Rediscovering the great Jersey tomato
Ah, the Jersey tomato, that fabled T-shirts … whatever happened to it? In recent years, it’s been hard to find really great Jersey tomatoes, the kind people remember from their grandparents’ garden — sun-kissed and juicy with a tart, tangy-sweet flavor. Are these tomatoes still around? If so how can we get them? Jack Rabin has the answers. He’s an agricultural scientist and associate director of farm programs at the Rutgers-based NJ Agricultural Experiment Station, which operates four experimental farms around New Jersey.
Mr. Rabin, did I hear you right? You said, “People say they love Jersey tomatoes, but there is no such thing as a Jersey tomato.” So what are those round red things we’ve been eating?
I mean there was never one single variety of “Jersey tomato.” Back in the’30s, ’40s and ’50s, there was a group of tomato varieties we called general use tomatoes, including the famous Rutgers tomato, developed in 1934 in cooperation with the Campbell Soup Company. My guess is that people’s memory of the tomato was any distinctive, aromatic, juicy-textured, red, ripe tomato, especially the Rutgers that found its way to local groceries or fresh markets. In 1968 Dr. Bernard Pollack, a Rutgers professor of plant breeding, developed the famous Ramapo tomato. It took him 10 years. Science takes a long time. Then it was gone for 25 years.
The ripe juicy tomato’s number one enemy was the interstate highway system, developed in the ’50s. People were then able to get food grown from all over. For shipping, growers wanted agricultural science to develop tomatoes with thick skins and firmness. It’s our job to help farmers. So hello “plastic” tomato, through the’70s and beyond. Then in the ’80s and ’90s consumers started complaining. All this time, some of us had in our memory what a great tomato tasted like. It’s like your first love.
To learn more about the great Jersey tomato, pick up the current issue of New Jersey Countryside Magazine, available now at bookstores, on newsstands and by subscription. Click here to get one free bonus issue and save more than 80% on a subscription.