Daily Progress, Jacksonville, TX

May 13, 2013

BUSINESS: The Pepcid Generation: (You know, from too many tomatoes)

Upcoming ‘Tomato Challenge’ is a blind taste test pitting two Tomato Capitals against each other in a battle for bragging rights

Ben Tinsley
Jacksonville Daily Progress

JACKSONVILLE — The product challenge: A TV, radio and print media technique as old as the medium of advertising itself.

Product challenges have been around for quite some time. Most will remember “The Pepsi Challenge,” which pitted Pepsi against Coca-Cola in a soft drink blind taste test aired nonstop on television.

Other classic and interesting advertising campaigns include “New Coke” versus “Old Coke”; Bing versus Google; Crunchy Wheat versus Nicely Sweet; and Better Taste versus Less Filling.

All in the spirit of two-for-one advertising.

This year's upcoming Tomato Challenge is as much a history test as it is a gauge of taste. It pits the town of  Jacksonville against Crystal Springs, Mississippi, both of which have their own respective “Tomato Fest” events, and both of which at one time or another have claimed their respective municipality as the tomato capital of the world — the veritable center of the universe.

As it turns out, the two towns are inextricably bound in their tomato history. Jacksonville farmers apparently learned key growing techniques from one or more Crystal Springs counterparts.

And so, in the very-American spirit of those wonderful commercial product challenge classics, Jacksonville Tomato Fest officials are going head-to-head with their opposite numbers in Crystal Springs, Mississippi to hammer out an answer to which of them has superior tomatoes.

The winner will retain bragging rights for exactly a year, and then the taste test will begin once again.

The question for you, Dear Reader, is … Are YOU ready for the Tomato Challenge?

This contest will take place at a center point between both towns — Crystal Springs, population 5,044 and Jacksonville, population 14,637.

 Officials from Jacksonville and Crystal Springs have agreed that a TV station in Shreveport — located five and a half hours from either location — will be the only spot for this blind test showdown that will determine the best and the biggest tomato in both burgs.

The challenge is expected to take place after tomatoes start harvesting, probably toward the end of May.

This contest comes just in time for the 29th anniversary of Jacksonville's Tomato Fest, which will be held June 8. Crystal Springs also celebrates their Tomato Festival June 29.

A very enthusiastic Mayor Sally Garland from Crystal Springs confirmed this year's winner will retain bragging rights for exactly 365 days before another contest is warranted.

“We are so excited,” Mayor Garland said Wednesday.  

Garland said she also envisions the contest as a "Pepsi Challenge"-similar blind taste test with multiple contestants. Each contestant will probably use saltine crackers to wash the taste of the previous tomato away between bites, she said.

“This is our first contest and we are just going to jump in,” Garland said. “We only found out recently about someone else holding a tomato festival. Someone from Crystal Springs contacted Jacksonville and Peggy Renfro with your chamber called us back. We talked and worked out the particulars.  We will try to figure out some sort of title a city can take and keep for a year then come back and try again the next year.”

Garland said her area has suffered some growing obstacles this year. The ground was unusually wet and suffered from a recent frost. But there have been interesting tomato blooms as well, and the mayor said she expects her people to come forward to the contest in full force.

Robin Butt, Tomato Fest Chairman, said he is equally excited about the showdown.

“East Texas and beyond knows we have the biggest and best tomatoes and this gives us an opportunity to spread the word even farther about our Great Town and its tomato heritage,” Butt said in a phone text. “We're even thinking about kicking it up a notch and challenging them to the Best Fried Green Tomatoes.”

Peggy Renfro, Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce president, said in an email that Jacksonville certainly is ready — nose to the grindstone and history book in hand.

Renfro was quick to address the origins of Jacksonville tomato growing, which, as stated, are inextricably bound to Crystal Springs.

