The Love Apple

Her love affair began sometime in the mid-1980s while on a European vacation with her parents. Back then, she was a bright 20-something fresh from the University of Tennessee, and on this particular afternoon, Meg MacFadyen sat in a café in Florence, Italy, deciphering the descriptions on her menu. As a vegetarian, MacFadyen had spent agonizing stretches during her trip in regions where her food options were low (particularly in Germany, she recalls). So, in an attempt to order something sans meat and somewhat edible, she took her chances on an unfamiliar Italian dish that sounded promising.
     To hear her retell the story today, you would think she was recollecting the name of an Italian lover, not a salad. She speaks in soft, broken syllables with eyes tightly shut, as if remembering facial features or wavy hair. She whispers, “Insalata Caprese,” a plate of sliced ripened tomatoes and soft mozzarella cheese, flecked with sweet basil leaves and drizzled with vinegar and oil. Thereafter, she admits, she ate it for every meal. It was true love-at-first-bite and marks the moment MacFadyen, cofounder of the Tomato Art Festival, began her passionate love affair with what would one day be known as East Nashville’s most signature vegetable, and what one early European naturalist had named poma amoris — the Love Apple.
     Now, for sake of delineation and all things scientific, it should be noted the tomato is indeed a fruit. More accurately, it is the berry of the plant species Solanum lycopersicum — a sprawling vine native to the Peruvian Andes. The motto of the Tomato Art Fest, “The Tomato: A Uniter, Not a Divider — Bringing Fruits and Vegetables Together,” is accurate when considering the remarkable effect food has on uniting cultures, particularly in the American South. And some do argue that since the tomato is cooked and prepared in vegetable fashion, it should be considered a vegetable (hence the confusion). But the rules of botany are quite clear in terms of what constitutes a fruit.
     MacFadyen’s salad in the Italian café is something most of us are well-familiar with, but in the mid-’80s in Tennessee, a taste-worthy tomato was in scanty supply — unless you grew your own. The standard store-bought American tomato at the time was a dastardly, flavorless version, bred to ship and bred to sell. It could be accurately described as a shiny red baseball, if baseballs had the flavor of the mealiest heart of the vilest beast. Yet, those Italian heirloom varieties sliced fresh on MacFadyen’s plate were derived from the wildest of vines growing thousands of years before. The fruits were asymmetrical, fleshy, irregularly ripened, and delectable — striped, splotched, cracked, vibrant, and mottled. MacFadyen would hold an affinity for these gnarled gems and carry it for decades. Friendships would be forged over it, and ideas would be exchanged. Festivals would be created, communities bridged, and art would be made.
     It would be another 15 years or so from the time this love affair began before heirloom varieties unfurled in East Nashville gardens, but unfurl they certainly did. After an idea was sparked by a fellow tomato-loving friend, MacFadyen and her husband, Bret, owners of the Art & Invention Gallery, created the most iconic food and art festival in Nashville, The Tomato Art Fest. What began as a small tomato art opening with a community recipe contest has grown to attract crowds in the tens of thousands beneath the sweltering August sun. Many arrive in full costume for the festival’s parade, a slew of contests, a day and night of music on two stages, and the city’s beloved tomato art show.
     The 12th annual Tomato Art Fest will be returning to East Nashville’s Historic 5 Points area, Aug. 7-8. Come and celebrate our most treasured garden wonder.

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