Real tomatoes - Martha Carr

It is tomato-growing season, and this year, my neighbor, Mimi, and I have decided to get in on the action. With the help of our neighbors, Old Matt and New Matt, we've hung two Topsy-Turvy tomato plants from my back deck in Chicago, plus we planted one more Celebrity variety in a big pot.

We have grand ambitions for what we're going to do with the harvest.

Next door, our neighbor, Dave, has filled his entire deck with tomato plants and upstairs, Liz and Mike have filled storage bins with dirt and more tomato plants. Tomato fever has hit our little corner of the world.

Already, the Big Beef tomato plant is showing signs of distress,and it's left me thinking that we may be in over our heads. The Better Boy right next to it is going great guns and the consensus seems to be to start over while there's still time and plant another Better Boy plant. We could use some growing tips, if any readers out there have some.

We're very excited about our little urban garden and neighbors are already inviting themselves over to the eventual dinners. Fortunately for all of us, Mimi's a great cook. I'm willing to stir and wash dishes, so it all evens out.

The best tomatoes I've ever had come from two distinct parts of the country that are known for their tomato-growing prowess. The first is New Jersey, that's right, New Jersey, which is officially known as "The Garden State." In southern New Jersey in another month, there will be stands lining Route 40 with hand-drawn signs that say, "Jersey Tomatoes." Those are the large, ripe tomatoes that have this wonderful aroma before you even bite into them.

The other variety is the Hanover Tomato that's grown in Hanover County, Virginia and is near where my father's side of the family has been rooted for a couple hundred years. These tomatoes can be eaten like a fruit with no additions necessary. They have a deeper red color and are perfect for BLT's. Hanover tomatoes were the only kind my late father, Dabney, was willing to eat.

Neither the Jersey tomato, nor the Hanover tomato is a single heirloom variety, but a mixture of different types of tomatoes grown in the respective places. Both areas claim it has more to do with the soil, anyway.

Hanover County knows it has a good thing. On July 10th, they will be celebrating the annual Hanover Tomato Festival, with a giant celebration, recipe contests and the crowning of a Little Miss and Tiny Miss Tomato Festival as well. There's still time to enter.

The big prize, of course, will be for who grew the best Hanover Tomatoes and that announcement is saved for the last event of the day. All of the tomatoes sold at the festival come from Dodd's Acres Farm, a 300-acre farm in Hanover County. Last year, more than 42,000 people attended the event.

July is probably a little too early for any tomatoes in Chicago, and so this year, I'll have to show some patience, and hope for a hot summer, so we can harvest a bounty of tomatoes in late August.

Last year, the summer here was atypically cool and no one had a great showing. This spring, and Chicagoans think of May as part of spring, it's been unusually hot, so I'm feeling optimistic.

In the meantime, if any readers or old friends are heading to the festival, eat a tomato or two for me. Makes me wonder if those tomatoes would survive being shipped halfway across the country, as well. More adventures to follow.

Martha's column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons Inc., newspaper syndicate. E-mail Martha at: Martha@caglecartoons.com, or visit www.martharandolphcarr.com.