Jersey Tomato Redux

tomato on vineSummer approaches and with it my yearning for a really good-tasting tomato. I wrote longingly last year about the ripe, juicy, oh-so-succulent products picked from the vine in my grandfather’s Orange, New Jersey backyard garden or, in more recent years, from my husband’s Montclair, New Jersey backyard garden. But I live in Southern California now, and besides, the once-famous Jersey tomato is a thing of the past.

Well, hold on a minute, not so fast.

Turns out the plant wizards at Rutgers, New Jersey’s state university, have just introduced a reinvented version of a variety from 1934 that, as Valerie Sudol noted earlier this month in The New York Times, “reigned unchallenged for decades.” She explained that after years of work by the university’s plant specialists “this old-fashioned tomato with old-fashioned taste has returned as the Rutgers 250, named in honor of the university’s 250th anniversary.”

That 1934 variety was “the tomato that made the Jersey tomato reputation,” said Thomas J. Orton, a professor in the department of plant biology and pathology. “It was a groundbreaking tomato that redefined what a tomato should be and was the most popular variety in the world,” he said. “At one point it represented in excess of 60 percent of all tomatoes grown commercially.”

The Jersey tomato fell out of favor with commercial farmers after being judged too soft and perishable for modern harvest and transport, Sudol wrote, although it was still suitable for home and small-scale specialty growers.

Many of the most successful earlier varieties, Sudol explained, were the result of collaboration between Rutgers agricultural programs and the Campbell Soup Company based in Camden, New Jersey. A breakthrough in the quest to resurrect a new tougher variety came, she wrote, “when plant breeders learned in 2009 that Campbell Soup still had genetic material from the parent plants that was used to develop the original Rutgers hybrid. The chase was on – in slow motion.”

The intervening years saw researchers working the test fields and greenhouses alongside cooperative extension agents, narrowing the selection until last year when three finalists were grown all over the state and vetted for size, color, yield and disease resistance. “But,” wrote Sudol, “flavor was chief consideration.”

So great is the yearning for a really good-tasting tomato, the 5,000 packets of Rutgers 250 seeds offered on the university’s website in February have already sold out, she wrote. And “then last month, home gardeners snapped up 1,200 seedling plants in just two hours at a campus event…”

I’m wondering how well that tomato would do here in still drought-prone Southern California. Maybe I’d be better off hoping some visiting East Coaster might smuggle one or two in the carry-on bag. An outstanding hostess gift for sure.


Taffy Pull

taffy1The recipe I was following called for molasses, not a usual ingredient in my cooking. But the moment I stirred the required substance into the batter, the aroma took me back to summers in New Jersey and the salt water taffy Aunt Jennie and Uncle Bill would send my brother and me during their annual vacations in Atlantic City. The molasses-flavored taffy was not the first I’d reach for; it seemed a grown-up thing, but I was always surprised that I liked it.

Legend has it that a taffy seller whose stand was doused by a surprisingly large wave coined the term “salt water taffy.” It’s not, as I thought as a child, made with water from the sea; that, I realize now, would be pretty gross.

(Not long ago, my daughter and her husband visited California’s Catalina Island where she purchased salt water taffy to bring to me. “My mother will say this is not the real thing,” she told him. And she was right: I did say that, and it was not. That taffy was in round pieces in various different colors, their flavors a mystery until you tasted them. The taffy from Atlantic City, particularly Fralinger’s® (“Sea Air and Sunshine in Every Box”) was oblong in shape with the flavor printed on the label wrapped around it.)

I mentioned to my daughter the sensory experience that a tablespoon of molasses provided to me and wouldn’t you know, on my birthday she presented a large, very heavy box and told me to unwrap it. Thinking it might be some new electronic device I would struggle to master, I tore off the wrapping to see FIVE POUNDS of salt water taffy from Atlantic City. Considering the age of most of my friends and the ways in which they baby their dental work, this might very well be a lifetime supply of taffy for me.

But it was a sweet thought (pun intended) and particularly welcome now that beleaguered Atlantic City is in the news again. The city is broke and unable to pay its police, firefighters and other public employees, and Gov. Chris Christie is refusing to grant any emergency monies to help.

