFORE the announced Setup time. For example:

You Arrrive: 10:00am
EventĀ Setup: 11:00am
EventĀ Event: Noon-3pm

2. Run the air conditioner in your car to maximum for a few minutes to get your car/truck as cold as possible before transferring ice chest, bagged tomatoes, and other items to your car.

3. Decide NOW how you are going to feel about people who don’t bring any tomatoes, but go around gathering lots of tomato seeds. You can either encourage this by providing Ziplock bags, or discourage it by engaging these people and asking for their e-mail address and if they intend to bring tomatoes next year. Your choice.

4. Set aside plenty of space for people to bring their own tomatoes. It’s best if each person can have their own area of tomatoes that is clearly delineated by napkins or another divider. Don’t just crowd the plates together or people will forget whose tomatoes belong to whom. When two people bring tomatoes of the same variety, comparisons can be very informative.

5. Face all the tomato plates one way. This seems counterintuitive, but people will tend to want to read all the tomato varieties without having to switch sides of the table.

6. If you want photos of all the tomato varieties, try to do this near the end of Setup and before the masses arrive. Stragglers will show up late bringing tomatoes late to the party, so you’ll just have to be vigilant about going around and photographing those varieties too.

7. If you want to take a group photo of everyone, the best time to do this is 30 minutes after the event starts. Most people will start to leave after 1 hour.

8. Most people will not have the patience to fill out a scoring sheet/card for every tomato variety, especially if there are more than 50 varieties. It is better to have a posterboard where people can write or vote for their favorite varieties. Just coming away from the event with 2-3 favorites is quite helpful.

9. This goes without saying, but the serrated knives used to slice tomatoes must be clean and have only been used for slicing fruit or vegetables since being washed. Only 2-3 people should be going around slicing all the tomatoes for sampling, which should be done at the end of setup. This reduces the number of hands touching ready-to-eat tomatoes!!

10. I have found it best to slice off the very bottom of the tomato, then continue to do horizontal slices from the bottom up until you reach the corky parts of the tomato. Then cut through the tomato sideways, dividing all the slices in half. This produces tomato pieces large enough to sample, but not so large that people are full after 10 samples. Very large beefsteak tomatoes can be cut into quarters after slices have been made.

11. Look at the photos of SETTFest 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011 for ideas on the above concepts…

12. You can have fun, but realize you are the host, and should always be keeping an eye out for problems that crop up and solve those problems so others will have fun and want to come back next year. Don’t be disappointed if only a few people bring tomatoes, even if that number doesn’t improve over subsequent years.

13. As far as park inspectors, LEOs, etc., I suggest staying under the radar! If you make a big fuss about your event, or publicize heavily (especially with a required $5-10 attendance fee), then the Health Dept may decide that this is a paid catering/cooking event and do a surprise inspection. Unless you have taken ServSafe courses and are fully licensed, they’re going to toss every sliced tomato in the trash and write up some major fines with your name on them. This has never happened to anyone we know, but I thought I’d put this ‘worst case scenario’ in here anyway. Keep the event informal, with a donations box, If anyone asks, it’s just a not-for-profit tomato tasting group that gets together once a year.

14. Expect the unexpected guest! We’ve had a homeless person show up. We’ve had to call the Park Ranger to run off people who didn’t want to respect our pavilion Reservation. Some parks are very stingy with the deposit and if so much as a sugar packet, straw, or squished cherry tomato are left behind, they’ll keep it.

15. Remember, there is no one right way to do a tomato tasting. This is what we have learned in five years of doing it. You may find different techniques that work for you. Or after one year, you may decide that a small-scale invitation-only event is better for you.

Items to Bring List

  • Digital Camera (fully charged, memory cleared)
  • Oscillating Pole Fan
  • 10-12 cheap serrated knives (for cutting Tomatoes)
  • Plastic Tablecloths (16 – $1/ea at dollar store)
  • Tablecloth Holder Clips
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Sugar
  • blank Name Badges
  • Extension Cord
  • Power Strip
  • Olive Oil
  • Feta Cheese
  • Basil
  • Donation basket or box
  • Clips or Push pins to put up event sign!
  • 100+ Foam Plates
  • Plastic Cups (red Solo)
  • Sharpie Markers
  • Scissors
  • Post-in Notes
  • Paper Towels and/or Napkins
  • Plastic Cutting board(s)
  • Duct Tape — to tape down extension cords
  • Toilet Paper (2+ Rolls)
  • Large Trash Bags — for event cleanup
  • Ice Chest & 25+ lbs of ice
  • ice chest: Diet Sodas (at least 36 cans – Sprite, 7up, Coke)
  • ice chest: Cut up melon, watermelon, etc.
  • ice chest: 1 gallon of drinking water
  • ice chest: 2-3 washcloths soaked in water, in ziplock bags
  • Two or more hand towels to wipe your forehead
  • Sunblock
  • Plastic Grocery Bags — for people to take extra tomatoes home
  • Ziplock bags — if you want to encourage people to bring tomato seeds home
  • Printed List of Tomato Varieties from each person — 2 days in advance if possible!
  • Guestbook/Sign-in Sheet with Name, Forum Handle, and e-mail address
  • Event Sign — even just a few black and white 8×11 with the name of your event in large block letter.

At the end of the event, you will be thankful for the ice cold wet washcloths that you can put on your forehead or neck to cool down.