Columbia - The hot August sun glared off the surface of the scalding 400-degree oil in a cast-iron skillet. Nearby, a tray of sliced green tomatoes — picked the day before at a local farm — awaited its fate.
The scene was just one of many at the Tomato Fest on Sunday in Columbia, aimed at raising awareness and funds for the group’s educational mission. The free public event was put on by Big Canoe, which operates a sustainable teaching garden on Sanford Avenueto raise awareness and funds for the group’s educational mission.
“We want to be able to make services available to everyone,” said Jenny Czyzewski, the Tomato Fest organizer as she set up ceramic vases of flowers on a table of art auction goods. The food from the garden is “definitely to be shared,” she said.
Newcomers — tomato experts and gardening novices alike — were greeted at the gate by a cornucopia of heirloom tomatoes: from petite Black Princes to juicy 1884s to orange Nebraska Weddings.
Big Canoe member Eric Hemple picked candidates to taste samples from an oversized red wagon.
Eager taster Rachel Perkins, 8, favored the spotted Green Zebra tomato because it was “juicy and sour.”
Jan Goodman cast her ballot for the Mortgage Lifter tomato.
“I’ve always liked the Mortgage Lifter,” Goodman said. “It’s got more flavor, which is the reason you eat them.”
The Mortgage Lifter variety got the name because of its large size — when times were tough, you could grow enough to make money, Hemple said.
While kids — both barefoot and wearing shoes, bare-skinned and clothed — dashed around and played in a kiddy pool. Adults mingled, holding paper plates of freshly prepared food and cups of what Greg Baka dubbed “very potent tomato juice,” Big Canoe’s fresh-tomato-based Bloody Marys.
When bluegrass band The Mere Mortals put down their instruments for a break under the property’s shade-giving hackberry tree, Czyzewski announced the start of the tomato games. Seventeen kids and a group of parents gathered in the property’s front yard for a heated tomato toss contest.
Cheers from both sides rivaled the sonorous August cicadas as winner Michael McGinsey, 6, was declared. His strategy: “throw underhanded,” he said, his official Tomato Fest 2007 medal tied with red string around his neck.
For more information about Big Canoe and future events, go to bigcanoemo.org.