Myth and Memories: Revitalizing the Jersey Tomato

Vibrant and robust, New Jersey’s tomato culture is abundant with aficionados seeking to grow the juiciest, most flavorful varieties each summer season. With a longtime tradition of farming, the Garden State offers an ideal locale for raising vine-ripened tomatoes, as its unique combination of sandy soil and diverse, moderate climate provides exceptionally fertile land for growing sweet tomatoes. Over the years, the popular name “Jersey tomato” has evolved to describe a multitude of diverse varieties grown in the early, mid-, and late seasons across the state.

With enthusiastic residents who adore this seasonal fruit, it’s no wonder that the state is home to Rutgers University’s New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station (NJAES). This research organization encompasses educational programs in several areas, including food and agriculture, fisheries, and nutrition, as well as community outreach and economic development. Through the Rediscover the Jersey Tomato Project, this entity is also responsible for researching and developing how to replicate the delectably pleasing aromas and memorable tastes of tomatoes from the 1930s through the 1970s.

Professional researchers are devoted to discovering a viable way to reinvent that distinctively fruity, tart flavor and balanced texture that tomato lovers are passionate about. In recent decades, NJAES has created several popular tomatoes, including the renowned Ramapo tomato, initially developed in 1968 and named after the Native American tribe that resided in the state.

Considered a success, the Ramapo tomato was one of the earliest hybrids developed specifically for the state of New Jersey, featuring a recognizable round shape and a brilliant and bright-red color. At the time, it quickly became a favorite among consumers, but it fell out of favor with growers who preferred using heartier shipping varieties. In 2008, the Ramapo was commercially reintroduced into the marketplace, and it continues to have a devoted fan base.

Tomato lovers residing outside New Jersey may be pleased to learn that these namesake tomatoes are not limited to the Garden State.

During their extensive tomato-focused experimentation, researchers learned that New Jersians’ affinity for the fruit was also due to nostalgic memories from childhood, when they may have bitten into a tomato hanging on the vine in their grandparents’ backyard or eagerly devoured a chunky tomato and basil salad at a family picnic.

In their quest for recreating that traditional tomato taste, NJAES researchers were thrilled to learn in 2007 that Campbell Soup Company, based in Camden, New Jersey, still possessed genetic material from an original hybrid variety it created with Rutgers years ago. After additional research and experimentation by dedicated plant specialists, in 2016, Rutgers University unveiled a revitalized version of a beloved tomato variety from 1934.

Named the Rutgers 250, this new tomato’s moniker was selected as an homage to the university’s 250th anniversary last year. An instant success, this eagerly anticipated tomato is believed to have recaptured the pure essence of that classic tomato. It was met with open arms; gardeners across the state quickly purchased 5,000 packages of seeds and more than 1,200 seedling plants from the university. Currently, four varieties of the tomato are available.

Tomato lovers residing outside New Jersey may be pleased to learn that these namesake tomatoes are not limited to the Garden State. In addition to their delicious flavor, Rutgers 250s travel well and can be found in markets and restaurants up and down the Eastern seaboard. Situated in a prime geographical location, New Jersey is close to a number of major US markets, so tomatoes grown here are easily shipped in a few hours to a number of neighboring areas, including New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, Delaware, and Washington, DC. This means that residents in other nearby cities and towns can enjoy a taste of this fruit at its peak of ripeness.

For more information about the famed Jersey tomato, visit the website for Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station: https://njaes.rutgers.edu.

For information on the Ramapo tomato, click here: http://njfarmfresh.rutgers.edu/RamapoTomato.htm.