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It's a tomato jungle out there

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Posted: Friday, August 29, 2008 10:00 pm

I have a jungle in my front yard - a tomato jungle. The plants have taken over my flower bed, are climbing my fence and are stretching across the walk way. The vines are hanging heavy with red, ripe fruit, all from volunteer plants that sprouted from last summer's stray seeds.

The tomato plants that I bought this year, dug holes for, mixed soil for and took great care to fertilize, water and nurture are just pitiful next to my neglected healthy volunteers. I wish I knew what these super sweet, strong willed volunteers were so I could plant these cherry tomato gems again.

Maybe I'll get lucky and they will re-seed themselves again next summer. I am enjoying popping these warm burst of sunshine into my mouth every time I walk out my front door, and my son seems to have a perpetual red stain on the front of his shirt where juice and seeds explode from his mouth with every bite.

Late August, early September marks the height of the summer tomato harvest. Both the commercial harvest and the home garden are at their peak right now. Farmer's markets and grocers have an array of sizes, and colors, some with stripes and some fully ripe while still very green in color.

The tomato selections available to us during the summer months has expanded in recent years as consumers are seeking to return to those full flavor juicy fruits of the past. Heirloom varieties are no longer a high priced, hard sale in the markets, but are in demand.

Festivals celebrating the heirloom tomato with varietal tastings, and cooking demonstrations are not just back yard parties but celebrated events. Carmel's Tomato Fest on September 14th at Quail Lodge Resort in Carmel will draw thousands of people in the name of the tomato. Fairfield's annual Tomato Festival in mid-August celebrates the county's agricultural heritage and draws more than 45,000 people to sample gourmet tomato products with more than 50 varieties available on Tomato Alley for tasting.

With food prices continuing to rise, consumers are starting to demand more from their purchases, including flavor and responsible growing practices. Organics and community-supported farm products are not much more expensive than produce from large scale commercial operations.

The connection between what's on our plate and the way food is grown and how it tastes has begun to reach the general population in part due to organizations like Slow Food USA. Labor Day weekend is the first Slow Food Nation food festival in San Francisco and although the effects of this food festival with a political message will not be immediately known outside of the Bay area. The attention this movement is drawing to our poor eating habits and our ailing food system in general are making people stop to think about what they are buying and from whom.

The popularity of farmers' co-ops, open air markets and community farms allows buyers to see how their food is grown, feel a part of the process and get to know the grower. September 6th is a day on the farm with our own local community farm, Fresh Edibles, where members will spend the day tasting heirloom tomatoes, etching pumpkins cutting flowers and enjoying a day on a working farm.

As the days grow shorter and darkness sneaks ever so slowly up to announce fall's arrival, relish in the bounty of the prolific zucchini plant, savor a rainbow heirloom tomato salad paired perfectly with fresh mozzarella and basil. Rejoice in the waning days of the summer harvest. Eat your way through the farmer's market and please forgive my red tomato stains as I eat my way out of my front door.

Lodi resident Nancy Rostomily is a southern girl at heart, who enjoys the art and science of food. She can be reached at lodifood@hotmail.com.

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