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.


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