Eschewing cardboard tomatoes for the luscious imperfections of heirloom Jerseys

— Photo by Inigo De la Maza

On Wednesday afternoons during the summer I turned 13, my grandfather and I would hop into his rack body truck and head to the farmers-market auction in Hightstown, New Jersey. If the bidding went well, we’d come home with a load of Jersey tomatoes.

Pop had as customers in his Staten Island enterprise a hospital and a large orphanage but most were mom-and-pop grocery-store operations. No matter the size, when customers put their order in for tomatoes, they knew Max had “Jerseys.”

I knew of “the Jersey tomato” from my grandfather’s business of course but also from the following summer when a peddler from Jersey asked me to work with him. Every day of the week, he’d cross the bridge to Staten Island with a truckload of produce and, neighborhood to neighborhood, would sing to the front of the houses in operatic fashion what the day’s fare was. He was very funny.

One day he’d have peaches, the next watermelons, and then a load of corn, but only one item a day. When he came piled high with tomatoes and the customers surrounded the truck, no one ever asked Moe if he had “Jerseys.” He just came from there!

Indeed no peddler had to “push” Jersey tomatoes throughout Jersey, metropolitan New York, metro Philly, and even parts of upstate New York in summer: Tomato-lovers in the region had a love affair with “the Jersey tomato.”

If a peddler came to a neighborhood without them, he’d get a cold shoulder and, if he dared come back, he came armed with an apology and an until-death-do-us-part commitment to “the Jersey.”

Of course when agribusiness took over the culture of farming in America — the history is there for all to see — tomatoes like “the Jersey” didn’t make it through the war. Agribusiness agents wanted varieties that shipped well, had shelf life, and could easily be picked by machine. Of course “the Jersey” didn’t fit the bill and gradually faded from the kitchen table.

The same was true for many other “indigenous” varieties of solanum lycopersicum — for the Latinists among us — such that you could hear frustrated shoppers at the supermarket referring to the offerings before them as “cardboard.”

And yet, as if some horticultural Circe had hexed the country’s taste receptors, Americans were drawn to an “idealized” tomato — red, round, shiny, hard, and unblemished — and it seemed the more a variety approached the ideal, the more it lost the sweet-acidic balance of that “old-fashioned flavor.”

Heavily-ribbed varieties and varieties that showed prominent blossom scars — the tomato’s belly-button — disappeared from the shelves of Ersatz & Sons Supermarket. The scar was too much to bear and the ribs looked like mumps.

A symptom of what was happening can be found in a 1990 scholarly article by Yonatan Eklind and colleagues in the journal “Euphytica: International Journal of Plant Breeding” titled “Genetic variation and heritability of blossom-end scar size in tomato.” The first sentence reads, “Large blossom-end scar is a disorder in tomato fruit which reduces its marketability.”

Disorder? The Freudian tomato doctor was ushering taste into the genetic dustbin.

There are a few things that need clarification here. The first is that, and it might seem surprising, there is no such thing as a “Jersey tomato” in the same way there is no such variety of cantaloupe as Saratoga County’s famed “Hand Melon.”

When I interviewed Aaron Hand in the summer of 1986, preparing a two-part series for The Enterprise on the famed Town of New Scotland’s Bender Melon — it appeared in our Aug. 28 and Sept. 4 editions — Hand said he and his father grew Harris Seed Company’s “Harvest Gold.”  There was no such thing as a “Hand Melon.”

In the same way, “the Jersey tomato” had no “Jersey” in the family’s genes but was made up of three varieties of tomato.

The first was Hall of Famer “Rutgers,” which breeders at Rutgers University’s New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station developed and offered to the world in 1934.

The second was the seductive “Ramapo,” which NJAES worked on for eight years and finally released in 1968.

The third branch of the family tree was the “Moreton,” which oddly enough did not come from Jersey but from the breeders at the Harris Seed Company in Rochester.

When New Jersey farmers tasted it, they took it into the “Jersey” family right away; it was the first hybrid grown on a large scale in the state and everybody loved it.

“The Jersey tomato” therefore was three varieties and its lovers never knew which of the three they were taking home from the farmstand.

As far as agribusiness goes, the “Moreton” is a “soft” tomato, an imperfection its agents could not abide. They nixed it almost immediately.

They were right, of course: The shelf life of a “Moreton” is no more than from when the gardener cuts the stem to when the family sits down at dinner to eat it.

But, as we know from the diverse displays of heirloom tomatoes we see at farmers’ markets and even supermarkets today, a bottom-up rebellion occurred. The heavily-ribbed and belly-button scarred outcasts escaped the darkness of the therapeutic couch to sun themselves in the open-air markets of the neighborhood.

Among those who led the rebellion were Diane Ott Whealy and Kent Whealy when they started Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa in 1975.

Worried about the loss of seed-gene diversity because of agribusiness’s dismissal of the varieties it couldn’t control, Seed Savers began gathering seminal treasures that had been part of farms and gardens for generations, in some cases centuries. The Exchange now has 20,000 varieties, many like the “Moreton” and “Ramapo.”

The inventive scientists at NJAES also joined the rebellion. In 2008, they created the “Rediscovering the Jersey Tomato Project” through which they were able to resurrect the “Rutgers,” “Ramapo,” and “Moreton,” announcing to New Jersey that they were returning treasures that had been stolen from them. They now offer seeds for all three.

When it comes to heirlooms, I always keep several copies of Carolyn Male’s titillating “100 Heirloom Tomatoes for the American Garden” on my bookshelves. I give away several a year.

The book is beautiful. Through thick-papered glossy photos, Carolyn’s centennial picks are shown on the vine and, in nearly every case, how they look sliced.

That late master gardener, who grew more than 1,000 varieties of tomatoes, never minded pointing out the imperfections of her babies. She says “Lillian’s Yellow Heirloom” is subject to “catfacing.”

But, in every case, Carolyn finds the words to sing a psalm of praise to each. She describes her “Brandywine Pink” as “winey, robust, mouth-watering, sweet, tart, and complex.”

On winter nights, I bring the heavy tome to bed and start paging through as I did the year before, wondering what seed I’ll start on St. Patrick’s Day.

In the next room, I have under lights 15 varieties of seedlings just sticking their heads through the soil, the great “Dester’s Amish,” “Black Brandywine,” and “German Lunchbox” among them.

“German Lunchbox” is a red the size of a small tennis ball but tastes like a beefsteak and does not stop; last year I was picking them in October.

But I must add that I now have a new vade mecum, by Craig LeHoullier — Carolyn Male’s heir apparent — a beautifully- and creatively-done “Epic Tomatoes: How to Select & Grow the Best Varieties of All Time.”

It sounds like he’s talking big but on every page it’s like: Set ’em up, bartender; Jersey tomatoes all around.