Even in Baltimore — where we can get tomatoes from Maryland’s Eastern Shore — Grainger County, Tennessee tomatoes are highly prized: you can buy John Mixon’s Rutledge tomatoes at Fresh Market in Baltimore County (I do!). At Virginia farmers markets you’ll see Grainger County, Tennessee tomatoes displayed like fine jewelry. You can read about the virtues of Tennessee tomatoes in vintage Southern cookbooks. So, I was very excited to go to the Grainger County Tomato Festival!
I have been to Grainger County several times, include another visit to the fest. RoCK is a direct descendant of the first White settler of Tennessee and settler of Bean Station, Tennessee, William Bean. Bean Station was the original town of the county. Several of the Beans — though Revolutionary War vets, pioneers and friends/in-laws to Daniel Boone — were known to be rowdy, womanizers, saloon-keepers and even breathtakingly violent. One was arrested by Andrew Jackson when he was Circuit Judge! Fortunately, RoCK didn’t pick up those genes. Many of the Bean descendants have bad eyesight: I’ve seen Reconstruction-era photos of many with little eyeglasses. RoCK has terrible eyesight. Interestingly, Grainger went Union during the Civil War, though being in Tennessee, it was a county sorely divided. There were definitely family members who fought for the Confederacy — the Tennessee 4th Calvary, for example. RoCK likes following politics, but he’s ambivalent about horseback riding.
Ritter Farms has a farm store on what was the Bean’s land. Bean descendants are buried on the left and the right of the farm, but we’ve never gone to the graves there . . . we don’t like knocking on doors and asking permission from strangers to traipse on their land. Ritter Farms sells canning tomatoes, jars of tomato juice, spaghetti sauce, homemade jams, jarred soups and all kinds of goodies. They don’t take a booth at the fest, because they’re just down the road and very busy. They’re not open on Sunday, either . . . their website invites you to “attend the church of your choice”. It’s the South, Sugah!
The festival has a tomato sandwich booth, with fixings like nearby Knoxville’s JFG rich and eggy mayo. It’s different! There’s also live music, including Gospel singers . . . but to tell the truth, I didn’t stay very long. The weather that day proved why the Grainger County has the tastiest tomatoes: bright, hot, direct sun. I had my dog, Mr. Jefferson with me, too. Dogs aren’t allowed in the middle school expo area. Even with a cooling station, water and a dish of peanut butter ice cream, Mr. J. who is now at least 13 years old, was starting to look a whole lot out of it. Someone made a comment to RoCK that we shouldn’t put the dog through that, so of course, we left in a flash.
Just before we left, I quickly went to my favorite booth, Stratton Tomato Farm. There, you can buy loose tomatoes of many different heirloom varieties! Some taste like fruits, some taste like asparagus.