Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A tribute to summertime, the Bradley County Pink Tomato and the early days of rock and roll stars

It’s almost time to say good-bye to summer, although fall doesn’t officially start until September 22. Summer is my favorite season of the year, primarily because I love homegrown tomatoes. I grew up in the small town of Warren, in Bradley County in southeastern Arkansas. It was known as “the land of the tall pines and pink tomatoes.” Every year, during the second week in June, Bradley County celebrates with a Pink Tomato Festival honoring the Bradley County pink tomato, a special variety of tomato which holds the distinction of being Arkansas’ state fruit and vegetable.


In 1956 a small group of the town merchants and members of the Bradley County Chamber of Commerce, which included my father, decided to create an event to celebrate the tomato industry and help promote business in the area. The Bradley County Pink Tomato Festival was born. Since that one day event in 1956, the celebration the festival has grown into a week long affair and is one of the oldest continuous running festivals in Arkansas. A parade, complete with the governor riding in a convertible, and beauty pageant were added in 1957. The all-tomato luncheon has always been a favorite.

In fact this year in June of 2009 the residents of Bradley County set the worlds record for the longest BLT (bacon, lettuce and tomato) sandwich by making a 169-foot-long BLT, using 60 pounds of sliced Bradley tomatoes, 300 pounds of Arkansas Tyson bacon, 220 ounces of mayonnaise and 80 pounds of lettuce.


Photos courtesy of the Bradley County Chamber of Commerce


Over the years the market share for pink tomatoes has been eroding because supermarkets’ now rely on durable strains of tomatoes, picked green and forced to ripen after being removed from the vine. Thick skinned tomatoes are favored for this because they aren’t easily damaged in shipping. But we all know those supermarket tomatoes lack the flavor and texture of vine-ripened fruit. For Arkansas consumers, the vine-ripened pink tomato is still available in farmer’s markets and Warren continues to host the Pink Tomato Festival every June.

As I recall, about this same time as the merchants and chamber members were starting the festival, this same group of men put together the South Arkansas Fair & Marketing Association. One of the things I remember they did was to build a large pavilion where the farmers could bring their tomatoes to be graded and boxed for shipment and where the farmers could work with the various tomato buyers. The Fair & Marketing Association also hosted the Annual Bradley County Fair & Livestock Show.

My father was President of the Association when I was in about the seventh grade. He came home for dinner one night and announced that Otis Cash, one of the members, had a cousin named Johnny from nearby Kingsland who was an up and coming singer for Sun Records in Memphis, which was about the same time Elvis, the king of Rock and Roll, was recording for Sun and got his start in the music business. Johnny planned to bring a friend of his, another one of Sun’s recording artists named Jerry Lee, and they would be the entertainment for the Livestock Show that year. You’ve probably figured out by now I’m talking about Johnny Cash in the early years of his career. Johnny Cash went on to become one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century with early hits as “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk the Line.” His friend was the one and only Jerry Lee Lewis who had just recorded two hits for Sun Records, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Great Balls of Fire.”


It’s been years since I’ve thought about the Pink Tomato Festival or eaten a Bradley County Pink, as they are called. My father used to send us a case each year, but he’s been for gone twenty-five years and I probably haven’t been back to Arkansas but a few times since then.


When my husband and I went to see the movie about Johnny Cash’s life, Walk the Line, a couple of years ago, I remembered that night in the fifties when he and Jerry Lee belted out their rock and roll songs around a grand piano on a stage in the rodeo arena in a sleepy small town in south Arkansas. My sister and I had pony tails back then and we probably wore our poodle skirts and saddle shoes as we sat in the front row in box seat at the livestock show of a small town rodeo along with our father watching rock and roll history unfold. Cash and Lewis went on to receive numerous awards and both were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.


As I said earlier, summertime is my favorite time of the year and I’m really going to miss the homegrown tomatoes. What is your favorite time of the year and what will you miss most about summer?

