COLUMBIA – A surprise chili is coming to town.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: 6th Annual Tomato Festival
WHEN: 4 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday
WHERE: Bradford Research and Extension Center, 4968 Rangeline Road. Directions: Go east on Broadway past Columbia city limits. Turn right at Rangeline Road. After about two miles, turn right into the Bradford Research farm.
The so-called ghost chili will test the stamina of those sampling 10 different salsas being prepared by festival organizers.
“The ghost chili is about three to four times hotter than a habanero,” said horticulturalist Steven Kirk of Lincoln University Extension.
The Bhut jolokia, a naturally occurring hybrid, was discovered growing wild in India, Kirk said. On the Scoville scale, which measures the heat of peppers, a bottle of Tabasco sauce rates between 2,500 and 5,000 Scoville units. The chocolate habanero grown at Bradford Farm rates between 100,000 and 350,000 units.
The ghost chili? The Guinness Book of World Records measured it in 2006 at 1,001,304 units.
Kirk is preparing salsas for tasting and rating at the festival and will include peppers ranging from the pasilla bajio at 100 Scoville units to Bhut jolokia insanity. Other varieties are the Anaheim, the Kung Pao, the mucho nacho and the chocolate habanero.
There shouldn’t be a need for ambulances. Kirk said he plans to use five ghost chilies per three liters of salsa, instead of the usual 15. Also, the hottest part of a hot pepper is the mushy membrane holding the seeds.
“With the ghost pepper, I’ll take the seeds out,” Kirk said.
The heirloom tomatoes at the festival are as old as the peppers are hot and a magnet for tomato aficionados as well.
More than 60 varieties of tomatoes and 40 varieties of peppers — sweet, mild and hot — will be available to taste and rate.
“When you go to the tasting, there are people who are so passionate about tomatoes,” farm superintendent Tim Reinbott said. “It’s like wine tasting where people try a sample, think about it, move on and try something else, and then go back to compare.”
Tomato varieties at the festival go back as far as 1884. Although the garden has more than 90 varieties of tomato compared to last year’s 68, about two-thirds of the plants either ripened early or succumbed to disease, particularly fungus, which was emboldened by the humidity.
“This has been the highest humidity summer, and we’ve had the most disease I’ve ever seen,” Reinbott said. This summer's weather, Reinbott said, will let people see which varieties held up best.
The prolonged summer heat also sped up ripening for some of the plants. Just last week, the research farm delivered 450 pounds of tomatoes to the Food Bank and about 100 pounds went to MU Campus Dining. So far this summer, the farm has produced about 2,800 pounds of vegetables.
Kirk, MU Extension horticulturalists David Trinklein and Jim Quinn, and Lincoln University Extension plant scientist Sanjun Gu will give talks about growing tomatoes and peppers between 4:30 and 6:30 p.m.
Last year’s Tomato Festival drew about 400 people, and Reinbott said he expected a similar turnout on Thursday.
Reinbott said part of the popularity of the festival has to do with the difference between store-bought and garden-grown tomatoes, including heirlooms, which are tomatoes grown from seeds that have been passed down over generations for their superior qualities.
“Tomatoes in the store ship great and look good. But there’s a huge taste difference," he said. "These dark tomatoes we have, they’re rich and very tomato-ey.”
Kirk called tomatoes the most versatile vegetable.
“I don’t know a lot of people putting peas in their breakfast,” he said. “You can put a tomato on almost anything, in your omelet for breakfast, on a sandwich for lunch, and then in your pasta sauce for dinner."
Bobby Johnson, a member of the board of directors for the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture, said tomatoes were the first produce he grew. "I think that’s the same for a lot of people,” he said.
Tomatoes are a best-seller for Tammy Sellmeyer, a vendor at the Columbia Farmers Market.
Barbara Cramer, 61, of Route B Greenhouse in Hallsville, also sells Geronimo and Goliath tomato varieties at the Columbia Farmers Market.
“You can’t have a summer without tomatoes,” Cramer said. “I grew up in the country, so I know what a real tomato tastes like. I’ll never buy a tomato in the store."