The Bradley County Pink Tomato Festival, a time-honored festival that draws thousands to the small Southeast Arkansas town of Warren to enjoy a more laid-back, casual atmosphere and some of the best southern hospitality around, celebrated its 57th anniversary this year.
Perhaps the most famous past attendees were Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis (entertainment during one of the early festivals) and Bill Clinton, who would later become president if the United States, but the star attraction has always been the tomato. It is seen everywhere: on the streets, the courthouse lawn, on clothing and in the parade. Even the city water tower features the tomato, the state’s official vegetable and fruit. In 1987, John Lipton, a former state legislator from Warren, introduced legislation that elevated the South Arkansas Pink Vine Ripe Tomato’s status to state fruit and vegetable.
What began as a one-day event in 1956 has grown to a week-long event with a golf tournament, the Grand Tomato Ball, the All Tomato Luncheon, a parade, “big name” entertainment, beauty pageants, a film documentary, fireworks and lots of other events and contests, including the tomato eating contest, a contest that Bill Clinton entered in 1978 when he was running for governor of Arkansas.
Clinton tells about the experience in his autobiography My Life:
“Three of the seven or eight competitors were young men much bigger than I was. We each got a paper sack full of tomatoes, which had been carefully weighed. When the bell sounded, we ate as many as we could in the allotted time, which I think was five minutes, a long time for a crowd to watch grown men behave like pigs at the trough. Any part of the tomato that was not consumed had to be put back in the sack, so that the exact weight of tomatoes consumed could be determined. Like a fool, I tried to win. I always did. I finished third or fourth and felt pretty sick for a couple of days. It wasn’t all for nothing, though; I got most of the votes in Warren… But I never entered the contest again.”
This year’s tomato eating contestants were Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, gubernatorial candidates Asa Hutchinson, Bill Halter and Mike Ross, state Rep. Jeff Warlaw, Miss Pink Tomato Cindy Nolen, Warren Mayor Bryan Martin, U.S. Sen. John Boozman, state Sen. Eddie Cheatham competing for U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, state Land Commissioner John Thurston, Dianne Curry, a candidate for Lt. Governor, and Lt. Gov. Mark Darr.
Wardlaw won the contest, eating 1.8 pounds of tomatoes. McDaniel, a two-time contest winner who won in 2005 and again in 2012, finished second, eating 1.6 pounds, and Hutchinson finished third eating 1.06 pounds of tomatoes.
Despite initial concerns that tomatoes would be scarce at the festival due to three cold snaps during April, there were plenty to go around. One box, however, came with a big price tag: $900. Tommy Maxwell, of Monticello, was the winning bidder on the box of tomatoes auctioned at the Bradley County All Tomato Luncheon, one of the most popular events at the festival.
At the luncheon, following the tomato eating contest, U.S. Sens. Mark Pryor and John Boozmen both lauded the festival calling it “legendary” and one of the “premier” events in the state.
McDaniel, who has attended every Pink Tomato Festival since 2005, said the Pink Tomato Festival is a great Arkansas tradition.
“It’s special,” he said, “and not just because of how wonderful it is; but there’s a lot of business that gets done on your behalf. There are communities substantially larger than Warren that would give their eye teeth to have both United States senators, their members of Congress, their members of the General Assembly, three constitutional officers, and every major candidate for governor in one place at one time. This is where your interests get heard and when you leave here it’s not just the wonderful memories of family and faith and friendships we take with us but it is a commitment to make sure that the best days of South(east) Arkansas are still yet to come. We all share that vision.”