In 1975, shortly after Ed and I moved with our two daughters from California back to New Jersey, we took a drive to the Jersey Shore, stopping in Atlantic City so the girls could see the real-life places they knew from the Monopoly® game. (I’ll never buy Baltic Avenue again!” one wailed.) As for me, seeing the dilapidated condition of this once-fabled city was depressing and enough to convince me to vote in the next election to approve casino gambling. “It can only help,” I reasoned, “providing much-needed jobs and tax funds to repair crumbling infrastructure.”

So what happened? A lot of big casinos opened and closed or went bankrupt. Donald Trump went through at least four of them all by himself. If you read the early casino commission reports, gambling in Atlantic City was a boon. So how come the city is broke?

A few years before leaving New Jersey this last time, we visited a friend in nearby Ocean City who suggested we might like to take a look at Atlantic City. Because we hadn’t been back since casting those pro-casino votes long ago, we were indeed interested. We headed for the formerly Trump-owned Taj Mahal, walked through its gaudy interior, shook our heads at $100 slot machines, and ate lunch in one of its cafes. Afterward, we drove around a bit to view the surrounding neighborhood. Not far behind the Boardwalk-fronting line of glittering casinos, the city still looked much as we remembered it. Poor old Atlantic City.

Still makes the best salt water taffy though.

Oh, for a Jersey Tomato!

A traveler making his way on the New Jersey Turnpike from Newark’s Liberty International Airport into Manhattan could be excused for wondering why New Jersey is known as the Garden State. Was it someone’s idea of a cruel joke to attach such a bucolic-sounding word to a place of unending asphalt and steel girders? But were the traveler to venture farther into the state – and indeed, not very far – he’d understand the appellation. Even urban back yards can boast small plots of vegetables and flowers, more so of course in suburban areas, and in the southern reaches of the nation’s most densely populated state, actual farms manage to hold off encroaching housing developments.tomato soup

For most of the 20th century, South Jersey farmers grew the tomatoes that went into the products produced by the Campbell Soup Company at its plants in Camden. The company employed agronomists to develop perfect seeds and monitored the farmers’ efforts. At their height in mid-century, the plants employed 5,000 workers year-round and thousands more temporary workers at peak harvesting time. As Daniel Sidorick wrote in his book Condensed Capitalism: Campball Soup and the Pursuit of Cheap Production in the 20th Century, “Campbell stopped using South Jersey’s famous tomatoes in 1979 in favor of industrially produced tomato paste from California…(and) the company was free to move production to newer…rural plants. The last can rolled off the line in Camden in 1990, and the plant was imploded a year later.” The company’s world headquarters, however, remain in Camden.

So yes, New Jersey has been known for its tomatoes. During the more than 30 years we lived there, Ed kept expanding our backyard vegetable garden to the point that two freezers were required to hold the produce and foodstuffs like spaghetti sauce and zucchini bread that we made from it. And we ate out of those freezers all winter long. But before we filled the freezers, we ate giant, succulent tomatoes fresh off the vine, sometimes making a meal out of nothing but sliced tomatoes topped with a little olive oil and chopped basil. Thinking of it makes my mouth water.

Now we live in drought-plagued California where Ed has commandeered two pathetic patches of dirt in our vertical yard in which to grow a few tomato plants, some zucchini and peppers. The output, especially this year, is meager and the tomatoes, sad to say, mere imitations. I point out to Ed that there is a farmers market somewhere every day of the week here in Los Angeles, but he keeps trying to grow his own. The farmer gene runs deep I guess.

Our New York daughter and son-in-law are very good about bringing New York bagels – another loss – whenever they visit. But so far the closest we’ve come to Jersey tomatoes this summer is a picture of some they purchased at a farmers market in Washington Square. Gorgeous, aren’t they?

Jersey tomatoes

I Miss Snow

The weather out there in much of the country is frightful, but I’m sorry to report that here in Southern California it’s pretty darn delightful. Don’t hate me for it because, truth be told, I miss snow. Maybe not in the record-breaking amounts being experienced this year (still think climate change is a hoax?) but some.

Our New York daughter, while dreading the coming next onslaught, sends us video from her apartment window of the initial snowflakes. I voice my sympathy for the struggles that will ensue but can’t help mentioning how beautiful the scene is. Likewise, with the photo a friend sends from Providence showing a frozen river not too far from her front door. It’s so beautiful!Providence River

But Boston — good grief, poor Boston –– has run out of places to stack the snow. Trucking it to outlying fields and considering various water bodies in which to dump the stuff.

