Let’s talk tomatoes. First off, despite the botanical fact that tomatoes are fruits, the case of Nix v. Hedden, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that tomatoes are vegetables. (The Tariff Act of March 3, 1883 required a tax to be paid on imported vegetables, but not fruit, therefore a case was filed as an action by John Nix and his brothers against Edward Hedden, collector of the Port of New York, to recover back duties paid under protest.)
History aside, tomatoes are chocked full of nutrients, including being a great source of lycopene. They are known for their outstanding antioxidant content, which is linked to heart health. Tomatoes are known to strengthen the bones and lower cholesterol.
There are literally hundreds of different tomato varieties. But perhaps the best thing about tomatoes is the fact that they are the object of adoration at one of Mississippi’s most delicious food festivals.
The Tomato Festival is held the last Saturday of June each year in the town of Crystal Springs, about 20 minutes southwest of Jackson. Once known as the "Tomatopolis of the World," the entire town was once involved in tomato planting, harvesting as well as packing and canning. Tomatoes were shipped by rail across the nation. The activities at harvest time created a festive atmosphere, causing residents to hold "Tomato Days." The succulent red tomatoes were celebrated with parades, pageants, and picnics.
Mayor Sally Garland explained that from the early 1900s up to the 1940s, more produce was shipped from Crystal Springs than anywhere else in the country. "But when World War II broke out, everything stopped." The festival has been resurrected in more modern times. Garland was working for the city’s parks and recreation department in 1996 when the first Tomato Festival was held. "I was there at the beginning and I’ve watched it grow over the years."
When the interstate highways were built, many small towns suffered and Crystal Springs was no exception. Resurrecting the Tomato Festival was a way for the city to pull people off the highway and get them into the downtown area.
You don’t have to be a fan of tomatoes to enjoy the excitement that surrounds the Tomato Festival weekend. Festivities begin in the weeks leading up to the Tomato Festival and include: Crystal Springs Tomato Ball, Crowning of the Tomato Queen, Picnic in the Park, Main Street Movie Night, Farm to Table Dinner, and a variety of other community events held at downtown businesses. On Friday, the Junior Auxiliary features a street party with dinner and live music. A recent addition to the Tomato Festival is the Mississippi's Toughest Kids Foundation annual Tough Kids Car Show. The event is free to the public and the cars are set up on East Railroad Ave in front of the Crystal Springs City Hall from 8:00-2:30. Over 100 cars and trucks will compete for top prizes.
The actual festival kicks off early Saturday morning with a kiddie parade with bicycles, tricycles, scooters, and wagons decorated in red to honor the tomato. One of the most popular attractions is the farmers market. "It’s the only farmers market held in Crystal Springs all year," said Dr. Rick Snyder, who heads not only the market, but the Mississippi State Experiment Station in Gallman. "We usually have about 15 to 20 vendors, most of which are very local. We will have some vendors who come from about an hour to an hour and a half away." In addition to plenty of red and green tomatoes, seasonal produce will be available, including sweet corn, peppers, summer squash, butter beans, snap beans, cucumbers, okra, blueberries, peaches, blackberries, plums, and more. "We will also have food products including local honey, jams and preserves as well as potted plants and cut flowers." A tip to those who may come for the produce: come early, as they sell out fast.
The 5K run is always popular. It’s sponsored by the Mississippi Track Club and draws runners from all over the state. There is also a bike rally, plus games, rides, and live music. Centered around the railroad tracks, the event features plenty of arts and crafts and "typical festival food," according to Wells. "Of course, there will be plenty of tomato-related food to sink your teeth into, including fried green tomatoes and BLT sandwiches!" The Cattlemen’s Association comes each year and sells ribeye steak sandwiches. "They make about 1,500 of them, and they’re always sold out by 1 p.m."
The centerpiece of the festival is the giant fiberglass tomato where countless festival-goers have posed for photos. The big tomato only appears for the festival, but 500-pound concrete tomatoes have been placed around town year-round in various degrees of ripeness.
The festival stretches beyond the downtown area with owners of many of the historic homes hosting "porch parties" serving tomato sandwiches and other delicacies.
At the Chautauqua Park Visitor’s Center, the Tomato Museum and Art Gallery offers a trip back in time. The museum houses historic photos, original canning labels, and antique tomato harvesting tools and machinery as well as memorabilia from past Tomato Festivals. It’s also where the festival’s art contest takes place. "The Tomato Festival is a wonderful time for us to promote our city and enjoy what we know and love," said Mayor Garland. “People come back each year to celebrate our heritage. Those who have moved away love to come back to visit family and friends. We even see lots of class reunions during the festival. We are looking forward to seeing everyone the last Saturday in June!"
This year's festival is set for Saturday, June 24th. For more information, visit www.cityofcrystalsprings.com.