The 2011 champion loitered just outside the judging tent at City Hall Plaza, a 69-year-old man trying to appear calm as anxiety nibbled his gut and he hoped for an empire-building second victory. “It was a childhood dream to win the ‘best field tomato,’ ” the third-generation farmer said.
With that, Tom Napoli, an owner of Idylwilde Farms, in Acton, directed his gaze to the judges eating their way through this year’s annual Massachusetts Tomato Contest on a hot Monday in late August.
Inside the tent, the 14 men and women — mainly food writers, along with some public health types, Mary Ann Esposito, the host of the PBS show “Ciao Italia,’’ and a Globe reporter with an heirloom addiction — cleansed their palates with saltines and water. They made inside-tomato comments about the difficulty of judging a sliced cherry tomato, and one whispered about last year’s event, when some judges allegedly brought salt (an assertion doubted by a tomato official, although he did acknowledge the judges were not tested for sodium).
The competitors — red, yellow, purple, green, tiny, misshapen, perfectly round, bulbous, a “Mr. Stripey” here, a “Big Boy” or “Cherokee Chocolate” there — were lined up by category (heirloom, cherry, heaviest; and slicing, or field) and sitting on plates on three long narrow tables, not unlike models on a runway. The 86 entries represented the best efforts of 14 Massachusetts farms, each hoping to win a prestigious tomato trophy (essentially a normal-looking trophy with a bright-red fake tomato plopped on top).
With heavy rains and intense heat, this has been a tough year for tomatoes. But one judge worried that the tomatoes actually looked too good. “I wonder about flavor versus looks,” said Beth Gurney, a veteran judge, and coauthor of “125 Best Vegan Recipes.” With commercial growers eager to produce uniform and close-up-ready tomatoes, she said, the “inner beauty” of an unattractive tomato might not be appreciated. Judges were instructed to rate the contestants on firmness, exterior color, shape, and, perhaps the most subjective, flavor. “The perfect tomato should have a strong tomato taste,” the guidelines read (somewhat unhelpfully). It should be “slightly acidic, juicy and fresh tasting with a tender skin.”
The judges dutifully tasted tomatoes and marked their scorecards. They ate the entire sample without spitting it out, wine-tasting style, and at least one judge (the Globe reporter) was spotted greedily gobbling heirloom and slicing samples after she finished her own category.
After about an hour or so the eating and the judging were done. Napoli took a second, behind Red Fire Farm, in Granby, in the slicing category. The day’s big winner was Macone Farm, in Concord, which placed first and second in heirloom, second in cherry, sixth in slicing, and second in the just-for-fun “heaviest” category, with a 1.945-pound offering, a mere wisp of a thing compared with Verrill Farm’s 2.44-pound winner.
Asked her secret, farmer Susan Macone said the trick lies in what she and her husband don’t do. “We don’t use plastic on the ground” to fight weeds, she said, “we hoe the weeds.”
She held out her hands, petite but strong. “We do it the old-fashioned way.”