I try not to mention that the weather here is balmy, in the 80s with just the hint of a soft breeze or that the jasmine by the front door is beginning to bloom, sending its intoxicating aroma throughout the house. And I know they won’t believe me when I say that I miss snow.

I miss the hush that comes over a neighborhood when snow covers the landscape and before the snowplows and snow blowers get to work. And even afterwards, if you’re lucky enough to score a snow day, the forced confinement that feels like a particularly special gift, a time to read a book or watch a movie – or even to tackle some long-avoided project like organizing family photographs or sewing buttons on an old sweater that is down to just two.

Ed does not share my nostalgia for snow. He grew up in Colorado and doesn’t care if he never sees another flake. And he’s fond of saying that the best part of the house sale when we were moving from New Jersey was watching the snow shovel walk out the door.

(And speaking of my much-maligned home state, I have been trying to come up with a way to share Buzzfeed’s 22 Reasons Why You Should Never Visit New Jersey. It includes photos of snow but a great deal more. Showing it here is a stretch, I know, but something to look at it if you’re snowed in.)

So how’s this for an idea? Instead of building a pipeline to transport tar sands oil from Canada down to the Gulf region, why not a pipeline going across the country from east to west to transport snow from the beleaguered snowbound regions to the parched western states. They’d have to find a way to filter out the street pollution that’s mixed up in all that snow but hey, this is America. Didn’t we used to be a can-do nation? Let’s put our minds to it.

In the meantime, enjoy your snow day. Unlike you, I have to work in the yard.

Remembering Newark

My cousin sent an article from The Guardian describing changes taking place in Newark, New Jersey’s largest city and the last place many people would expect to ever see gentrification. While a third of the city’s population lives below the poverty line, business is booming in downtown Newark and New Yorkers priced out of their city’s housing costs are eying the neighboring city 10 miles to the west. Xan Broooks, the article’s author, repeats a quote from former Newark Mayor Kenneth Gibson: “Wherever American cities are going, Newark will get there first.”

Dorothy grew up in Newark and my family’s home was in the nearby city of East Orange. (At college in the Midwest, my 220px-East_Orange_City_Hall_Lincoln_jehhometown’s name drew snickers and comments like “East Orange. Is that anywhere near West Lemon? Yuk, yuk.” Of course, here in Southern California I get none of that since a great many place names pay homage to assorted varieties of citrus. New Jersey’s Oranges – Orange, East Orange, West Orange and South Orange – reflect this country’s original status as England’s colony and acknowledge such people as “William of …”).

Essex County (another nod to England) was a wonderful place for a childhood with parks and playgrounds, safe tree-lined streets with sidewalks, and excellent schools. My old elementary school, Franklin School, now The Whitney E. Houston Academy of Creative and Performing Arts, sat across the street from a branch library and a big expanse of green parkland with a brook running through. Not exactly the picture many people have when they think of New Jersey. Whitney Houston was one of many famous people who have called East Orange home – and many still do.

Whitney Houston SchoolEast Orange was a city and Newark was the bigger city close by where we dressed up to ride the bus for back-to-school shopping and lunch at Schrafft’s. Newark was where I went for ballet classes, riding the bus downtown by myself and walking over to my father’s office and then with him to the Margit Tarasoff School of Russian Ballet, where Mme. Tarasoff taught classes and where occasionally her husband Ivan appeared. Then bent and walking with a cane, he had been a star dancer in Russia. When he appeared in the studio to observe (and critique), we students were terrified. Mme.Tarasoff, born Margit Leeras I learned years later (thank you, internet), had been a ballet star in her native Norway.

As for the really big city of New York, that was where we went on special occasions, say to attend the Christmas Show at Radio City Music Hall and, maybe once, to see the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, or to eat at the Automat, that deliriously child-friendly restaurant with individual dishes of food behind glass doors that opened when the requisite numbers of coins were inserted and the handle turned. So much more fun than a cafeteria.

And these are just a few of the memories The Guardian article generated for me. I wish Newark well in its upward climb. But I hope it will be able to accomplish that without leaving its longtime residents behind in gentrification’s dust.

default_thumbPhotos: East Orange City Hall; Whitney E. Houston Academy of Creative & Performing Arts, East Orange;New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Newark

Abbondanza? Of Course!

