Dueling Tomatoes

By Casey O'Leary / Photography By Casey O'Leary | June 15, 2016
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Western Idaho Fair

The Western Idaho Fair has usually occupied a significant place in my rituals of summer—from the crazed anticipation of childhood to the harsh teenage reality of gainful Pronto Pups employment. My extension- agent grandpa schlepped us kids all over southern Idaho in the ’80s, offering his expertise as a produce judge at various county fairs. While he pored over boring vegetables on boring tables with other boring adults, we mastered the fine art of not puking up cotton candy while riding The Zipper a half dozen times.

But as time has passed, I’ve found myself wandering through the rows of canned goods and giant pumpkins in the Expo more than cruising the Midway. Call me old, but last year I decided I wanted to participate in those Expo rituals.

Since the Western Idaho Fair’s inception in 1897, people have come from all over the West to show their agricultural wares. The seven-acre carnival that defines the fair for 4-H-deprived city kids was more of an afterthought, though it did boast what was reportedly the first Ferris wheel west of the Mississippi.

I’m not going to lie—I felt pretty confident about my entries: Purple cayenne peppers, Aunt Molly’s ground cherries and the coup de grâce—a voluptuous Zefa Fino fennel bulb.

“I’m a professional,” I pontificated to my dog on the drive over. “I grow vegetables for a living. It’s almost not fair (no pun intended) to be competing with home gardeners.”

From the moment I walked into the cavernous Expo building, I knew I was in trouble.

Dozens of folks buzzed around long tables preparing their entries on little paper dishes. They greeted each other excitedly, scoping out the competition as it arrived. Elegant vases held single chard stems near huge blocky bell peppers I’d practically kill for and 25-pound watermelons. Off to the side, a woman polished cherry tomatoes.

“Yeah, we went easy this year,” I overheard a guy telling the woman checking him in. “Only 42 entries, plus the canned goods.”

I was fumbling around in the mayhem when a guy walked in with a wheelbarrow full of squashes topped with a sunflower that easily stretched 20 feet across the room. His son supported the head as he rolled up, drawing nods of approval from the seasoned veterans.

Upon officially entering my specimens, I beelined it to the tomato-polishing woman, Michele Detwiler. She was still at it—dozens of dishes flanked her on the table, each holding a different variety. Detwiler is a professional opera singer who enters veggies with her kids, who are active in 4-H.

“It’s my favorite time of year,” she smiled, positioning ramrod-straight lines of perfectly polished cherry tomatoes in the dish. “Whatever [money] I make on vegetables we use for birthday parties. Now the kids decide what we should enter based on what can make the most money.”

Witch Hazel extract wasn’t the only trick in her arsenal.

“They’ve got to be uniform. I clip each cherry tomato stem at the same spot above the first knuckle. Last year, a couple of the tops popped off and I had to hot-glue them back on,” she said, laughing.

This jovially cutthroat atmosphere stretched from the competitors to the volunteers to the judges. Reggie States, of the locally famous fruit stand Reggie’s Veggies, has been judging for almost a decade. “I love it,” he said. “You don’t know who grew [the entry], could be a little kid or a 65-year-old grandma. Everyone is on equal footing; everybody has the same chance.”

“Does anyone ever try to bribe you?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah,” he said, grinning. “I’ve had offers of pie and other foods, which I have accepted. It doesn’t give the name of the person on the entries, so it’s OK.”

“Any other tips for prospective new participants?” I asked. “Follow directions,” he said. “It’s not all about eye-appeal.”

Indeed, the guidebook for entering items into the fair is thick, with excruciatingly specific instructions for each finely dissected subcategory. Entering becomes as much an exercise in precisely following rules as in growing superior specimens.

In the era of the multimillion-dollar sports industrial complex, what refreshing frivolity to cavort with people who take vegetables so seriously. Like every good sporting event, there are heavy hitters who take home dozens of ribbons—their names are spoken reverently by volunteers, adding excitement and lore to the tradition. Each year, some folks pass away and some enter for the first time.

My inaugural foray proved modestly, uh, fruitful. We won a blue ribbon and a $4 prize for our ground cherries. Grandpa would be so proud.

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