Juicy Jersey tomato is ripe for a revival

A quest for the best is put to a taste test.

Posted: August 14, 2007

Tomato lovers, prepare to salivate: The red, ripe Jersey tomato of the past may be poised for a comeback.

Once upon a time, Jersey tomatoes were so succulent you could eat a slice on crusty bread with just a dash of salt and achieve nirvana, though kids today - especially those under 37 - may find it hard to believe.

But it's true - tomatoes were tasty. And now a team of top-level scientists from Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station wants to bring back that flavor.

Starting sometime in the 1970s, Jersey farmers (aided and abetted by Rutgers scientists) started breeding tomatoes for transportability instead of taste. And it showed: Their crops made it to market unscathed but were as tasteless as the era's polyester pants.

People have been very unhappy for many years about their tomatoes, says Jack Rabin, a former South Jersey farm boy who grew up to become associate director of the Rutgers experiment station.

Rabin became the point person behind an ambitious five-year effort to put the venerable Jersey tomato back on its proper pedestal - as a juicy fruit.

Skeptics still say it can't be done. But last week, stage one of Jack Rabin's judgment day arrived.

The Great Tomato Tasting took place in a field on a brutally hot and humid August afternoon at the university's Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Bridgeton. Rabin and his team stood beside long rows of tomato-filled tables and faced their critics.

Previously, only farmers and state staffers participated in tastings. This would be the first time home cooks, gardeners and chefs were invited to have a say. And it would be the first occasion in a long time to taste a crop bred for the pleasure of people, instead of for the profitability of farmers.

The event drew more than 120 tomato lovers who rated the crop on sweetness, acidity, flavor, texture and overall quality.

"I'm glad to see they're working on the problem," said Pauline Jonas, who lives in Thorofare, Gloucester County. "But the stores need to do a better job of labeling the tomatoes on their shelves."

The sample tomatoes, cut in quarters that very morning, sat in bowls labeled by number as the volunteer tasters grazed from one station to another recording their impressions. To cleanse their delicate palates, volunteers were fed fresh water and oyster crackers between tastes.

Tasters did not learn the names of their favorites until the end of the two-hour event. And the best-in-show results won't be tallied until next week. (Results will be posted on http://go.philly.com/gardenshed).

Jessica Ferguson, who lives in Woodbury and volunteers with the Rutgers program as a trained master gardener, liked No. 9, which turned out to be the Ramapo.

"That is it," she said, "That is absolutely from when I was a kid at the Jersey Shore and we'd make tomato-and-bread sandwiches to eat on the beach. All that's missing is the sand."

Rabin says it's not clear exactly when the plump, juicy Jersey tomatoes of the past - so tender to the touch and vibrant on the palate - morphed into hard, pink specimens bred not to bruise.

But we do know why: Consumers were lured by the prospect of having all their favorite fruits and vegetables year-round, regardless of the growing season.

Accordingly, Rutgers researchers worked with farmers on breeding tomatoes that were easier to grow, had a longer shelf life, could be transported great distances, and would yield a higher profit.

The result: firm tomatoes that traveled well, but were not worth the journey.

In time, cooks and consumers clamored for something better and heirloom tomatoes took center stage.

"We saw the heirloom tomato as a proxy for the good old Jersey tomato," Rabin says.

So the Rutgers team spent years on field evaluations of heirlooms. They came up with a list of all-stars that grew well around here and tasted good. However - and herein lies the inherent problem - the heirlooms turned out to be too fussy.

"They don't like a lot of rain and they don't like to travel - even from the farm to the city farmer's market," Rabin says. So the researchers decided, "to go back and get the last generation of good-tasting Jersey farm tomatoes and breed them."

The result is this new breed of varieties being tested. Each may be good in its own way (for eating, canning, cooking), but taste remains a matter of personal preference.

People raised in the mid-Atlantic states favor a tomato that is both sweet and tart, which results from a balance of acid and soluble sugar, Rabin says.

But on the West Coast and in Asian markets, he says, folks tend to prefer a high sugar/low acid tomato.

From the 1980s on, as more tomatoes were imported from California, Rabin says, "our standard around here for what was considered a good-tasting tomato changed - it became the California/Asian style, which is sweet but very bland to us on the East Coast."

Rabin and his team have high hopes that they can help commercial farmers grow flavorful tomatoes that can make it to the supermarket and satisfy customers' tastes for flavor and price.

Victory is not a given - nor it is imminent. When the tastings are all said and done, the transit test remains. And this is where skeptics predict failure.

Ivan Seabrook, of the vegetable processing business Seabrook Brothers in Cumberland County, says the Rutgers goal is "a great idea, but . . . whenever we try to achieve efficiency and satisfy customer demand, we get something like Wal-Mart.

"You get what you pay for," Seabrook says. "And ultimately consumers may have to be willing to pay more for a ripe tomato."

Mike Orzolek, professor of vegetable crops at Pennsylvania State University, is another doubter.

"Those tomatoes are not going to ship well," says Orzolek. "You can't do this in a wholesale market."

Orzolek, who's had 33 years of experience trying the impossible, says there is one solution: a return to the roadside farm stand.

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Reach staff writer Dianna Marder at 215-854-4211 or dmarder@phillynews.com. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/diannamarder.

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