Even John Denver agrees, “Ain’t nothin’ in the world that I like better than bacon & lettuce & homegrown tomatoes.” Tomato connoisseurs gathered on the lawn of the Burwell School Historic Site on Saturday to enjoy the Heirloom Tomato Picnic & Tasting. Whit’s Ice Cream and Colonial Inn Bloody Marys were complimented with a tasting table that included a mix of tomatoes from more than 10 local farms and a tomato pie contest.
“People were most excited about the tomato pie contest and the tasting of all these incredible varieties,” said Burwell’s Event Committee Chair, Fran McCullough. “They’re really pleased that we had such amazing judges for the pie contest, the pros like Bill Smith Jr. and Nancie McDermott, but also Margaret Brooks, a great home cook who knows her way around a pie and happens to be Dr. Kizzy Crobett’s grandmother.”
Emceeing the award ceremony was Hillsborough Mayor Jenn Weaver, crowning Kat McGee the first-annual 2021 Burwell Tomato Pie Contest winner. McGee took home a beautiful pottery pie plate crafted by Mary Ann Peter, while Margaretta Yarborough, who took second place, won the coveted tomato artwork of Tom Stevens.
The two acres of sprawling grass and gardens that once housed The Burwell Academy for Young Ladies (ca. 1821) is now a historic site managed by The Historic Hillsborough Commission. Known for their preservation and historical interpretation programs, the staff and commissioners have begun to seek new ways to utilize their space.
“As Chair of Events, I had been thinking for a long time that we need to make better use of our splendid grounds, right in the middle of Hillsborough,” explained McCullough. “The year before the pandemic, we had a Star Party, with our neighbor astronomer Jerry Vinski and a couple of friends of his with great telescopes. It was amazing — we had over 200 people come. We had always thought there was no point in summer programming because everyone left town for the season. That clearly was no longer true, if it ever was.”
After attending an heirloom tasting herself, McCullough saw an opportunity to create an inclusive community event for Burwell and a way to celebrate as COVID restrictions eased. “The farmer’s markets in our county weren’t able to have their usual tastings this summer because of COVID, but we came in just as the restrictions were lifted, with a bigger party idea. Once we said ‘tomato pie contest’ and ‘Bloody Marys’, we were on!” McCullough continued, “[It’s] a celebration of being able to move around again more or less freely, celebrate the tomato harvest as well, and hook up farmers and home gardeners with interested consumers.”
McCullough, who spent her life publishing cookbooks and other literary works, is joined by a team of people who came together to make this event possible. Volunteers, commissioners, and staff worked tirelessly, cooking pounds of bacon for the BLT lunches, organizing the pie contest, recruiting judges, and rounding up local farmers and growers.
“I loved making books, bringing something into the world, and having at least some input into the project in terms of how it looks, how it happens, the whole launch process. These events are gratifyingly like that, making something happen that wouldn’t happen otherwise and resonates with people,” said McCullough. And resonate it did. Saturday’s event welcomed hundreds of picnickers, spreading out blankets and enjoying the festivities.
Burwell’s event calendar continues to grow with plans for a second annual Star Party in August and Colonial Inn Bourbon Tasting in October. October also marks the start of their year-long bicentennial celebration, honoring the historical legacy of the Burwell School.