When the days grow short and the first frost sets in, there are certain things some people look back at with longing.
Such as home-grown tomatoes.
That's why the ninth annual Carroll County Master Gardeners' Heirloom Tomato Festival, held Aug. 20 at the Carroll County Agriculture Center, in Westminster, was seen by many attending as the perfect splashdown for celebrating the waning days of August and the splendor of home-grown, heirloom tomatoes.
An heirloom tomato is considered to be a variety passed down through generations of a family. Several hundred tomato devotees of all stripes, ages and sizes attended the tomato love fest, seizing the opportunity for tasting, exchanging growing tips, buying recipes and getting free seeds for growing their own red, green and yellow varieties of heirloom Solanum lycopersicum.
"Tomatoes seem to be the thing that people most want to grow," said Westminster resident Carolyn Seabolt, a master gardener who served as chair for this year's festival.
"I think it's the favorite food for people to grow," agreed Master Gardener Kay Sedlak, of Pleasant Valley, one of a handful of volunteers who maintain the heirloom garden at the nearby Carroll County Farm Museum. "There are literally hundreds and hundreds of heirloom tomatoes that people have passed down through their families."
Sedlak has fond memories of the very first Carroll County Heirloom Tomato Festival, held at the farm museum in 2003. She was one of eight people who showed up that year.
In recent years, the Saturday festival has been held as a sort of adjunct to the popular weekly farmers market at the ag center — a fact that almost guarantees several hundred visitors. And every year, the Master Gardeners have been adding new attractions.
As in previous years, the basic appeal was the opportunity to enjoy free samples of a slew of heirloom tomato varieties — Earl of Edgecomb, Yellow Brandywine, Persimmon Orange, Polish Linguisa, Black Krim and Garden Peach, to name a few — and to sample an array of foods made from them, from gazpacho soup, tropical salsa and green tomato relish to tomato jam and green tomato cake.
The 2011 tomato fest also included displays of tomato-themed photos from the Carroll Camera Club and tomato-themed artwork from students at Winters Mill High School. Several of the school's honors art students were also on hand, offering free face painting for kids.
And for the first time, the festival even had its own costumed mascots, Mr. Ketchup and Miss Tomato.
"She just has that little 'tomato strut,' "Seabolt noted with an approving smile as she watched Miss Tomato briskly wander the aisle dispensing grins and good cheer. "We're going to add a ladybug next year."
"And a stink bug, too," said Mr. Ketchup as he waltzed by.
Master Gardener Margit Sharff, of Westminster, offered samples of her tomato-based specialties. One was letscho, a Hungarian dish Sharff used to eat when she was growing up in Germany, near the Hungarian border.
"I guess probably the 'acidy' taste is what I like best about tomatoes," said Sharff, who this summer grew four different heirloom varieties and incorporated all four into her letscho.
A perennial favorite at the festival is Carroll County Master Gardeners President Maryanne Turner's green tomato cake. She got the "heirloom recipe" from a friend whose great-grandfather used to make it. She started baking them herself four or five years ago.
"I started out using any kind of green tomatoes, because back in the old days people made green tomato cake as a way to use leftover tomatoes," said Turner, who midway through the five-hour festival had dispensed six pies, one small, delicious sample at a time.
"All I've added is raisins and I started using just one heirloom, Aunt Ruby's German Green tomatoes, for the recipe."
Checking to see how her reserve inventory of pie was holding out, Turner, who'd been up since the pre-dawn hours baking, admitted with a sigh, "I'm just about tomato pied out."
More information on Carroll County Master Gardeners and their programs and events can be found online at http://www.carrollcountymastergardeners.org and on the University of Maryland extension website carroll.umd.edu/mastergardener.cfm.