36 comments:

  1. What a lovely post, Sam! Such a great history. I love heirloom varieties of tomato, and yes, so much more flavorful than the thick-skinned grocery store variety so many people (only) know. I loved hearing of your days & memories of the festival (luv Johnny Cash). And how much do I wish I was there to see that BLT in person :D

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  2. It sounds like such a wonderful place to grow up and I'd love to be on the receiving end of those sun-ripened pink tomatoes.Thanks for sharing your memories Sam.

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  3. A wonderful post! Wow, that's a long sandwich!

    I love Johnny Cash! Lucky you!

    Cheers,

    Rosa

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  4. Great post on the pink tomatoes, such wonderful memories to share! I would love a bite of that huge tomato sandwich!

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  5. A nice post :) I like post that bring back about old memories.

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  6. Great post, Sam. I love how one memory leads to another. (I always wanted a poodle skirt but my mother, ever the individual, bought me a white felt circle skirt with a large felt rose in various shades of pink where a poodle should have been. Much prettier, no doubt, but it wasn't a poodle skirt. Obviously, the memory still rankles.)

    We've enjoyed Cherokee Purples and Mr. Stripeys and Amish Paste tomatoes all summer. And when they're gone, I have a freezer full of sauce and roasted tomatoes to remind me of summer's bounty.

    Summer isn't usually my favorite time because of the heat but this year has been so moderate I've enjoyed the weather. I'll miss the night sounds of frogs and insects and the tiny winking light of the fire flies.

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  7. Such lovely memories, Sam. Thanks for sharing them with us. I love heirloom tomatoes and every once in a while pink heirlooms appear in our stores. Next time I see them I'll ask where they were grown. I haven't had breakfast yet. A BLT sounds awfully good :-). Have a wonderful day.

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  8. Sam, Thanks for the tribute to past summers, so much history, great pictures. I love reading about the pink tomato and love, love reading about when Johnny Cash came to town.

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  9. This was a great post! My favorite time of year is winter while it is raining. I love the sound of the rain and find it to be the ultra comfort for me. I am not a huge fan of the heat we get here so I am ready for summer to leave soon but I will miss the swimming and having my kids off from school.

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  10. That post just kept getting better and better. I bet you enjoyed composing it too, didn't you. A lovely read, thank you.
    Blessings, Star

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  11. BLT's are my favorite - I would have loved to have been there for a piece of that sandwich.

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  12. great post same the blt looks amazing you should write a book LOL Rebecca

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  13. Nice nice pictures :-) and look at length of the sandwich :-)

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  14. "Walk the Line" is one of my favorite movies. I just watched it again for about the 1000th time last week!

    Last year I bought a heritage tomato plant and the tomatoes were pink and about the best tomatoes I've ever tasted. But they yield was so small only about 5 tomatoes on the entire plant.

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  15. I love BLTs, especially with fresh tomatoes! When I went to lunch with my family as a kid I would almost always order a BLT.

    What fun memories!

    I will miss the tomatoes as well.

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  16. Sam, we'll have to duke it out!
    Jersey vs. Arkansas tomatoes!
    May the best tomato win!

    I wish tomato season would never end, because there is no way I am eating a tomato after Oct. 1!

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  17. There is nothing better than a homegrown heirloom tomato. In recent years, I have stopped buying store bought tomatoes (for a variety of reasons including,flavor).
    Fresh tomatoes and a big beautiful BLT sandwich-does not get better than that!
    Thanks for sharing this history with us.

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  18. I would love about six inches of that blt right now...I grew up listening to Johnny and Lewis, and their music is still my favorite!

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  19. I so enjoyed this post! We miss so much of the wonderful varieties of food out there because our groceries are filled with uniform produce and foodstuff. I would love to try a Bradley County Pink (and a portion of that enormous BLT!)

    As for seeing a before-he-was-a-star Johnny Cash, how amazing! After the film, new fans have emerged, myself included.

    Now, my favorite time of year is the transition between summer and fall - the temps are cool but not yet cold; the trees are still full and colorful rather than bare and gray. But I will miss the long days of summer. It's so nice to sit outside at night and it's still light. Sigh.

