Talking Creole Tomatoes With Grower Ben Becnel

The mater man weighs in on New Orleans’ summer specialty

New Orleanians take their tomatoes seriously. The words “Creole tomato” mean a very particular thing: a knobby, vine-ripened, bright-red tomato grown in South Louisiana’s alluvial soil, sprinkled with Mississippi River water and brushed by hot, late-spring air. Some even call it Louisiana’s own “tomato terroir.”

To get super-technical, these tomatoes, with the aforementioned “soil chemistry,” are best grown in St. Bernard or Plaquemines parishes, just downriver from New Orleans, though it is also commonly thought that any homegrown, vine-ripened tomato in the metro area is a Creole tomato. Not so. 

French Market New Orleans

“Other tomatoes grown around the state might be tasty, but only tomatoes grown in soil south of Lake Pontchartrain are true Creole tomatoes,” says beloved longtime farmer Ben Becnel.

Owner (with his dad) of the Ben and Ben Becnel farm stand in Plaquemines, Ben (the younger), continued to spill the juice on these locally grown lovelies:

Table of creole tomatoes

What is the traditional Creole tomato season?
It depends on when it freezes. One year we were growing into February! Usually, the season runs from May to January.

Sometimes Creole tomatoes can be knobby, green and ugly,’ but still delicious. What should one look for when buying Creole tomatoes?
Appearances can be deceiving. It’s all about the inside; that’s where the flavor is. Unless the skin of the tomato is broken open, it doesn’t much matter what the outside looks like. The most important thing is, if you can, to verify that the tomato actually comes from South Louisiana, below the lake. Tomatoes from Lafayette or Slidell are fine, but they are not Creole tomatoes. 

What’s your favorite way to eat a Creole tomato?
Honestly? With diced cucumber, avocado and a sprinkle of Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning. That’s a perfect salad.

French Market New Orleans

The Creole Tomato Festival takes place every year in June at the French Market. What’s the best part of being at the fest? 
I really enjoy trying all the different dishes that are out there, and, for me, there’s a historic feeling, too. My grandfather used to come to the old French Market when it was mostly a farmers market selling vegetables. He’d go very early in the morning, set up his stand and sell product. Now, when I come for the festival and get set up, it’s kind of like things coming full circle.

Ripe, juicy Creole tomatoes are super sweet, with a distinct taste of earth and sunshine. Fat slices sprinkled with coarse salt are delicious eaten out of hand, over a sink or layered between slices of soft, white bread, heavily slathered in mayonnaise and given a sturdy shot of black pepper. The easiest way to experience Creole tomatoes in many guises is at the French Market’s Creole Tomato Festival. The fest offers cooking demonstrations from well-known local chefs, live music, food booths featuring tomato-laced dishes and, of course, farmers like the Becnels selling boxes of Creole tomatoes straight from their fields, still warm from the sun and ripe for a loving squeeze.