COLUMBIA — Beneath a tent at the 9th annual Tomato Festival, crowds lined long rows of tables laden with heaping platefuls of tomatoes, tomatillos and peppers. People filed down the rows, spearing pieces of produce on toothpicks; sampling and ranking each.
David Myers, 9, said his favorite tomato was the Woodle Orange.
"It was basically just sweet. I don't like bitter tomatoes," he said, before dashing off to examine a plate of Matt's Wild Cherry Tomatoes.
Charles Fisher, 79, said it was his third visit to the festival. Although Fisher grows tomatoes in a bucket garden for tomato juice, vegetable soup and chili, the festival's bounty was too much for him.
"I made it through just the first two rows and I'm full," Fisher said. "I've never seen so many varieties."
The festival is hosted and organized by the Bradford Research and Extension Center. Center Superintendent Tim Reinbott seemed reluctant to select a favorite tomato.
"There is one that I love," he finally said. "The Garden Peach. It tastes magnificent."
While people clustered around the tomatoes and tomatillos, the crowds were far sparser at the tables of hot peppers. There, signs warned that some of the peppers were extremely hot and a gallon of milk sat at a table's edge; a liquid salve for those foolish or brave enough to partake.
Bennett Wickenhauser, an MU student who paused by the milk to wipe pepper-induced sweat from his forehead with his t-shirt, said his favorite pepper was the Trinidad Scorpion — one of the world's hottest.
"It was a huge rush of delicious flavor and then it turned into pain," he said.
But Wickenhauser is not a hot pepper aficionado: "I just dabble in painful foods," he said.
For the first time this year, the festival featured a kids corner and a cook-off where participants voted on dishes prepared by several local chefs using produce from the center. The results of the chef competition as well as the produce rankings, are forthcoming.
Larry Brown, who has been to nearly all the tomato festivals, said that the chef competition and a greater diversity of salsa were good additions to the festival.
"It's overwhelming, there are so many varieties," Brown said.
Pauline Landhuis, a first-time festivalgoer confessed that she had a hard time distinguishing between the tomatoes.
"I could tell they were all tomatoes," Landhuis said.
"Some of the heirlooms are quite surprising," she added. "They were better than I thought they'd be."
Jacob Knerr, 17, prepared 4.25 gallons of chocolate and cayenne ice cream for the festival. He gave the ice cream a spicy kick by steeping peppers in the cream and milk and making a brandy reduction sauce with cayenne. Knerr is home-schooled but taking culinary classes at the Columbia Area Career Center and plans to go to culinary school.
"Some people really liked it. Other people were not too keen on the cayenne," Knerr said. "Other people were skeptical at first but liked it once they tried it."
The festival usually attracts between 400 and 600 visitors. "It's a great turnout and it's getting bigger every year," said Reinbott.
Unlike last year, where drought significantly inhibited the center's tomato crop, this year the tomatoes peaked just in time for the festival, Reinbott said.
"This is the best year we've had."
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