By Michele D. Baker
Photos courtesy of Dan Johnson and Glenn Koury
“It’s difficult to think anything but pleasant thoughts while eating a homegrown tomato.”
Lewis Grizzard, Southern writer and humorist
Nothing says summer more absolutely (and deliciously) than a vine-ripe tomato. In 2001, what started off as a few side-of-the-road fruit stands grew into The Tomato Place café off Highway 61 South in Vicksburg. In the last two decades, the popular eatery has acquired a “Mid South grandma’s back porch” atmosphere. From its humble beginnings selling farm-to-table vegetables and fruits, The Tomato Place has grown into a newsworthy pit stop and attraction for locals, tourists, and even foreign guests who learned about it from travel guidebooks and TV shows.
Hardworking owner Luke Hughes is passionate about produce. Except for Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Year’s, The Tomato Place is open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. for breakfast, lunch and dinner. “I’ve been working roadside stands my whole life,” says Hughes. “I used to grow all kinds of tomatoes myself, and I was eating a lot of tomato sandwiches. I sold my lunch one day, and it just grew from there.” Hughes now supports local farmers and backyard growers who bring in small baskets of whatever they picked that morning. “Sometimes I even trade vegetables for some of my famous fruit smoothies,” he laughs.
The appeal of the place begins at curbside, with blue and red umbrella-shaded tables right out front. A delectable aroma of frying fish whets your appetite for the meal to come, and there’s plenty to explore while you wait. Potted pansies hang cheek by jowl with lush ferns, begonias and geraniums. Inside the small store are fruits and veggies for sale, freshly baked bread, locally packed tea, Tomato Place hats and shirts, the café counter and a large cold case filled with smoothies in every imaginable flavor including peach, blackberry and strawberry banana.
Colorfully painted signs, bottle trees, and eclectic decorations adorn the walls and surfaces. An old corrugated-metal watering trough has been repurposed as a decorative koi pond, water spouting through a sun-bleached cow skull. Every nook and cranny is filled with flowers, knick knacks and genuine Americana. This place is homey, cozy and absolutely authentic; you can relax here. “This is a slow food, smell the roses, hear the music, feel the atmosphere kind of place,” explains Hughes. “We believe in real interactions between people and time to enjoy your made-from-scratch meal.”
And delicious food it is. Hughes uses some of his mother’s and grandmother’s recipes shaped by flavors picked up on his many travels. “I wouldn’t say my food’s gourmet, but it’s fresh, hot and tasty,” he jokes. “I never attended cooking school; I’m entirely self-taught. I just try to be original in my recipes, using flavors I enjoy.”
The lunch/dinner menu is a scrumptious panoply of Po’boys, salads, melts and clubs; and burgers and hotdogs; but there’s also breakfast (eggs, grits, bacon and sausage, omelets, fruit, bagels), homemade bread pudding and ready-made foods in the cooler just waiting to be taken home and heated up. Of special note are the fried catfish plate, the Jamaican burger with jerk seasoning and fried yams (inspired by a trip to the Caribbean), the twice-cooked “Boo Fries” and the fried green tomato BLT with avocado slices. (View a complete menu here.) Also available in the store and online – some in recycled wine and Corona beer bottles – are homemade sauces, jellies, syrups, chow chow, pecans, cookbooks and coffee. Be sure to pick up a bottle of “Mississippi Fever,” an original sweet and slightly spicy tomato and onion sauce – created by Hughes especially for his sister – that perfectly complements almost any item on the menu.
Although the roadside stand attracts its fair share of drive-by business from locals, before coronavirus, Hughes believes about half his customers were from other countries. “A couple from Holland biking through Mississippi found us in a Dutch travel guide,” he says, shaking his head in wonder. A South African gentleman comes every year while in the States on business. “Lots of Europeans come to Vicksburg for the Civil War history, the antebellum mansions and to experience southern hospitality,” he says. “Then they stop by for the kind of meal they can never get at home.”
“We’re all one big family here, including customers,” finishes Hughes. “Some of my former employees come back to visit and bring their children and grandchildren. It’s become intergenerational. The food is good, but The Tomato Place is really all about the people.”
To learn more, visit www.TheTomatoPlace.com
Recipe: Vicksburg Tomato Sandwich
Using a 4 or 5” round cutter, cut out two circles of white bread. Top one circle with a thick, peeled slice of juicy, ripe beefsteak tomato. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, a squeeze of Vidalia onion juice, and a generous dollop of homemade mayonnaise. Top with the other bread round. Serves 1.