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Sunday, July 14, 2024

Arkansas’ most celebrated fruit the star at All-Tomato Luncheon

Arkansas River Valley Business Directory

By Tracy Courage
U of A System Division of Agriculture

People are sometimes willing to pay a little more for quality, and that was certainly true at the 68th annual Bradley County Pink Tomato Festival, where a 20-pound box of the celebrated fruit sold for $2,050 — as much as an ounce of gold.

The money goes back into the festival, and we wanted to show our business’ support,” said Elizabeth Britton, who with her husband recently opened South Arkansas Pet Cremations in Warren.

The auction was part of the All Tomato Luncheon, which, as the name implies, revolves around Bradley County’s most celebrated fruit. Luncheon tickets are sold in advance with a few tickets available for walk-ins, although that’s not always the case.

“In big election years, tickets sell fast, and we’ll easily have more than 300 here,” said Judy Simmons, a member of Friendship Club Extension Homemakers Club in Warren and chair of the luncheon committee. The luncheon has become a traditional stop for local, state and national candidates on the campaign trail.

Extension Homemakers Council clubs in Bradley and Cleveland counties planned the menu and prepared and plated the food, while Bradley County 4-H members served it to the crowd gathered inside the First Baptist Church Activities Center.

This year’s guests enjoyed a chicken salad-stuffed tomato, “tomarinated” carrots, green bean almondine with green tomatoes and savory tomato basil crackers. For dessert, the hosts served Tomato Heavenly Cake, a chocolate cake made with tomato juice.

Simmons also baked a tomato cake that was auctioned for $750.

Extension Homemakers Council (EHC) members and Arkansas 4-H are both programs of the Cooperative Extension Service, part of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. Extension Homemakers provide club members with leadership training, education for better living and opportunities for community service.

Proceeds from the luncheon help the clubs fund future community service projects. This past year, Bradley County EHC made fidget mats and lap blankets for local nursing home residents and provided police with “ouchie” dolls and little bears to give children, Simmons said.

Tomato Pie for the win

During the luncheon, winners of the inaugural Bradley County Pink Tomato Festival Pie Contest were announced. Twenty-one people entered the contest, which featured two categories: pies with tomatoes and pies without.

Mary J. Mullins of Warren won the tomato pie category and best overall with her Hot Tomato Tart, featuring tomatoes, green onions, jalapenos, bacon and Mexican cheese. She won $100 and an invitation to compete next year at the Arkansas Pie Festival in Cherokee Village, hosted by Kat Robinson, an Arkansas food historian, travel writer and cookbook author.

Doug Thornton was the runner-up with his tomato pie, made with cheese he smoked himself.

Madison Mashburn of Hermitage won top honors in the traditional pie category with her Old-Fashioned Coconut Cream pie. Robinson, one of three pie judges, said Mashburn’s pie had “the richest custard I’ve ever tasted and a perfect crust.”

Hannah Hill, 9, was the runner-up with her Double Berry Pie, which Robinson said was at an “expert level.”

“I’m always thrilled to see young people come out and compete,” she said. “It’s clear the next generation loves pie as much as the rest of us.”

Thank a farmer

Part of what makes the Bradley County Pink Tomato Festival the longest-running festival in Arkansas is the county’s love for its most famous fruit — and that starts with the county’s 15 commercial tomato growers who farm about 350 acres.

“When you look at our tri-county area — Bradley, Drew and Ashley counties — it’s a much larger operation,” said John Gavin, Bradley County agriculture extension agent with the Division of Agriculture. “We have an established commercial market for large rounds, Roma types and grape tomatoes. We’re very fortunate to be able to show that good things are coming from rural Arkansas.”

In addition to working with the county growers and producers, Gavin also served on the All Tomato Luncheon committee, coordinated the tomato packing contest and made sure hundreds of pounds of Bradley County’s finest got delivered to festival headquarters and contest sites.

Tomato eating contest

Tomatoes were in high demand at the tomato eating contest, where at least one competitor – Earl Charles of Warren – came to win.

“This is my fifth year participating,” he told the crowd before the eating frenzy began. “I won three times, and then some of these guys beat me. This is my last year competing, and I am here to regain my championship.”

Charles made good on his promise, eating 2.68 pounds of tomatoes in three minutes and besting six other competitors in the professional category.

Some of the younger competitors didn’t care that much for tomatoes, but they enjoyed the competition all the same.

Elijah Bymaster of Monticello heard that the 12-and-under contestants would get snow cones after eating tomatoes, and that was incentive enough for him.

To learn about Extension programs, contact your local Cooperative Extension Service agent or visit www.uaex.uada.edu. Follow us on X and Instagram at @AR_Extension. To learn more about Division of Agriculture research, visit the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station website: https://aaes.uada.edu. Follow on X at @ArkAgResearch. To learn more about the Division of Agriculture, visit https://uada.edu/. Follow us on X at @AgInArk.

About the Division of Agriculture

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s mission is to strengthen agriculture, communities, and families by connecting trusted research to the adoption of best practices. Through the Agricultural Experiment Station and the Cooperative Extension Service, the Division of Agriculture conducts research and extension work within the nation’s historic land grant education system. 

The Division of Agriculture is one of 20 entities within the University of Arkansas System. It has offices in all 75 counties in Arkansas and faculty on five system campuses.  

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture offers all its Extension and Research programs to all eligible persons without regard to race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital or veteran status, genetic information, or any other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.

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Tammy Teague
Tammy Teague
Tammy is the heart behind the brand. Her tenacity to curate authentic journalism, supported by a genuine heart is one her many wholesome qualities.
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