In anticipation of Thanksgiving, The New York Times printed a state-by-state rundown of favorite dishes that might grace those holiday tables. As a half-Italian person who grew up in New Jersey, I was glad to see the entry for that state included baked manicotti. The writer of that piece states, “For many Italian-American families, in New Jersey and elsewhere, the Thanksgiving smorgasbord doesn’t feel quite right without a little touch of red sauce.”

Thanksgiving, Jeff Gordinier points out, “also represents an American expression of abbondanza, the Italian concept of too-muchness that makes a meal feel epic.”

The manicotti recipe sounds lovely, made as it is with crepes rather than pasta to make it lighter and less filling. I will try it sometime. But not at Thanksgiving. My family’s tradition calls for lasagne, made in as close an approximation as possible to my grandmother’s, and served as a first course prelude to everything else.

lasagneIf you happened to drop in to my grandparents’ house in the days preceding any major holiday, you’d find Grandpa spreading sheets of paper over the high back wooden chairs that would then be covered with strips of pasta dough that he took from Grandma as she finished making them. The fresh dough would be allowed to dry and then be assembled into layers with cheese (ricotta, mozzarella and parmesan) and homemade tomato sauce. When the day of the dinner arrived, the oversized iron stove fairly glowed, filling the house with an assortment of delectable aromas. Once everyone was seated at the long dining room table, the baked lasagne was brought in and placed before Grandpa who cut the first square and declared it “a perfect brick,” just the right consistency of layered pasta, cheese and sauce.

Grandma’s lasagne was incomparably delicious, and unsuspecting newcomers to the holiday table gladly accepted offers of second helpings. Then, to their dismay, came the rest of the meal: the meat (which type dependent on the holiday), potatoes, vegetables, assorted relishes, bread and finally, a simple lettuce salad dressed with oil and lemon juice. Dessert was also fairly simple because cake would be served later at a follow-up supper.

Ed and I have continued the lasagne tradition at all our holiday dinners. It came in handy when increasingly more diners were vegetarians; you knew they wouldn’t go hungry if they passed  on the turkey, roast beef or ham. But I’ve never been able to figure out how Grandma managed to put together the follow-up supper, even though it consisted of little more than sliced meat and cheese, bread and crackers – and cake. One gargantuan meal is the most we can pull off in a day.


Of Pine Cones and Mosquitoes

The women on their daily walk switch from Chinese to English when I stop to chat. One day the topic was pine cones as one woman was carrying home one of the large cones that fall to the ground. They quoted another Asian neighbor: “She says if you put pine cones by your door, you won’t get mosquitoes in your house.”pine cones

Hmm, I thought, something to do with the cones that fall into our yard from our neighbor’s tree. Better than leaving them on the ground to be chewed on by the dog. And mosquitoes are becoming more of a problem in Los Angeles, especially with the appearance of species that can transmit deadly diseases like yellow fever and dengue. The Department of Health asserts that, while the mosquitoes themselves are here, the viruses are not. So far. West Nile Virus is here however.

If you grew up as I did in New Jersey, mosquitoes are part of your childhood memories: that high-pitched whine in your ear when you were trying to sleep on a sticky-hot summer night, mosquito bites that you scratched and scratched until they bled, slathering on bug repellent every time you ventured out-of-doors. Before much of the swampy areas of The Meadowlands was filled in to provide land for stadiums and outlet centers, and communities began instituting heavy-duty spraying programs, people used to joke that the mosquito really ought to be designated the state bird.

Once, a group of friends was planning a visit to a person’s home in Toms River, a community on an inlet of the Jersey Shore. In those pre-cell phone days, the home’s residents instructed us to stop at a nearby gas station to call from the pay phone and alert them to our arrival. They waited by the front door when we pulled up to the house. We jumped from the car and ran as fast as we could to the door which was opened just enough to let us in. I seem to recall there were still some mosquitoes that made it inside.

Mosquitoes didn’t always like human blood, according to an article in The New York Times. Referring to a research study first described in Nature, they used to prefer furry animals to humans. Their switch to humans is “an evolutionary adaptation,” which researchers believe is connected to an “odor receptor gene.” Apparently, we smell better. But because this evolutionary development has gone on for eons, I suppose it’s too late to try to reverse it by just giving up the use of deodorant, body lotion and perfumes. Perhaps we should switch to pine oil.