In Search of the Jersey Tomato
Will this summer icon be forgotten now that we’re eating tomatoes 365 days a year? Not at small farms like Princeton’s Terhune Orchards.
THE STORY OF THE JERSEY TOMATO begins, not on an idyllic farm, but at the old Salem County Courthouse. On September 26th, 1820, just after noon, Robert Gibbon Johnson mounted the stairs of the courthouse carrying a basket of ripe, red tomatoes. A crowd began to gather. Johnson was going to eat a tomato! Doctor James Van Meter stood at his side as Johnson, one of the county’s wealthiest and most respected citizens, addressed the onlookers. Holding up one of the tomatoes, which were widely believed to be poisonous, he announced, “The time will come when this luscious scarlet tomato, rich in nutrition, a delight to the eye, a joy to the palate whether fried, baked, broiled or even eaten raw, will form the foundation of a great garden industry.” Then he bit into the tomato, and kept on eating until the basket was empty. From that moment on, The Jersey Tomato wasn’t just a booming New Jersey industry, but a round, red icon of summer.
It’s the perfect creation story for a food that defines the New Jersey summer as definitively as the cheesesteak defines Philadelphia, except for this: Robert Johnson’s often-recounted tomato-tasting is probably nothing but a myth. But then, maybe that’s fitting, because the ideal of The Jersey Tomato is also pure myth.
Chances are you’re shaking your head right now. If you’re of a certain age, you knew The Jersey Tomato, and have a very clear memory of it: a heavy, orange-red, slightly flattened sphere, thin-skinned and meaty, with rich flesh, almost jelly-like seed pockets, and an intense sweet-tart flavor. It was good enough to eat plain, standing over the sink, or seasoned with a light rain of salt, or sliced thickly on Wonder Bread slathered with Hellmann’s. And every August, you scour roadside farm stands in search of that perfect Jersey Tomato.
Yes, that tomato did exist in New Jersey — in the 1970s — but it’s only one in a long line of tomato varieties to have worn the Jersey Tomato crown (or the Jersey Tomato brand, owned by Eastern Fresh Growers Inc.). The truth is, The Jersey Tomato has always been whatever it was that people were hungry for.
THE FIRST JERSEY TOMATOES WERE probably the now long-forgotten, highly acidic varieties that were prized by Pennsylvania ketchup maker Heinz and by New Jersey’s Joseph Campbell Company, which proudly used Jersey tomatoes as the main ingredient in its tomato soup. In the early 20th century, the surest sign of summer in South Jersey was the sight of tomato-laden wagons, trains and trucks lining up outside Camden-based Campbell’s. The company even advertised that its tomatoes came “from Jersey’s sunniest tomato fields … our tomatoes are better than any housewife can regularly buy.” Then, in 1934, the Rutgers hybrid, developed specifically for Campbell’s, was introduced. With its high yield of acidic fruit, it quickly became the most-planted tomato in those sunny Jersey fields.
Following World War II, however, New Jersey’s canning industry began losing ground to longer growing seasons in Florida and California, and the Rutgers tomato was eclipsed by newer varieties bred to withstand shipping and have a longer shelf life. To hold on, the state shifted its focus from canneries to fresh market sales, and an heir to the Rutgers tomato was introduced. The Ramapo, bred with those tomato-and-mayo sandwiches in mind, had a more balanced sweet-tart flavor than the Rutgers. It’s the Jersey Tomato most of us remember.
But by 1979, when even Campbell’s stopped buying Jersey tomatoes, the state’s tomato industry had all but collapsed under competition from sunnier states. The crop that once filled 50,000 acres of farmland is today harvested on just 3,100 acres. The Ramapo’s seed is no longer available, and most of those 3,100 acres are planted with the same firm, supermarket-friendly tomato varieties grown in Florida.
So maybe the story of The Jersey Tomato should end here. Perfectly red, perfectly round tomatoes are available across the country, year-round, and the word “Jersey” in front of the word “tomato” has come to mean about as much as the word “Philadelphia” on cream cheese; it’s not so much a description of where the product comes from as a useful adjective that carries faint promises of quality and freshness. But try telling that to the scientists at Rutgers’s extension farm — who got a grant from the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station to find the next Jersey Tomato — or to small New Jersey tomato farmers like Gary Mount. Or to yourself: We still believe in The Jersey Tomato.
GARY MOUNT WAS A FRUIT FARMER when he decided to start growing tomatoes on 80 acres in Princeton in 1986. There wasn’t much money to be made, but this was still New Jersey, land of light and sandy clay soil, ample water supplies, and months of warm days and cool nights. The varieties of tomato plants grown here had changed, but the geography hadn’t. And if the state has a tomato-growing secret, it’s this: Jersey farms’ proximity to Philadelphia and New York means Jersey-grown tomatoes can spend more time in the field. Most tomatoes grown in Florida and California are picked when green; their red color comes from exposure to ethylene gas. Jersey-grown tomatoes are usually vine-ripened, and the difference in texture is noticeable.
Gary Mount’s Terhune Orchards has a timeless feel — Gary and his wife, Pam, live in the white farmhouse where they raised their two daughters; a hand-painted sign welcomes you to pick your own blueberries; there’s a watchful old dog named Cider Donut, a curious cat named Cookie, even roosters. But Mount was one of a new breed of Jersey tomato farmers. He wasn’t going to be harvesting acres of tomatoes mechanically, or shipping the fruit long distances. He didn’t need a high-yield crop that would satisfy a cannery’s requirements, or even those of a large supermarket chain. He was going to be planting, picking and sorting by hand, harvesting just enough each sunny day to stock his farm stand and sell at the Lawrenceville Farmers’ Market. So he didn’t have to grow Sunbright or Sunshine or Florida 47, varieties bred for the demands of big business. Except it’s not just big business that’s demanding this standard tomato. Consumers, too, are used to those thicker-skinned, heartier, more consistent varieties.
The Jersey tomatoes planted in long rows of unruly plants at Terhune Orchards look nothing like The Jersey Tomato of your imagination. In fact, the tomatoes Mount harvests are sometimes downright ugly. These misshapen, often scarred tomatoes come in all sizes and colors — yellow, green, orange, black, purple. Even the red ones don’t look quite right. But the heirloom tomatoes and rare hybrids Mount grows are designed with attention to their unique flavors, not their indestructibility: Marvel Striped, Mortgage Lifter, Cherokee Purple, Green Zebra, each with its own mythic backstory, often tender tales of Southern grandmothers or smuggled seeds.
Twenty years ago, it wasn’t easy to sell these odd, ugly things that few people could identify as tomatoes, but the past two decades have seen a 40 percent increase in Americans’ fresh tomato consumption — and Mount has seen a surge of interest in heirlooms and offbeat hybrids from customers and area chefs who aren’t intimidated by the unusual shapes, the limited season, and the often high prices that are the result of low yield rates and the need for careful handling. These tomato varieties may not be New Jersey exclusives, but each fragrant, thin-skinned tomato is unique, a quickly fading taste of Garden State summer — which is exactly what we’ve always wanted The Jersey Tomato to be.