Food & Drink

Feast Q&A: All hail the tomato in Sacramento

If Sacramento has an identifying emblem, it’s the tomato.

Our city is known as the Big Tomato, and with good reason. We harvest at least 78,500 tons a year in our county. We grow them in backyard gardens, we cook them, we consume them.

We celebrate them, too, as in the second annual Sacratomato Week, July 20-25.

It’s a venture between Midtown Sacramento’s Sutter District and the Midtown Business Association. As part of it, seven midtown restaurants and three bars will participate. The centerpiece will be a free festival on the outer grounds of Sutter’s Fort from 4 to 8 p.m. July 25, with entertainment, food tastings, a children’s area with lessons on planting and growing tomatoes, and a salsa-making contest (deadline to enter is July 17 with a $25 fee).

If all this sounds familiar, it may be because the unrelated Sacramento Tomato Fest held in July 2010 and 2011 at Town & Country Village was our town’s first official tomato-centric festival.

We caught up with Emily Baime Michaels, the association’s executive director, and discovered she’s a foodie at heart. She and husband Darin put together the cookbook “A Year in Food and Beer” (AltaMira, $31, 180 pages), and hold in-home (yours or theirs) cooking and pairing classes through their nonprofit Community Tap and Table (

For more Sacratomato Week information:, (916) 442-1500. Register for the salsa competition on the website.

Q: How will those midtown restaurants and bars participate?

A: They’ll serve tomato-based specials and drinks. We’re anticipating a few multicourse (tomato-themed) chefs dinners, and our fingers are crossed that somebody’s going to come up with a tomato dessert.

Q: What about the Sutter’s Fort festival?

A: There will be a bloody mary bar for sure, and craft beers and wine. The salsa competition is sponsored by Centro Cocina Mexicana. It will be a little like “Iron Chef” in that the contestants must prepare their salsas onstage in front of an audience. We provide everything except for three ingredients they can bring themselves. A panel of judges will decide the winner in a blind tasting.

Q: What’s the prize?

A: Right now, bragging rights, but there could be more, like (being an observer) in a restaurant kitchen.

Q: Any local bands playing?

A: Several, and we’re really excited that Skyler’s Pool will be there. That’s (KFBK host) Kitty O’Neal’s and her husband (Paragary Restaurant Group executive chef) Kurt Spataro’s band.

Q: What do Sacramentans need to know about tomatoes?

A: They’re incredibly accessible and easy to grow in home gardens, but it’s important we don’t think of them as pedestrian. There is so much dynamic flavoring within our 20-variety diversity of tomatoes. You can use them in very basic recipes or they can become very complex. They have a beautiful amount of liquid that can be almost invisible in dishes when you strain them and create tomato water.

Q: What else?

A: There’s a huge number of people in our slow food community who are working to preserve original heirloom strains. We still have an incredible depth to our tomato culture we’re not yet celebrating, but it’s my hope that over time the Sacratomato Festival will look at those intricacies.

Q: How many tomato plants do you have at home?

A: Four in the front that came up as volunteers out of the compost soil I used to grow my potatoes, and six in my tower garden.

Q: What’s your favorite tomato dish?

A: My fresh tomato sauce. I get the tomatoes at the Midtown Farmers Market. I throw a little bit of (the herb) savory in the pan until it’s brown and a little stinky, then I hit it with a bunch of olive oil. I core the skin-on tomatoes and set them in there for about 10 minutes, then put the lid on and simmer until the tomatoes are barely falling apart. Then I immersion-blend them with a little fig balsamic vinegar. You know the smell of tomato plants in the summertime? It tastes like that smell.

Q: Once and for all, is the tomato a vegetable or fruit?

A: I’m going with fruit.

Allen Pierleoni: 916-321-1128, @apierleonisacbe

Emily Baime Michaels

Executive director of the Midtown Business Association

“We still have an incredible depth to our tomato culture we’re not yet celebrating.”