New York City celebrates New Year’s Eve on Times Square.
Pasadena has the Tournament of Roses Parade.
New Orleans has Mardi Gras.
In Greater Pittston, we have the annual Pittston Tomato Festival.
When the Tomato Festival was conceived over 33 years ago, I wasn’t sure what it was going to be like or if it would even take off. After all, we were celebrating a tomato. A tomato, for crying out loud!
Why not the tomato? Growing up in Greater Pittston, most families had gardens in their backyards and a staple of those gardens was — you guessed it – the tomato. My dad’s father grew the most scrumptious, delicious, tasty tomatoes from his yard.
It was because of my grandfather’s garden I fell in love with tomato anything — ham sandwiches with tomatoes, garden salads with tomatoes, tomato salads and my all-time favorite, a tomato sandwich with salad dressing and pepper.
Even though the festival has been held at its current location for many years now, people would be hard pressed to recall the original site. For those of you too young to know, the site stood where Burger King and CVS stand along Kennedy Boulevard.
At that time it was just a huge parking lot, which made it a perfect spot for a festival of any kind.
I can recall the first few festivals were fairly well attended. Vendors lined the perimeter of the parking lot and a section was set up in the center like the food vendors of the current site. There was a bandshell set up on one end for entertainment.
If you walked the old layout, you essentially went around in a circle like you were driving the Indianapolis 500 course.
It was a fun gathering. Right from the early days, it brought residents of Greater Pittston out in masses to celebrate, yes, the tomato.
Move to Main Street
When it was announced the festival was going to move to its current location, I was a bit disappointed. I wasn’t sure if the festival would have the success at the new location that it had at the old one. It didn’t take too long to realize I was wrong in my thinking.
The two-tier layout worked perfectly, with the bandshell on the lower level and the food vendors on top. Even with the new location, you could still do a lap like at the Indy 500, so that part didn’t change a bit.
The festival will take on yet another transformation now that there is a permanent structure built, named in honor of Jimmy Zarra, that will have a few additional stands as well as the familiar faces of the Tomato Festival committee members at the helm.
So just when you think the Tomato Festival couldn’t get any bigger, it will be. The current organizers are always thinking and planning how the City of Pittston can get bigger and better and benefit from the event honoring the tomato. It is estimated that 50,000 people attend the Tomato Festival each year.
For 2017, a third tier will be set up behind the Pittston Memorial Library where the parking lot has been wired for vendor tents. That same site has been approved for a future amphitheater as well.
The Tomato Queen Scholarship Pageant entrants are not limited to Greater Pittston residents and there have been many winners from outside Pittston. Dr. Joe Lombardo has been the pageant emcee for the last few years and I believe he enjoys that role.
The great tomato fights held at Cooper’s parking lot are legendary, and once and for all, they do not use good tomatoes for the fight. It seems whether tomatoes are being wasted is a question that pops up every year.
The Little Miss and Mister Tomato contest is always fun to watch. Some children are very shy and hide behind their parents’ legs while others are extremely vocal and can be downright funny.
The Tomato Festival 5K race has been a popular race stop for many of the area’s runners and beyond. It’s very competitive and an extremely challenging course that crosses the Susquehanna River twice.
Let’s not forget Sauce Wars and the judging of tomatoes. Who has the best sauce in the area? Who entered the biggest tomato or the ugliest tomato? It’s all in fun, and money is raised in the effort as well.
How about the Tomato Festival Parade broadcast each year on FOX-56 with Pittston natives Jane Adonizio and Lori Nocito as parade hosts? These ladies do a bang up job and it shows that they are really Pittston proud. The parade is getting so large, it really rivals NEPA’s biggest parade, Scranton’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
I think the forefathers of the Tomato Festival, like the late Val Delia, would be extremely proud of the direction the event has taken. Perhaps in Val’s wildest dreams he couldn’t imagine what a true gem and feather in Pittston’s cap that is produced each and every year.
It’s pretty cool to think that idea of the festival received national acclaim when it was written about in the Washington Post in 2009. Yes, the Pittston tomato has indeed made an indelible mark on northeastern Pennsylvania.
So enjoy the 2016 festival. Listen to great music, see who gets crowned in the pageants, cheer on your favorite runner in the 5K race, and watch family and friends get pelted by tomatoes and, above all – Mangia! Eat up, my friends!
Tony Callaio’s column My Corner, Your Corner runs weekly in the Sunday Dispatch. He can be reached at [email protected]