The president declared a state of emergency. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority announced that the subways and Long Island Rail Road would stop running at noon the next day. Residents evacuated or raced to nearby stores, clearing shelves of bread, batteries and other necessities ahead of Tropical Storm Irene.
And yet, 63 avid tomato-loving readers lined up with their pride and joy: their heaviest tomatoes of the 2011 growing season.
That was the scene at the Newsday auditorium in Melville on Aug. 26, the night before Irene was to bear down on Long Island. Inside, the mood was jovial, with readers sharing their tomato-growing tips and favorite varieties, all the while hoping their fruit would earn them the title of Tomato King or Queen.
Just like Irene, this year's Great Long Island Tomato Challenge was unforgettable. The winning tomato made local history for four reasons:
It was the first time in the challenge's five years the winning fruit was sown, nurtured and grown as a team effort.
It's also the first time there were teenage winners, siblings Angel and Peter Notarnicola of Massapequa.
Angel became the first Tomato Queen; previous winners have all been male.
And in a little drama, the siblings almost didn't win: Another entrant was crowned erroneously, then dethroned.
I had named reigning champ Billy King, of Mastic Beach, the winner. And he held that title for more than five minutes before it was brought to my attention that we needed a recount. After reweighing the first- and third-place tomatoes, King came in second. The Notarnicolas, who had weighed their tomato at home and were confident of its true heft, took the top prize, and Fernando Ferreira, of Lake Ronkonkoma, who had originally placed second, fell to third place.
All because 3.11.5 was misread as 3.115. What a difference a decimal point makes! Fortunately, all were good sports, and the fun and camaraderie of the evening outweighed the momentary confusion.
Angel Notarnicola, 18, who works at a dog grooming shop, and her brother Peter, 16, a senior at Barry Technical School in Westbury, have been planning their victory for three years. They entered the challenge in 2009 but left empty-handed. Undeterred, they planted seeds last year, but none grew. This year, using the same "old seeds," as Angel called them, they tried again, starting them in a recycled commercial freezer case-turned-greenhouse in early April.
"We planted three Big Zacs and three Delicious tomatoes. The Delicious did not grow," Peter said. So they nurtured the Big Zacs and strategized.
When the time was right, the duo mixed in generous helpings of their homemade compost made from grass clippings, kitchen scraps and fall leaves -- a mix so nutrient-rich they didn't apply any fertilizer. They moved the plants, which they grew organically, outdoors and "waited for a couple of flowers to develop," Peter said. "Then we pulled off all the flowers and left just one developing tomato on the plant."
As more flowers appeared, they pulled them off, too, allowing the plant to concentrate all its energy into developing its sole tomato, which grew into the 3 pound, 11.5-ounce fruit that took first place.
"We read about pruning online and talked to people," Angel said of their journey to victory. "We grew these tomatoes especially for the competition."
The siblings' love of gardening was nurtured at an early age by their grandfather, Peter Notarnicola, who grew pears, tomatoes, cucumbers and grapes, among other fruits and vegetables, in their backyard. "He showed us how to pick figs," Angel recalled. "We made jam out of all the fruit, even the pears."
Their grandfather passed away in 1999, when they were very young, but somehow they developed green thumbs and have not been strangers to victory: Angel and Peter have won prizes for their herb display and heaviest tomato at the Long Island Fair at Old Bethpage Village Restoration, and they were honored for growing the most unusual tomato at Hicks Nurseries in Westbury. And they're nowhere near throwing in their trowels: Angel and Peter already are planning to come back again next year.
For now, their winning tomato will become a meal -- the siblings said they'll eat it.
Kids, compost, prayers
Billy King Jr., a pint-size veteran of the challenge and 5-year-old son of 2010's winner, proved the tomato doesn't fall far from the vine: He took first place among children with his 2- pound, 10.5-ounce "Dom" tomato. His daddy taught him well.
Aleigha Juliano, of West Hempstead, a mere 31/2 years old, brought an heirloom tomato weighing 1 pound, 1.9 ounces. She competed last year, too. Her strategy? She waters, feeds and dances for her tomatoes. And Kayla Wilson, of Ronkonkoma, who's nearly 3, entered a Better Boy she grew in her grandmother's front yard that weighed in at just over 1 pound.
Barry Kaplan, of Farmingdale, returned this year with a 2-pound, 9-ounce Big Zac. His wife, Anne, had an impressive 2-pound, 2.5-ounce entry of the same variety. They attribute their success to compost.
Kim Politano, of Deer Park -- whose late father, Harold Politano, still holds the record for heaviest tomato, not only in this competition but also on Long Island, for a 4-pound, 9- ounce beauty that won in 2009 -- kept family tradition alive by entering a 1-pound, 2.4-ounce Burpee Beefsteak. Among her strategies is "lots of prayers to Dad to bless the seeds."
Anthony Maltese, of North Massapequa, had a very impressive Bull's Heart tomato that weighed in at 3 pounds, half an ounce. He attributes the size to "horse manure and lots of water." And Anthony Passela, 13, of Deer Park, gained recognition for bringing the ugliest tomato to the Challenge. He plants his in early June and waters them three times a day. Each month he applies 5-4-3 organic fertilizer.
Then there was Ferreira, who said he talks to his plants every day. There must be something to it because he nabbed third place with a beautiful 3-pound, 4.5-ounce Beefsteak.
And King, the 2010 champ, nearly held onto his title, thanks to a 3-pound, 8.5-ounce Rhode Island Giant tomato. King is a competitive pumpkin grower who has applied his know-how to tomatoes in recent years. He got the seeds for this year's entry from a pumpkin-growing friend from Rhode Island.
So, you wanna grow tomatoes? Five contestants in this year's Great Long Island Tomato Challenge share their strategies:
Kim Politano, Deer Park
Tomato: Burpee Beefsteak
Weight: 1 pound, 2.4 ounces
Strategy: "I use heat mats to start my seeds. I talk to them, use organic fertilizer and custom-made chicken wire cages. Also: a good compost pile."
Tomato: Ohil's Fantastic
Weight: 2 pounds, 6.5 ounces
Strategy: "I start from seed in the kitchen in April, then move plants growing in peat pots to my hot house in May. I fertilize with Algoflash and move plants out to the garden in June. I mulch and use Espoma Tomato Care."
Tina Kraemer, Bohemia
Weight: 2 pounds, 4.5 ounces
Strategy: "I grow from seed with manure and eggshells, then fertilize with organic Tomato Magic. I let only four tomatoes grow on each plant, pinching off flowers and other developing tomatoes."
Joanne Brown, Brentwood
Weight: 14.3 ounces
Strategy: "I rototill the soil with fertilizer and Preen and then stake my plants."
Paula Sherman, Huntington Station
Weight: 1 pound, 9.9 ounces
Strategy: "I save seeds from the first and biggest of my tomatoes from year to year. I put manure around the bases of my plants and say 'hello' when I enter the garden."