On the Trail of Border Tomatoes, Ballet Folklorico and Sgt. Cheddar’s

October 23, 2014

It’s the time of year tomato lovers dread the most. As the local harvests in the Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico and far west Texas wind down, the prospect of hard, industrialized tomatoes on the plate frightens the taste buds. But alas, relief is in store in a few places like the Downtown Artist and Farmers Market (DAFM) in El Paso, Texas.

On a recent Saturday market day, the folks from La Semilla Food Center’s farm in nearby Anthony, New Mexico, had fresh red Romas and cute yellow pear tomatoes for the eye to behold.
A bulging Brandywine tomato that resembled a small pumpkin held down table items on a breezy day.  Looking not unlike a grape, the yellow pear tomato is a prolific one, being an “interminable” plant “that keeps giving” while other varieties die off, according to Cristina Dominguez Eshelman, La Semilla’s farm director.

“They are like nature’s treat. They are so sweet,” Dominguez Eshelman exalted.

A man stopping at La Semilla’s stand was soon in agreement with the farm manager after tasting the small, oddly shaped tomato. “It’s good,” he declared in Spanish to the reporter. In sharp contrast to last year, 2014 was a good one for tomatoes at La Semilla, Dominguez Eshelman said.

Melissa Calderon, co-owner of Luna Farm in Chaparral, New Mexico, is another stalwart tomato supplier at the DAFM. She also sells home-grown “mini-greens,” okra, spinach, green onions, fresh herbs, and beans.

“Next week I’ll have sweet tomatoes. We’ll have it for Food Day,” Calderon vowed.

Farming on a quarter-acre of land with a 300 square-foot greenhouse, Calderon’s family has seed-growing around the calendar to keep the customers satisfied at the year-round DAFM.  According to the southern New Mexico grower, her farm does not use pesticides, makes its own compost for fertilizer and harvests rain water for farming purposes.

“We don’t do hydroponics. We believe God gave us dirt to filter all that,” Calderon added.

Along with the other vendors at the DAFM, Luna Farm and La Semilla are gearing up for the market’s annual Food Day, which this year falls on Saturday, October 25. Valerie Venecia, DAFM coordinator, outlined an event where invincible tomatoes will share the spotlight with food trucks, music, yoga sessions, bicyclists, and folkloric ballet performances. Keeping in sync with a family-friendly atmosphere, a Halloween costume contest and a scavenger hunt will keep the children busy, Venecia told FNS. Healthy eating and active living are the principal messages of Food Day, Venecia said.

“Last year we had over 2,000 people and we anticipate that many if not more,” she said.

Food Day likewise provides an opportunity to savor the culinary fusion between local farmers and chefs. For instance, Sgt. Cheddar’s Food Truck will use tomatoes from La Semilla and basil from the Healthy Harvest Farm of El Paso’s Lower Valley as ingredients in its gourmet grilled cheese sandwich, according to Venecia.

Apart from food and fun, visitors to the October 25 event will encounter local arts and crafts.  Photographer Charles Bloomfield, who moved to El Paso from Los Angeles nine years ago, is a market regular. Working in both color and black-and-white, Bloomfield has pictures ranging from postcard to poster size.

Bloomfield’s images embrace pecan orchards, the Concordia Cemetery where notable Pasenos are interred, the San Elizario chapel, and a shot of neighboring Ciudad Juarez that looks like it was taken close-up but which was actually done with a zoom-lens from this side of the border.

Perhaps the most imposing samples from Bloomfield’s portfolio are his photos of the falling stacks of the old American Smelting and Refining Company’s smelter, which were demolished amid great public controversy on April 13, 2013.

“It was one of those things that was controversial for two years, and people would want these, Bloomfield said. “It was a good move. It didn’t serve a purpose for what it was, and it contaminated a lot of people’s lives,” he opined of the demolition.

The border photographer did not make it to the next day’s demolition of El Paso City Hall, but he does have previously taken, original photos for the historical record that show how the seat of city government once stood where the Chihuahuas minor league baseball team now plays in Southwest University Park.

Firmly implanted on Anthony Street in El Paso’s Union Plaza district, the DAFM is part of a new business landscape that is slowly taking shape in a historic area of the Texas border city.  Off to the side of the DAFM’s Anthony Street main drag, restaurants and watering holes such as Tabla inject new life into a 100-year-structure.

Tabla owner Norbert Portillo said he is still assessing the spill-over effect of the DAFM on his own business.  But Portillo suggested that the market might be better suited for the surrounding alley-like streets so as to keep Anthony Street open. “It’s working fine but I think we can revisit the logistics of it,” Portillo said.

A handful of non-DAFM vendors like Myra Regalado are already setting up  stands on the street sides.  Specializing in toys and Mexican curios, Regalado said she is also assessing the benefits of positioning her goods near the bigger Saturday morning market.

“We’ll see how it goes, probably in a few weeks,” Regaldo told FNS.

For her part, Melissa Calderon said she remained firmly committed to bringing the bounty of the land to the DAFM throughout the year.

And in the near future, when tomato fanatics are craving the plump and juicy treats of the harvest season, Calderon expects to have a batch of “Czechoslovakian” tomatoes she is growing from seed obtained via the Internet.

“Tomatoes are always lined up in pots in light,” she reported. “We like to emphasize buy locally-support your local farmers, community-based.”

For tomato lovers in the borderland, then, not all is bleak.

To see a map of El Paso’s Downtown Artist and Farmers Market: http://www.elpasotexas.gov/mcad/downtown_market.asp

-Kent Paterson

Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico

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email: fnsnews@nmsu.edu

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