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Tomato Tasting in Carmel

By 11, the queue had trebled to nearly a hundred people and was being serenaded by a barbershop quartet. The tent from the Hullaballoo Restaurant turned out fried green tomatoes for those on line: firm, unripe heirlooms of several varieties, sliced a quarter-inch thick, then dipped in cornmeal, flour, and Cajun spices and sautéed in olive oil and butter. Yum.

By 12:30—the official opening time—the line stretched to the length of two or three city blocks. The gates opened, and it was as if somebody had shot a starting gun for Conestogas racing west in pursuit of free land. Repeat visitors knew that the food usually vanished after an hour, so they scrambled to the three chefs' tents. The wine and beer would last a few hours longer.

"We prepared a thousand of these," the chef from Christopher's on Lincoln in Carmel said of his tomato shooters (a shot glass of tomato water garnished with a shrimp and a morsel of lobster on a long toothpick), "and they'll be gone in an hour." Of the many tomato-themed delectables, the salmon-and-salsa taco and the heirloom-tomato sushi roll may have edged out the crab and heirloom-confit napoleon and the tomato tarte Tatin.

And the colors and contours! At the tent labeled FARMERS' MARKET, baskets and baskets overflowed with thousands of reds, yellows, oranges, pinks, greens, purples, whites; some tomatoes were cherry-sized, some elongated like Romas, others big-shouldered or squat or stretch-marked or bumpy and lumpy; some shaped like globes, others like golf balls, teardrops, even cylinders—I wanted to dive right into them.

After about two hours, Ibsen found me. He was completely relaxed, despite the crowds swarming the grounds. Tomatoes must contain not only lycopene but Zoloft. "Did you see it?" he said.

"See what?" I asked. Thus far I'd been scuttering around trying to eat all 55 chefs' creations and test all 90 salsas—and sip the 100 wines on offer (also part of the $85 ticket). He pointed to the tent marked TOMATO TASTING.

"You'd better have a look," he said enigmatically. My heart beat faster, and I hurried under the tent flaps.

Nearly 350 varieties of tomato, samples of each chopped into quarter-inch dice and labeled, filled tables inside the tent. I inched along with the crowd from variety to variety, tasting every one, till I reached about 110. My shorts began to shrink and it became increasingly difficult to see my feet. But I pressed on...130...150...170....

And then...I saw it. Perched on a cup was the hunched, high-shouldered jewel, striated pink and deep red, with the label, GERMAN JOHNSON. Ibsen had found it! With some trepidation—how could this compare to the orange Earl of Edgecombe I'd just tasted, or the Purple Calabash?Could this California German J possibly equal Alleghany County's, or would it, like other childhood totems—Cream of Wheat, vanilla custard—be no match for my memory of it?How could it stand up to the more than 170 heirlooms I'd already sampled?I lanced the German Johnson chunk with a toothpick. Mmmmm, it was good...watery...juicy...sugary...I speared another cube, then another, and...

...as a fellow North Carolinian wrote, "You can't go home again." No question, that German Johnson was a superb tomato. But whether because of the California soil and clime, my snoozing taste buds, or the naughty trickery of memory, it wasn't quite what I remembered. Perhaps I'd lacked tomato experience back in 1983, for now the red Brandywine OTV, the Black Ethiopian, and Ed's Fat Plum just seemed more saturated with tomato-ness and held together better. And one called the Amish Paste became my palate's new German Johnson. It was intense but not single-minded, complex with fruit and salt and sugar, not too watery but lushly wet. Perhaps the German Johnson had been my starter tomato.

I didn't tell Ibsen, of course. He'd gone to such trouble. Later that afternoon, while the tents were being collapsed and packed up, he sighed with some relief. He had four weeks off before he'd have to start planning next year's festival. We kicked back. He looked serene. "My favorite way of eating a tomato is to sit on the ground, feel the moisture in the air, the fragrance of the leaves...take a bite, watch things fly around in the sky, and I'm in heaven."

TOMATOFEST, Carmel, Calif.; 800/965-4827; www.tomatofest.com; September 11.

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