Tomato Time

Vance finally pays a long-overdue visit to the Lauderdale County Tomato Festival.

by Vance Lauderdale

or 13 years I have crouched by the telephone, patiently waiting for the call from the good people of Ripley to be the honorary chairman of their famed Lauderdale County Tomato Festival. Year after year, I have been disappointed -- totally ignored by the very people who should admire and appreciate the noble endeavors of the last great Lauderdale in West Tennessee. Why, even their courthouse carries the Lauderdale name above its portals, and the Ripley middle school, health-care center, and who knows what else are named after the illustrious Lauderdales. It's enough to make you lose your faith in humanity.

So last Saturday, I clambered into the Daimler-Benz and had Esteban drive me to Ripley, just so I could swallow my pride and see for myself just what all this tomato hoopla was about.

My first impressions weren't good ones. Saturday was the last day of the event, and I had missed, it seems, such monkeyshines as the hillbilly choo-choo train rides, the stuffed-animal show, the baby crawling contest, and even the much-heralded tomato judging contest. What I discovered, instead, was a barren gravel parking lot adjacent to the town square lined with booths and vendors. Some of the green tents themselves had been borrowed from the local mortuary parlors, it seems, so the banners proclaiming "Currie's Funeral Home" tended to depress me as I strolled through the crowd, nudging the unruly youngsters out of the way with my swordcane.

Dazed by the heat, I stumbled past booths devoted to sand art, air-brushed license plates, and lampshades painted with tomato designs. One fellow tried to sell me a personalized cedar key chain, while another offered jig-sawed wooden signs. A cardboard placard taped to one tent proclaimed it the "Tomato Station" of the U.S. Post Office, where you could plunk down 50 cents and purchase a special tomato festival cancellation and envelope. I humbly declined. Nearby, the Smilin' Tomato Company displayed Mason jars stuffed with salsa, while another booth, mysteriously named the Tina Turner Family Center, let visitors place bids on lamps, toy tractors, ice chests, even a gallon of Carquest Waterproof Sealer. Nobody, though, seemed to be selling tomatoes.

My favorite booth, though, let you toss a ping-pong ball into a bucket floating in a plastic wading pool. If you were lucky enough (or unlucky, I say) to win, you carried home a live rabbit or a chicken, your choice. Another tent, this one sponsored by the Tennessee Department of Corrections, advertised "A Career for You" and the uniformed people inside handed out brochures describing the exciting field of jails.

This was all great fun, of course, but the heat was so intense that I sought refuge in the shady town square. Ripley has a handsome yellow-brick courthouse set in the middle of a landscaped square decorated with vintage cannons and assorted monuments. Jack Palmer Home Furnishings, Mays-Dunavant Drugs, The Walker Company -- Fine Furniture Since 1935, the City Cafe, the Show & Tell Beauty Salon, and other interesting merchants surround the courthouse, all housed in substantial turn-of-the-century brick buildings. The grandest of them all stands at one corner, and the Bank of Ripley is where I finally found the best part of the Lauderdale County Tomato Festival.

The festival organizers put together an art show in the bank called "Consider the Tomato," whereby some 30 local and regional artists "interpreted" this vegetable in various forms. And we're not just talking about pretty watercolors of 'maters, either. Allison Smith created a Single Serving Catsup Maker -- a massive hammer crafted of wood and leather, mounted on a base with the sign reading, "Place tomato here." Arnold Carson (if that's the right name; another sign identified him as Carlson) constructed something logically called Packaged. Sitting on the lobby floor was essentially an open wooden crate with padded lids and four metal tomatoes suspended inside by a wire-and-cable harness. Something tells me that's not the way Ripley tomatoes are shipped.

Nearby, Tim Andrews created a colorful assemblage called Qué Dios Bendigami Jardin which included Mexican postcards, gilt flowers, tiny plastic skulls, rose buds, enameled bugs, and beer-bottle caps. I had no idea what it all meant, but I sure liked looking at it.

Murry Riss contributed a bizarre photograph called Adam And Eve Revisited, showing a young woman enticed by a big red tomato. His notes explained that the Garden of Eden is usually portrayed in the summer, but the apple is a fall fruit, so "this photograph is meant to correct the Bible." And he got away with it in Ripley, Tennessee.

If you happen to care, my favorite piece was Dolph Smith's Ripley Wing of the Tennarkippi National Produce Museum. This was an exquisitely crafted wooden theatre mounted on a post. Inside, a bare wooden tomato sits on a bench, facing (if tomatoes can actually "face") a little red stage where five wooden tomato slices cavort. It was all very strange, but I admired it, and wished I were small enough to crawl inside. Just for a few minutes, anyway.

Maybe I was snubbed by the festival committee, and maybe (what with my big-city airs and all) I didn't fully, uh, appreciate all the vendors set up in the gravel parking lot. But the "Consider the Tomato" art show more than made up for it, and I'll definitely be back next year. Besides, I promised Esteban I'd win him a rabbit.

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