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?