New Orleanians anticipate the first Creole tomatoes of the year like people in other climates regard the first snowfall, something remarkable and beautiful, a rite of the season. This weekend, the French Market (1008 N. Peters St., 522-2621; www.frenchmarket.org) hosts its annual celebration of the harvest, the Creole Tomato Festival. Food vendors and restaurants set up booths around the market, selling their own tomato-based creations, while bands perform as part of the concurrent Louisiana Cajun-Zydeco Festival (www.jazzandheritage.org/cajun-zydeco).
The term "Creole tomato" generally means any tomato grown in southeast Louisiana, but it's more than a matter of pride in local produce. Some farmers and aficionados talk about the influence of the area's alluvial soils and climate on the tomatoes like winemakers discuss terroir. The tag Creole tomato is a promise of local freshness, indicating a tomato grown close to where we're likely to buy it and eat it. Since they don't need to travel very far, Creole tomatoes can ripen on the vine longer and they likely don't spend time in chilled storage — refrigeration being a sure way to stanch a tomato's flavor.
Right now, we are in the narrow window of prime Creole tomato season, which also happens to be when the sweetness of Louisiana spring changes to the severity of summer. Maybe that's another reason why Creole tomatoes are so beloved. Just when Mother Nature seems to be turning against us, she throws us these delicious, red bouquets of Louisiana flavor.
The Creole Tomato Festival is from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, June 9-10. Admission is free.