Maw & Paw’s farm stand on Highway 51 sells summer produce, including tomatoes, outside of Ripley, Tennessee.
So here is the well-kept secret to the tomato festival in Ripley: On the second day of the annual event, there are no tomatoes, except for a platter of sliced ones on the table at Saturday Salad, a charming affair organized by the members of downtown’s First United Methodist Church.
Call me a chump, but I was expecting some sort of fabulous tomato farmer’s market where I could score a great deal on a crate or two of Lauderdale County’s signature fruit. But when we stopped by Ripley City Park for the 31st festival this past Saturday, we found T-shirts, funnel cakes, carnival rides, and gospel singing by the Frog Jump Quartet. But no tomatoes.
Even Saturday Salad, an impressive spread of pasta, vegetable, fruit, and meat salads contributed by about 50 kitchen cooks, seemed short on tomatoes. When I asked Louise White, who was helping with the event, about the tomatoes’ limited role, she said tomatoes were on Friday’s lunch menu at First Baptist Church Family Life Center. “That’s when you get the tomato salads,” she said.
The salads Saturday were more diverse, including throwbacks like “Pink Fluff,” a congealed salad of Cool Whip, crushed pineapple, miniature marshmallows, and cherry pie filling best left in the 1950s, along with more updated spins such as a wonderful orzo salad of fresh spinach, black olives, capers, and pine nuts tossed in light vinaigrette.
Many of the salads were excellent, but the standout for me was Linda Willis’ fried okra salad, a combination of diced tomato, red onion, and green pepper seasoned with salt and pepper and then tossed with fried okra and pieces of crispy bacon.
Convinced the salad’s dressing included some other ingredient, I tracked Willis down in the kitchen to ask about the recipe. She said the trick is two-fold. First, chop and season the tomato, onion, and green pepper and let the vegetables sit awhile so the juices fill out. And second, add the okra and bacon to the mixture while they are still warm from frying. What could be simpler, right?
Happily, I did get a dozen excellent tomatoes to carry home at Maw and Paw’s farm stand on Highway 51, as well as corn and my first watermelon of the season. And festival disappointments aside, the 90-minute drive from Memphis to Ripley was lovely, with wild coreopsis nodding alongside the roads and a drive-by sighting of the Tootsie Roll trucks at the Charms candy headquarters outside Covington.
We also made a side trip to Henning, Tennessee, to visit the grave and boyhood home of Roots author Alex Haley. The 10-room bungalow, built by Haley’s grandfather in 1918, was where Haley first heard his grandmother and aunts recount the family stories that inspired his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, published in 1976. The house and adjoining interpretative center were delightful surprises combining both history and homage to an important American writer.
Alex Haley’s inspiration for Roots came from the time he spent at his grandparents’ home in Henning, Tennessee. He is buried alongside the house, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.