 “It's true — Crystal Springs got Jacksonville started growing tomatoes,” Renfro said. “But Jacksonville farmers have perfected the tomatoes to make Jacksonville, Texas known for the best tomatoes. Thousand of people attend the Jacksonville annual Tomato Fest just to take Jacksonville tomatoes back to family and friends. One of Jacksonville's local farmers has been growing Jacksonville tomatoes for years has won several awards entering his award winning tomatoes in the Best Home Grown Tomato Contest during the annual Jacksonville Tomato Fest.”

Renfro said the Jacksonville/Crystal Springs convergence began when two Cherokee County brothers-in-law who worked for the Cotton Belt Railroad offices in Tyler met an “ex-Mississippian” growing tomatoes on a small scale for express shipments.

“Amazed by his season’s returns in 1896, the railroad men determined to sell the tomato idea to their home-folks,” Renfro wrote. “A decade later in June 1907, Jacksonville alone shipped 42 cars in one day. Two decades later, 1917, Jacksonville was the center of a circle with an eight mile radius producing 90 percent  of all tomatoes shipped from Texas.”

Renfro said by 1934, the 100th anniversary of the use of the tomato as food, the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce secretary conceived the idea of making the US more tomato-minded through the observance of a National Tomato Week.

“Jacksonville was recognized as the Tomato Capital and in 1941 more than 25,000 people viewed the Tomato Fest Pageantry,” Renfro said.

On a website, Crystal Springs resident Dorothy Moore Alford proudly described the history of her own town.

“One who steps into the lobby of the Post Office of Crystal Springs can see a vivid and interesting mural across the east wall,” Alford said in a blog. “It depicts a scene once very familiar to the area. In the background, men are working in a neat field of new plants; nearer to the viewer, tomato vines are heavy with brilliant fruit; in the foreground, men are carrying field boxes of green tomatoes, and ladies are carefully wrapping each green globe in a thin sheet of blue paper and packing it snugly into a lug filled two-thirds with other blue-wrapped tomatoes.”

Alford  wrote that this scene shows progressive steps that once occupied the time and attention of many of the citizens of the area.

“Because of this intensive activity, a unique sign once stretched across one of the main streets of the business area: a huge cornucopia spilling beautiful vegetables and proudly proclaiming Crystal Springs to be TOMATOPOLIS OF THE WORLD,” Alford wrote.

The presentation of the Tomato Challenge may differ from Pepsi's by a tad. The Pepsi Challenge was presented publicly in the form of a taste test in public locations such as shopping centers, airports and malls. A table would be set up with two unlabeled cups — one which contained coca-cola and the other which contained Pepsi. Patrons would sip from both cups, then choose the drink they liked the best. The contents of the two cups would then be revealed.

Interestingly, these commercials circulated by Pepsi indicated customers preferred their drink. But those results were challenged in later years. As a matter of fact, writer Malcolm Gladwell argued in his book “Blink,” that Pepsi's victory against Coca-Cola in the “Pepsi Challenge” was simply because tasters generally prefer the sweeter of two drinks based on a single sip — even if a less sweet beverage is what they preferred when gulping down an entire can.

And, while the Tomato Challenge will consist of a blind taste test between the tomatoes of Jacksonville and Crystal Springs,  factors such as manipulative labeling and sweeter products attracting short-term preferences will not be a factor, officials said.

And really, memorable challenges such as the Pepsi Challenge tend to never die.  It returned in 2011 for the American reality television show The X Factor.  

To inquire further about the challenge, contact the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce at 903-586-2217 or visit www.jacksonvilletexas.com. To contact the Crystal Springs Chamber, call 601-892-2711.

But the question remains: Which town is going to be victorious?

“Our contest will determine the biggest tomato and  best tasting tomato — and we are going to win this one,” said a very confident Mayor Garland. “You just can't outdo us on this one.”

Renfro, however, also has complete and utter faith in her town.

“Who will win?” Renfro asked in her email. “Jacksonville, of course.”