When the British first encountered tomatoes, they thought they were poisonous. There’s something intriguing and maybe even a little scary about the bright red and shiny fruit that inspired the 1978 musical black comedy Attack of the Killer Tomatoes in which mutant tomatoes ravage a town. The movie even led to three sequels, followed by a children’s television show and many other adaptations.
Like a lot of people at chef Ford Fry’s Attack of the Killer Tomato Festival, which was also inspired by the film, I discovered the festival on the internet. It takes place every summer in Atlanta, Georgia and brings together chefs from all over the city to display tomato-centric foods and cocktails. It started off with about a dozen chefs after Fry realized that a lot of local farmers had surpluses of tomatoes. Fry, a fan of the Killer Tomato franchise since childhood, started the festival back in 2008. The festival returned for its eighth year in Park Tavern, next to Piedmont Park on July 17.
Proceeds from the festival went to Georgia Organics. This year’s ticket prices dropped to $45 (down from $50) in order to draw more attendees. The strategy worked, and the festival hit its goal of raising over $100,000, compared to $80,000 last year. This year’s festival saw more than 2,000 attendees, including more than 60 chefs and mixologists from 50 restaurants. Upon entering, it smells like sunscreen, but the smell is soon replaced with the scent of ripened tomatoes. Dozens of chefs lined up behind bright, red table clothed booths promote Costco-style samples next to place cards mentioning the names of their dishes, the chefs, the restaurant and the tomatoes’ farm of origin. When you approach a table, chefs excitedly hand you a sample and don’t hesitate to tell you about their dish.
“It’s a play on the traditional pork sugo, which is braised in tomato juice,” Michael Perez from Colletta says about his pork and tomato agnolotti. “We wanted to take it a step further and juice the cherry tomatoes and take all the middles out of them and braise the pork shoulder in that. Then, we wanted to cure the cherry tomatoes afterwards to add an umami flavor.”
Though many chefs stuck with traditional dishes, others developed recipes unique to them. Jared Pyles, a production manager from King of Pops, created a tomato, sweet corn and lime popsicle topped with chili salt.
“They’re found in a lot of recipes together, like salsas,” Pyles explains. “They’re both sweet. We also did a tomato caramel and a tomato buttermilk in past years.”
Many of the tomato-themed desserts were based on nostalgic tomato entrees, such as Ladybird’s tomato mayo macaroon sandwich and Venkman’s BLT gelato sandwich made out of a spiced tomato jam honeysuckle cheesecake gelato, sorrell gele’ and applewood bacon sandwiched between two thin oatmeal cookies.
“Being a southern boy, the tomato mayonnaise sandwich is really dear to my heart, but it’s also really simple,” said executive chef Cooper Miller of Ladybird about his macaroon sandwich. “So at an event like this, you can’t just put tomato and mayonnaise on bread, so we tried to have a little fun with this. We made the mayo into ice cream, the tomato into sorbet. Took the white bread and made a macaroon kind of cookie with it. Added some salt and pepper.”
Outside the line, strangers ask each other about the comestibles they liked and disliked and where they got certain items. “You’ve got to take a sample and walk away until you can’t be seen by the chef. Then, you walk to a trash can and throw the rest of it away if it’s bad,” one attendee says to her friend as she throws away a sample into an overflowing trash bin.