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October 12, 2012

Two-day ode to tomatoes draws many to Los Banos

Tina Hall and Darryl Roberts made the hour-plus drive from Fresno to Los Banos for Saturday's cooking demonstrations.

"We love tomatoes," Hall said. "Plus they had recipes, and all that stuff going on."

The Los Banos Tomato Festival rolled through town during the weekend, enticing a crowd estimated at more than 10,000 people to taste tomatoes, listen to music and compete in food contests at the Los Banos Fairgrounds.

Hall and Roberts prepared a citrus-herb vinaigrette salad recipe with the help of Kagome Inc. corporate chef Charlie Baggs. Roberts said he'd make the trip up again.

"As long as you have it, we're here," Roberts said.

Another group of festivalgoers got cocktail, gazpacho and other demonstrations from celebrity chef Ryan Scott, a contestant on Season 4 of Bravo TV's "Top Chef." Scott also gave the crowd some pointers on finding the right tomato, which he said should not look perfect.

"I think a lot of people are looking for that round, smooth end," said the Los Banos High graduate. "If it looks blemished and if it looks kind of ugly in some way, that's OK."

The scores in the audience greeted his quips with laughter as he cooked, told stories and asked for audience participation.

This year's most notable addition, by all accounts, was the farmers market set up in the heart of all the action.

Shelby Mayfield, the manager of Firebaugh-based Lone Willow Ranch, displayed more than 50 types of heirloom tomatoes -- with names like Big Tiger, Flammé, Kentucky Beefsteak, Ace 55 and Hawaiian Pineapple -- for tasting in front of her produce booth.

"We are supporting farmers and organics," Mayfield said.

Her ranch grows tomatoes for the seeds, which she sells online. Mayfield said all of her products, which include garlic, beans and livestock, are organic and not genetically modified.

Shasky Farms of Le Grand offered its stone fruit and nuts at the market. Tom Shasky, son of owner Jim, said the Tomato Festival works as a promoter for area agriculture.

"It's a good way to bring family together with agriculture," Shasky said. "Everybody here sees how ag plays a part."

Shasky said farmers markets are always a good source of fresh food. His produce is picked no more than 24 hours before a market.

"Crazy" Manuel Valenzuela of Fresno came to tout his salsa called, what else but, Crazy Manuel's Salsa. His secret is balsamic vinegar.

"I put a little Italian into it is what I tell people," Valenzuela said.

He took the blue ribbon in the salsa contest. Valenzuela said he's been making salsa since 1987, and wants to make it a career.

The festival featured barbecue, pasta sauce and Bloody Mary competitions.

The attendance during the two-day run was more than double last year's count of 4,100, according to Molly Cassidy, a Kagome employee and Los Banos Chamber of Commerce Tomato Festival chairwoman.

She chalked the increase and success up to lower ticket prices, Spanish-language bands and the farmers market.

"In terms of the draw, it was definitely a success," Cassidy said.

Modesto resident Patti Darner brought her boyfriend and her granddaughter, 5-year-old Zoey, to the festival because she enjoys cooking. She said she got a bit of an education on tomatoes while there.

"It's unbelievable how many types there are," Darner said.

Los Banos Enterprise reporter Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 388-6562 or by e-mail at

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