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Heirloom Tomato Festival: A Sneak Peek

I spent August 24 and 25 at the breathtaking Chicago Botanic Garden for the Heirloom Tomato Festival. The garden is sprawling, meticulously landscaped with flowers, shrubs, trees, and an organic fruit and vegetable island right in the middle. This weekend, which was formerly an heirloom pepper weekend, targeted veteran and novice gardeners alike, as well as cooks and tomato admirers of all kinds. Thousands of Chicago-area residents made their way to the free festival for a weekend of tomato education, cooking demonstrations, tours of the gardens, seed-saving demonstrations and more.

Just across a bridge over the massive koi pond, you're greeted by garden volunteers, many of who are master gardeners and horticulturists. The island is several acres and contains about 75 varieties of tomatoes, including a special section dedicated to those varieties that appeared in Thomas Jefferson's garden at Monticello. As folks wandered through this section of the island, many wondered how such an old variety could still be grown today and how gardeners knew the tomatoes were the same as they were then. The question is valid and the answer is because heirloom seed it true, and if saved, will produce the same fruit year after year after year. Heirloom seed saving not only gives us beautiful and delicious fruit each year, but it is an important part of preserving history.

All this talk of saving seeds led me to a white tent with a welcomed respite of shade. Lisa Hilgenberg, horticulturist for the Chicago Botanic Garden, demonstrated two incredibly simple ways to save seed, which we will post for you soon. But trust me, they're almost too easy.

Lisa's intern Sophie showed me the many different ways they grow tomatoes to demonstrate that anyone, anywhere, with any amount of growing space can raise tomatoes. Terracotta containers lined a walkway, and both heirlooms and hybrids were thriving. The gardeners even experimented with growing tomatoes in straw bales. Unfortunately, it didn't go as well as they had hoped.

I caught up with Lisa, and she pointed out to me the different tomato support structures they use. Again, to show attendants that there is not just one way to support tomatoes. In fact, a few plants were without any support at all, and were close if not directly on the ground. While not ideal, Lisa said she wanted people to see that even the laziest gardener can grow tomatoes. The trellised tomatoes seemed to be the happiest, healthiest and most robust. 

By this time, my stomach let me know it was nearing lunch time, and luckily, a chef demonstration was about to commence. Chef Laura Piper of Trattoria No. 10 in Chicago's bustling Loop neighborhood prepared a dish that highlighted the pure, unadulterated flavors of heirloom tomatoes. Her canvas of choice: Spinach and Ricotta Gnudi, which she described as the filling of ravioli. I'll post this and two other recipes this week. Trust me when I say you'll need to make this immediately.

That's a general summary of the weekend's activities. Keep an eye out for recipes, photos and more articles. Still to come: an interview with the man who is responsible for the Speckled Roman tomato, two easy seed saving methods, exclusive Spinach and Ricotta Gnudi, and tips for making your heirloom tomatoes thrive.