The Cryptid Creole

The Creole tomato has long enjoyed a storied reputation in the South. Here is a typical paean from Howard Mitcham’s Creole Gumbo and All That Jazz:

“The large, vine-ripened Creole tomato is one of the glories of Louisiana cooker. Creole tomatoes have a pronounced acid flavor and are used to make delicious sauces, stews, gumbos, and so on. In fact, the very term, “à la Creole” usually denotes a tomato sauce of some sort, and when it’s made with fresh Creole tomatoes, its flavor will be distinctive.”

In addition to a rich, distinctive flavor, the Creole tomato has a reputation for being able to produce fruit in the intense heat and humidity of summers in the Deep South, when nighttime temperatures in excess of 70 degrees make most tomato varieties subject to blossom drop and unable to bear fruit.

Traditionally, farmers in St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes marketed their tomatoes as Creole, claiming that tomatoes grown in the rich alluvial soil created a unique flavor that et their tomatoes apart from others. But these farmers didn’t plant a single variety, and the seeds they saved and passed along to other gardeners as “Creole” were a mélange.

In 1969, LSU AgCenter researcher Teme Hernandez released a tomato variety named Creole, but it was not a variety commonly grown in St. Bernard and Plaquemines. Hernandez described his Creole tomato as having a medium-sized, deep red fruit with some resistance to fusarium wilt. But likely because of its poor production—less than six pounds per plant—the AgCenter did not maintain a seed stock of Hernandez’s Creole.

To demonstrate the variations in Creole tomatoes, LSU AgCenter researchers grew a demonstration plot of “Creole tomatoes” in spring 2015. Creole tomato seed was sourced from 11 companies. Only seed named “Creole” or described as the 1969-released Creole was purchased. Seed was sown on January 14, 2015. Seedlings were hardened off outdoors one week prior to trans­planting.

On March 24, 2015, the Creole tomato seedlings were planted at the AgCenter Botanic Gardens at Burden. The plants continued to produce beyond July; however, data collection ended in late June in order to present information to the Louisiana Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association members at the annual field day. The top three producing Creole tomatoes were sourced from Organic Seeds Direct (Amazon), Naylor’s Hardware in Baton Rouge, and TomatoFest.

Seed sources had 88 percent, 74 percent and 82 percent marketable yields, respectively. Marketable tomatoes were free from cracks, bruises and evidence of disease, insect, or environmental injury. Individual fruit size ranged from 4.2- to 7.8-ounces. Yield per plant was poor, ranging from three to six pounds.

Though Creole has become a marketing term for any tomato grown in Louisiana as well as for many tomatoes that claim to be tolerant of high temperatures, tomatoes labeled Creole are not of the same variety, and almost certainly not sourced from St. Bernard, Plaquemines, or LSU for that matter.

The Geography of Swiss Steak

Many years ago at a conference for Southern fiction at Ole Miss, I took umbrage at the inclusion of Bobbie Ann Mason’s splendid novel In Country because the author is from Kentucky, which I do not consider a Southern state. Kentucky was in the middle border during the Civil War, not a member of the Confederacy, nor are Missouri, West Virginia, Maryland, or Delaware.

When a family from Kentucky moved to my very small rural Mississippi town in the early 60s they were of course welcomed and quietly became members of standing in the community. With them they brought Swiss steak, which my adolescent mind tagged as a Yankee recipe. For some reason the Swiss designation slipped right over my little provincial Southern brain, probably more because for obvious reasons Switzerland held far less significance than THE NORTH. Anything Yankee was automatically suspect, and as such Swiss steak entered the nether category Reserved for Further Observation.

“To swiss” refers to processing for cotton fabrics for a smooth texture. Some food writers have taken a leap of faith and declared that because the cooking process renders a tough cut of meat smooth/tender, in English-speaking countries beef stewed with tomatoes is often called “Swiss,” but the ease and appeal this dish is world-wide.

Bread and fry thin trimmed cuts of top round until browned. Drain and place in a casserole with your favorite tomato sauce, and mild peppers. Bake covered at a medium temp until tender. Serve with buttered noodles or potatoes.

Family Ties

Dear Janice,

It’s been just hot as hell here lately, and the tomatoes have been making like I’ve never seen. Hugh says it’s because you gave us those hose to tie up the plants. He said they’re flexible and they don’t cut into the stem like string would. He doesn’t know I found some in the bottom dresser drawer in the spare bedroom, but I wanted you to.

Your devoted sister,

The Red Knight

The story of Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson’s public establishment of the reputedly poisonous tomato as edible might be apocryphal, but it’s still a good yarn.

According to what passes for legend, Col. Johnson mounted the courthouse steps in Salem, New Jersey on September 30, 1820 (dates vary) with a basket full of tomatoes to eat. Over 2,000 people assembled to watch him drop dead after the first bite and wagered upon the exact moment (it being New Jersey after all, where gambling is a fine art). His own doctor (who happened to be his wife’s brother-in-law) predicted that “the foolish colonel will foam and froth at the mouth and double over with appendicitis from all the oxalic acid”; if not immediately, then the good doctor said Johnson would die soon afterwards of “brain fever and cancer.” When Johnson took his first bite of a tomato, several onlookers fainted and two were reported to have regurgitated with vigor.

Of course Colonel Johnson lived, and while available records do not entirely support rampant speculation that he collected on more than a few substantial side wagers and retired to Europe, we can say with certainty that he helped to win the tomato a place on our tables.