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  20. What a great story - that is some fantastic sandwich! I do enjoy how food jogs memories, and summer is full of them. This past weekend, I took my parents to ride the Nunley's Carousel, a classic carousel that has been restored after being in storage for years. I rode it in childhood, as did my mom. In 1995 my brother and I took a final ride when we thought it was going to be dismantled, but it was saved and it took years to return. This past weekend, we had pink lemonade after riding to celebrate Nunley's comeback. It was a great day!

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  21. What a great post! memories...ahh...

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  22. Loved the history in this post-what a neat connection to Cash and Lewis-wow that is something to me.

    About summer-I'll miss fresh tomatoes too-and sitting in the warm sunshine.

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  23. A marvellous post this is!! Lovely & well written!!

    I love tomatoes in all of its sorts,...

    I prefer autumn & winter because I love all sort of cabbages, Brussels sprouts, etc. I love to eat duck & game,...

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  24. Great memories Sam. After having heirloom tomatoes over Labor Day I will never go back to the grocery store variety. Love the picture of Jerry Lee and Johnny with Carl Perkins and Elvis. Jerry Lee just came out with a CD called "Last Man Standing" I think. They used that picture.

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  25. I will miss many of my herbs that die once the summer temps drop. I'll mostly miss my fresh grown tomatoes. It makes me want to weep to pay high prices for anemic tasting commercial tomatoes. There is nothing like sweet Early Girl tomatoes. I think I'm going to cry now...

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  26. Great post, Sam! From pink tomatoes through Elvis & The Man in Black & Jerry Lee, ponytail summers and such –what a sandwich!!!
    Thanks for the juicy-good pink memories.

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  27. Wonderful post on tomatoes! I don't buy tomatoes from the grocery store unless they are canned. I wait for the fresh tomatoes of summer, which I grow and/or buy from a local produce stand.

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  28. I enjoyed reading your post. So many memories. I've never seen a tomato sandwich that long. Would love to try that kind of tomato.

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  29. darn - I tried leaving a comment earlier, but it seems to have gone "poof" into cyberspace - but if a duplicate does show up, I apologize!

    Sam - I love this post. It's one of my favorites.

    It's full of my favorite things - small town cultural history, tomatoes and country music - yeeha!

    thanks, very much.

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  30. Sam,
    This is a great post on the Bradley Co. Pink Tomato Festival. What wonderful memories it must bring back. Thanks for sharing this with us. I always liked to hear Johnny Cash sing.

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  31. What a lovely, lovely post. I loved learning a bit of your charming delightful history.

    I have never seen a pink heirloom tomato.. bet they are delish!What an incredibly lengthy sandwich!!

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  32. This was a fun post. I want to go! I want the sandwich, all the tomato varieties and the music. A Pink Tomato Festival! What a grand idea.

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  33. This post brought back memories of my dad trying to grow homegrown tomatoes in the Florida sun in the Florida sand in the yard at the side of the house. He did indeed get huge red tomatoes but the fact that they were all splotchy with black spots made us all afraid to eat them. Poor dad. Lovely post!

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  34. I loved your Pink Tomato post, and I am honored that you chose me for this wonderful award. What a very nice thing to do. I will be sure to pass it on to others for whom I know it will bring pleasure as well. It is fun getting to know you. I look forward to more of your terrific stories. The choir director at my school is from Warren - Reeca Norman. I will have to ask her maiden name. My pledge trainer in the Kappa house at UA was Pauline Appleton; I bet you knew her and her family. Kip Kelley, also from Warren, and I trained and worked together as speech pathologists for a period of time before our paths separated (We recently reconnected through Facebook!). I'm sure that there are others. Hope you have a terrifc day and thanks again.

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  35. My fave time of year is fall because I love the beautiful foliage and cooler weather. What I will miss most about summer is walking around in shorts.

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  36. Sam- neat story. I too , was at the Cash show.I once talked to Johnny about it and he remembered being there

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Sam