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 over Long Island on Aug. 23 to line up at my scale and compete for the title of Tomato King or Queen. The heaviest entry and first-place winner was a 3 lb., 5 oz. Belgian Giant tomato grown by William Bouziotis of Northport. The 64-year-old dentist, who has been growing tomatoes for 25 years and took 2nd place in last year’s Challenge, attributes his success to "passion, elbow grease, a little knowledge and some money."
Bouziotis said he grew 25 varieties of tomatoes 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 reigning 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 exactly, earning 2nd place. And Chris Bouziotis — wife of the newly crowned king, came in 3rd with a 2 lb., 7 oz. 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 lb., 13.6 oz. 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 crown Nellie Nicolova of Hampton Bays winner in the Ages 7-12 category for her 2 lb., 1.5 oz. tomato, which she grew from seed. After the evening's festivities, she was planning to enjoy it with fresh burrata cheese and Bulgarian feta. Jack Kalinowski of East Islip took top honors in the 6 and Under children’s category for his 1 lb., 6.9 oz. Beefsteak. And Grace Monteleone of Babylon also made an impressive showing among Ages 7-12 with her 1 lb., 12 oz. Beefsteak.
But we don't honor only behemoth tomatoes at the Great Long Island Tomato Challenge — we salute the tiny and the unusual, too. Rachel Haimowitz of East Meadow wowed the crowd with her "Squidward" tomato, which really did resemble the cartoon character for which it was named, big nose and all. She grew it 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. No word on whether she used the Garden Detective column, but if she did, that would explain her success.
As for Kaplan, he and his wife, Anne, each entered their own Beefsteaks, which weighed 1 lb., 7.2 oz. and 1 lb., 7.9 oz., respectively. And Janet Hart of Lindenhurst, who has been attending since 2006, always in her trusty tomato tank top, brought her 1 lb., 5.8 oz. 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.”“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.”