Jessica Damiano is a master gardener and journalist with more than 25 years experience in radio, television, print
They came with baskets and boxes, cut-up cartons and dish towels, bowls and food storage containers. And each of those concealed one thing: a homegrown tomato that held the promise of victory.
About 110 tomato growers and their families came from all around Long Island on Aug. 23 to line up at my scale in Melville and compete for the title of Tomato King or Queen in the Great Long Island Tomato Challenge.
The heaviest entry and first-place winner was a 3-pound, 5-ounce Belgian Giant tomato grown by William Bouziotis of Northport. The dentist, who has been growing tomatoes for 25 years and placed second in last year's Challenge, attributes his success to "passion, elbow grease, a little knowledge and some money."
Bouziotis, 64, said he grew 25 tomato varieties this year, including Florida Pink, Curry, Tennessee Britches, Mortgage Lifter, Chianti Rose, Brandy Wine Red (his family's favorite this year) and Valena Pink. But what was to become of the winner? "We'll be making a fabulous tomato-basil salad," he said. As for his future endeavors, Bouziotis added, "I'm determined to grow at least a 5 or 6 pounder next year!"
The 2012 Tomato King, Gary Schaffer of Lindenhurst, was on hand to defend his title -- and he came close: His Rhode Island Giant tomato, started from seed and treated to "plenty of homemade compost, Miracle-Gro and sun," weighed in at 3 pounds, earning second place. And Chris Bouziotis -- wife of the newly crowned king, came in third with a 2-pound, 7-ounce Big Zac grown, she said, "with lots of help from hubby."
Former royal siblings Angel and Peter Notarnicola of Massapequa, who won the Challenge in 2011, returned with a 1-pound, 13.6-ounce Big Zac. They had a much bigger one at home, they said, but it was still green and so wouldn't have qualified.
I was thrilled to see so many budding young gardeners this year, and even happier to crownNellie Nicolova of Hampton Bayswinner in the 7-12 age group for her 2-pound, 1.5-ounce tomato, which she grew from seed. After the evening's festivities, she was planning to enjoy it with fresh burrata cheese and Bulgarian feta.
In that same category,Grace Monteleone of Babylon also made an impressive showing with her 1-pound, 12-ounce Beefsteak. Jack Kalinowski of East Islip took top honors in the 6-and-under children's category for his 1-pound, 6.9-ounce Beefsteak.
But along with the behemoth tomatoes at the Challenge , we also salute the tiny and the unusual.Rachel Haimowitz, of East Meadow, who competed in the ugliest category, wowed the crowd with her "Squidward" tomato, which really did resemble the "SpongeBob SquarePants" cartoon character for which it was named, big nose and all. She grew the Amana orange heirloom organically from seed and treated it to "goat manure, tender loving care and Roy Orbison songs" along the way.
And the award for smallest tomato went to Corinn Kraemer of Bohemia, whose ripe, red tomato was even too light to register on the scale. Its variety is unknown, but she named it "Barry's Teeny Tiny Tomato" in honor of longtime Challenge participant Barry Kaplan, of Farmingdale, who gave her the seeds two years ago. This year, Kraemer started the seeds in newspaper seed pots made with pages of Newsday and transplanted them into garden soil that was amended with eggshells and organic fertilizer.
As for Kaplan, he and his wife, Anne, entered their own Beefsteaks, which weighed 1 pound, 7.2 ounces and 1 pound, 7.9 ounces, respectively. And Janet Hart, of Lindenhurst, who has been attending since 2006, always in her trusty tomato tank top, brought her 1-pound, 5.8-ounce Beefsteak tomato and her sister,Meryl, who, she said, "helps me with the garden -- by eating all the fruit!"
"This year, I used fish fertilizer," Hart said, "but all it did was cause me to smell like fish all the time." Ever the optimist, however, she added, "There's always next year."