By Donna Cornelius
A daylong celebration that moves from downtown Birmingham to a Harpersville farm pays homage to the South’s favorite veggie – or fruit.
Tomatoes are fruits, botanically speaking. But in the late 1800s, the U.S. government classified them as vegetables for taxing purposes.
However you describe these juicy globes of goodness, you should be able to get your fill of tomatoes July 18.
The Birmingham chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, a worldwide society of women leaders in food, beverage and hospitality, is teaming up with The Market at Pepper Place and Stone Hollow Farmstead to celebrate Alabama tomatoes with a recipe contest, tastings, appearances by tomato gurus, the Alabama Tomato Festival and a farm dinner.
The festivities begin with the Great Alabama Tomato Contest at 10:15 a.m. at Pepper Place right after Chef Chris Hastings of Hot and Hot Fish Club finishes his cooking demonstration.
Recipes for the contest had to be submitted by July 4 in one of three categories: appetizers and salads, main courses and desserts.
Finalists were notified July 10 and will compete on stage at Pepper Place’s Chef Demo area.
Morgan Murphy, television personality and cookbook author, will emcee the contest.
Judges will be Cullman County farmer Lawrence Calvert; Carole Griffin, owner of Chez Lulu and the Continental Bakery; and food writer Jo Ellen O’Hara.
Tomato breeder Tom Wagner, president of Wagner Seeds, will be on hand to talk about tomato varieties, including his popular Green Zebra.
Deborah Stone of Stone Hollow Farmstead also will be there to share information about tomato varieties, efforts to breed disease-resistant heirloom tomatoes and the importance of preserving tomatoes as part of the South’s culinary heritage.
The tomato immersion continues with the Alabama Tomato Festival from 1-5 p.m. at Stone Hollow Farmstead in Harpersville.
Birmingham chefs Angela Schmidt of Chef U and Maureen Holt of Little Savannah Restaurant and Bar will be at the festival to cook up some tomato treats, Deborah Stone said.
“You’ll be able to try things like tomato lemonade and tomato aspic,” Stone said.
The Little Memphis Blues Orchestra – formerly the Taylor Hicks Band — will play at the festival, too.
For those hungry for even more tomato goodness, a farm dinner with David Bancroft, chef-owner of Acre in Auburn, will begin at 6:30 p.m. at Stone Hollow.
“Chris Bennett, our local forager, will forage before the dinner,” Stone said.
Bennett will have copies of his new cookbook, “Foraging the Southeast: 120 Wild and Flavorful Edibles from Angelica to Wild Plums” at the event. Murphy will sign copies of his latest book, “Off the Eaten Path: On the Road Again” at the farm and at Pepper Place.
The Heavy Hearts band will entertain at the Stone Hollow dinner.
Tickets for the dinner are $110 and include a bus shuttle to the farm from The Summit area.
Stone said a portion of the proceeds from the Alabama Tomato Festival and farm dinner will go toward seed money for a planned fund that will help farmers.
“We’ll make a donation to a new farmers’ fund,” she said. “We hope to be able to provide seed money that will be put into an escrow account.”
The fund is expected to help farmers with healthcare and other needs, Stone said.
“We want this event to grow and become a big event in years to come,” she said.
Angela Schmidt, who’s not only a chef but president of Birmingham’s Les Dames d’Escoffier International chapter, said the tomato jamboree fits LDEI’s mission: education, advocacy, mentoring and philanthropy.
“We see this tomato celebration as an excellent and tasty way to advocate for local growers, markets and home cooks while educating the public about culinary traditions involving tomatoes,” Schmidt said.
Visit www.alabamatomatofestival.com for more information about the Stone Hollow activities.
For details about the Great Alabama Tomato Contest, visit www.pepperplace.com.