The History and Lore of the Fabulous Jersey Tomato
Is It A Fruit or A Vegetable?
© Roberta Kyle 2008, all rights reserved
Georgia has peaches. Florida and California have their oranges, but New Jersey is blessed with the best tomatoes in the world. In fact, the tomato is so beloved in the state of New Jersey that it has been named the official state vegetable, although I hear there is a great debate going on in the legislature at the moment over whether the tomato is actually a fruit or a vegetable. Technically, I am told, it is a fruit but since the state fruit spot is already occupied by the blueberry, the legislature solved the problem by declaring the Jersey tomato a vegetable. Whatever-- personally, I wish New Jersey lawmakers would stick to dealing with property taxes and balancing the budget and leave the legumes alone.
Whether fruit or vegetable, the Jersey tomato is a delectable seasonal treat, highly prized not only on its home ground, but in neighboring States and the nearby big cities of New York and Philadelphia as well. Sliced, diced, cooked, or raw the Jersey tomato makes a glutton's heart beat faster. uly and August is when the Jersey tomato is plentiful. By September, the season is pretty much over and I personally do not buy fresh tomatoes for the rest of the year. It’s not just that I am into local, sustainable, and organic produce. It is also that having tasted the best, I cannot stomach the rest. Out of season tomatoes, whether trucked in from California or Mexico of flown in from the Southern Hemisphere, are picked green, ripened artificially and often are about as tasty as cardboard. No, July and August are my months to pig out on local Jersey tomatoes. The rest of the year I am happy to do without.
Oddly enough, you will not find a variety of tomato called the ”Jersey “in any seed catalog, The classic Jersey tomato is a beefsteak tomato, usually a hybrid and acquires its wondrous taste and texture from the soil and climatic conditions of central and southern New Jersey, not from its genetic inheritance. A broad range of types of tomatoes are grown in the state and there is an increasing interest, particularly on the part of organic farmers and serious gardeners in heirloom varieties. Happily, these are increasingly available in season and can be found not only at farm stands and specialty markets, but also, wonder of wonders, in supermarkets. The heirlooms come in wonderful shapes and colors and are definitely tomatoes to grow in your own home garden or a pot on your patio whether or not you live in New Jersey.
New Jersey Tomato History
The tomato has a long and colorful history in New Jersey. The plant's origins lie in pre-Columbian Mexico and South America, where Spanish conquistadors tasted it and promptly took it home to Europe. It arrived in North America via England in colonial times and made its way to New Jersey in the late 18th century. Back then it was an ornamental house plant called “wolf peach” or “love apple” and was not considered edible. In fact, the fruit and leaves were thought to be poisonous. Possibly, this is because the tomato is part of the nightshade family and is distantly related not only to the tobacco plant but also to the deadly nightshade, which really is poisonous. It was thought at the time that eating a tomato would acidify the blood which would result in death.
In any case, it is said that tomato history was made in New Jersey in 1820 when Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson of Salem County introduced the tomato to local farmers in a rather colorful way. The story may or may not be true. It seems that Colonel Johnson, a local worthy, had eaten tomatoes in Europe and wanted to encourage local cultivation as a food crop. Naturally, he met with heated resistance from farmers who thought that tomatoes were poisonous and the Colonel was crazy. To prove to the locals that tomatoes were edible, he announced that on September 26, 1820, he would stand on the steps of the Salem County Courthouse and consume a basket of tomatoes in front of anyone who cared to come and watch him do it. Rumor has it that thousands gathered at the courthouse to watch the Colonial drop dead and were astounded when he survived. Tomato cultivation in New Jersey is said to date from this time.
The Old Salem County NJ Courthouse
Is The Story True?
I have a feeling,(based on nothing but a hunch) that this apocryphal tale was told years after the fact by some clever adman on behalf of the Campbell Soup Company, which began making canned tomato soup in its Camden, New Jersey location in the 1870’s, using truckloads of Jersey tomatoes. Whether truth or fiction, the tale is a good one and probably helped make Campbell’s tomato soup a staple of the American kitchen.
It’s too bad that the Jersey tomato in it’s fresh off the vine state, can only be truly appreciated by those in or near it’s native habitat and only in summer. Like a local wine, it does not travel well—nor does any tomato, which is why I eschew the supermarket, chalk-center varieties, laden with pesticides and trucked hundreds or thousands of miles to market.
The rest of the world will just have to make do with their own local produce. As for me, I’m counting down to summer when the signs go up at all the local farm stands and I gorge myself on New Jersey’s state vegetable(or fruit)—whichever the legislature decides that it is.
Jersey Tomato Weblinx
- Seeing red: 7 ways to savor Jersey tomatoes | NJ.com
Recipes and info on heirloom tomatoes from NJ.com
- Rediscovering the Jersey Tomato: Jersey Fresh Information
New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station at Rutgers
- Jersey Bites - Jersey Tomatoes
more on Jersey Tomatoes from a fabulous Jersey food blogger
- Jersey Naturals - Gourmet, foods, - New Jersey products!
Specialty products and sauces made only from real Jersey Tomatoes. Order pasta sauce better than Mama's and more online.
My Favorite Tomato Recipe
I like tomatoes any way at all--but when they are right off the vine, here's a great,easy way to serve them.
Slice two large beefsteak tomatoes and put them in a shallow bowl, Add a handful of fresh basil leaves roughly chopped up and a handful or so of crumbled goat cheese. Shake on some salt and pepper and sprinkle just a bit of finely chopped garlic over the whole thing. Now pour about a third of a cup of best quality olive oil over the whole mess and let it stand for a couple of hours.
Eat it with crusty French bread. You won't be sorry:-)
Musical Homage to Home Grown Tomatoes
© 2008 Roberta Kyle