I was intrigued, Sunday at Iron Barley’s Tomatofest (one of St. Louis’ more recent summer festivals), to see how this very old British Isles/European tradition has not only survived when so many others have been lost, but is enjoying a big resurgence – with street fests popping up all over the place.
Virginia Avenue between Bates & Fassen Streets was closed off with a live band at one end and a St. Louis Fire Department Engine providing a cooling shower at the other.
Such neighborhood festivals have a long tradition in the U.S., originating with French and Spanish colonists in the New World – and later Italian, German, Polish and Mexican immigrants, among others.
I don’t know how common they were in early Carondelet, today’s Tomatofest took place on the border of the Marquette/Cherokee Neighborhood of the original Carondelet (Colonial Carondelet had the unfortunate nickname of Vide Poche – Empty Pocket) but open-air, market-gatherings were frequent in Saint Louis’ La Place, long before the first public market house was constructed there.
In the first village square marked off by Pierre Laclede Liguest in 1764, the French (later Spanish) militia drilled and trained, and the people of Saint Louis held outdoor festivals and dances.
The same area, about a third of the way up the Arch staircase, continues to be a site for summer concerts/music fests on a large scale (in the thousands as opposed to hundreds).
Sunday there was a wonderful array of fresh, local produce – the summer’s bounty, corn meal and flour milled the day before, and salsas – picante and colorful – to catch the eye and delight taste buds.
Tomato Fests in particular, which began in Spain in 1945 and are currently celebrated in the U.S. from Nashville, TN to Carmel, CA – seem perfectly suited to celebrating the last, lingering days of summer.
This one, organized by Iron Barley (www.ironbarley.com) chef, Tom Coghill and Fred Boettcher, Jr. (renowned in St. Louis as Fred Friction – musician, song-writer and host of KDHX Radio’s, Fishin’ With Dynamite) was one of the nicest street fests I’ve attended recently.
There were contests ranging from the delicious (B.L.T. Sandwich eating) to the absurd (a tomato pitch replacing the usual dunking booth) in a very relaxed, family-friendly atmosphere.
The Jenny Kavanaugh Band (www.jennykavanaugh.com & http://www.myspace.com/thejennykavanaughband) provided some terrific original music in the two hours I was there. Pictured from left to right, they are Darrell Barber, Wayne Corners, Jenny Kavanaugh, John Kavanaugh, Patrick Turek and John O’Brien.
Nothing draws crowds of St. Louisans in the 95 degree heat of August like ice-cold beer (except Cardinals baseball) and here it was accompanied by Tom Coghill’s signature, to quote the RFT, “haute, hoosier cuisine”. Iron Barley’s Tomatofest was a refreshing way to spend yet another steamy, St. Louis, summer afternoon and to draw new crowds to local businesses and crafts people.
I’d like to see this tradition continue and grow. For whether you’re talking about such long-standing neighborhood festivals as Soulard Mardi Gras or The Shaw Art Fair – or those yet to be imagined, street fests enrich community life.