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December 12, 2006   Email to Friend 

TOMATO TESTIMONY: A Novel Idea From Mountaintop Is Changing Lives
Darryal Ray

Rev. Ted Crum, the parish's new director, shows off gift box.
Think tomatoes were only meant to be eaten red, ripe and straight from the garden? Think again -- the folks at Upper Sand Mountain Parish believe there's a better way.

"Better" as in Green Tomato Marmalade. Or Green Tomato Pickles. Or even Green Tomato-Blueberry Jam.

High on Sand Mountain, if there's a better way, you can bet folks will give it a try.

That's why parish mission teams have built 44 "rent-to-own" homes for low-income families. That's why the parish operates a cannery, a food pantry and two thrift stores to provide food, clothing and jobs for those in need. And that's why the parish's co-op of 10 small -- membership churches has turned a gleaning project into a niche market built on -- you guessed it -- green tomatoes.

"If you can show us a better way, we'll try it. If not, we're going to keep on doing it the same old way we've always done it," said the Rev. Dorsey Walker, the just-retired director of the United Methodist parish that has spent the last 20 or so years touching lives and turning green tomatoes into jams, marmalades, relishes, chutneys and pickles.

In all, you'll find 13 different green tomato products packaged and sold under the "Sand Mountain's Finest" label at the parish's very own Better Way Cannery and Thrift Shoppe just off Highway 75 in Sylvania.

"Gleaning is a biblical principal that farmers would allow the poor in the community to go through and pick after they'd harvested.

The parish began offering canning classes as a way to reach the area's low-income families.

Pretty soon, Walker and parish workers found themselves running a cannery, processing and packing sauerkraut and vegetable soup, which they gave to soup kitchens and homeless shelters in Anniston, Talladega and Birmingham. At its peak, Walker said, the parish was canning 8,000 to 10,000 quarts a year.

"We'd stay up until 1 o'clock in the morning making sauerkraut and soup out of whatever vegetables we had on hand. Back then, it was nothing for a farmer to call and say, 'I've got 30 acres of cabbage that has brown leaf, and we can't use it. Do you want it?' So we started using junior high kids on our mission teams to cut up cabbage. Kids just love to cut up cabbage."

When Walker received an Extension cookbook featuring green tomato recipes, the idea of trying green tomatoes as a niche market was born.

Walker soon discovered that by grinding up green tomatoes and adding just about any flavor of gelatin, one could create a jam that would get people talking.

The first they made with raspberry, then Walker realized that one of the parish's church families -- brothers Wesley, Stafford and Kenneth Hardman -- always gave the parish their farm's surplus blueberries, Walker had another idea.

"I thought, 'What if we just try grinding half green tomatoes and half blueberries and see how it comes out?' So, we did that, and it came out pretty good.

"We just kind of stumbled on to it," he continued. "We just started experimenting, looking for recipes, and replacing the blueberries with other berries or fruits."

You can only find the products at the parish thrift store, its website, Cokesbury bookstores, state museum shops, the Goat Hill Museum at the Alabama State Capitol, and, not surprisingly, at Irondale's WhistleStop Café, made famous by the movie, "Fried Green Tomatoes," based upon the novel by Fannie Flagg.

"We see this as an outreach," said Crum. "We've created a really good product, but it causes people to wonder, 'Why would you do such a thing?' and that draws people here to see what's going on. It's just one more way of bringing us into a relationship with Jesus Christ, and the difference that He can make in people's lives."

To learn more about the Upper Sand Mountain Parish, call (256) 638-2126 or visit the website at uppersandmountainparish.org.

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