Friday, August 21, 2015

Tasting Tomatoes

Food is a passion of mine. I love thinking about food, cooking food – as long as the recipe is not too complex – shopping for food, and of course consuming food. It is probably an inherited cultural phenomenon. Family events always centered around food.

So when I read an article in the local paper about a project sponsored by a state university, I was intrigued. Rutgers is attempting to recreate a once-common, much-loved summer favorite – the Jersey tomato.

Not that Jersey tomatoes disappeared from the face of the earth. Jersey farmers grow lots of tomatoes, but not the kind enjoyed over 50 years ago.

Jersey tomatoes, the sort the older generation waxes poetic about, were not heirloom varieties, but specimens developed in the 1930s. Campbell Soup’s manufacturing facilities in Camden and other food processors propelled the search for commercially viable products used for sauces, soups, ketchup, and juice.

Scientists continued their innovative work and produced extremely firm tomatoes capable of surviving shipments over long distances. Picked green, chemical processes turned them red. Consumers found the product tasteless, but the lab-born varieties proved commercially profitable. States with longer growing seasons like Florida and California replaced New Jersey as prime tomato-growing regions. The 1930s Jersey tomato disappeared from farm fields.

Wonderful tasting locally grown tomatoes could be purchased at farmer’s markets and grown in gardens. The problem with these varieties is that they are not commercially viable for a variety of reasons – for example they may have a short shelf life, do not travel well, have low yield per acre, are too susceptible to the vagaries of weather and disease, or may not be pretty and stuff.

Consumers bought the tough varieties available or – like me – refused to buy tomatoes during the long winter months.

Then one day the wailing of consumer discontent was heard in the antiseptic labs of the university. Rutgers took up the challenge of developing tomatoes that actually taste good and could be commercially grown locally.

The article about the Rutgers program noted that tomato-tasting tables would be set up around the state to taste test the new varieties. Scientists were seeking consumer input, and one of the tasting places would be our local farmer’s market.
Tomatoes ready for tasting...
During my weekly farmer’s market outing I made my way to the tasting table. Six plates of carefully cut tomatoes awaited scrutiny. Bowls of crackers sat between the plates should the taster wish to cleanse their palate between tastings. Each batch was tasted, the tomato slowly working its way around my mouth so its full flavor and intensity could be appreciated. Then I completed a questionnaire rating each one on a scale from one to seven for sweetness, taste, acidity, texture, and firmness, finally awarding each variety an overall rating. 
Filling out the tomato-tasting questionnaire.

None were as good as our CSA tomatoes or the tomatoes from our garden. On the other hand they were better than most supermarket tomatoes.

Rutgers is taking a step in the right direction, reintroducing the good old foods grown before mass production of foodstuffs made qualities like taste unimportant, encouraging locally grown fresh, nutritious and delicious fruits and vegetables.

The way food used to be. 


  1. I am very lucky to have a local farmers' market that has lots of the best tomatoes I ever tasted. This year I grew tomatoes in my own little garden plot and find them good, not great, but I sure cannot eat the tomatoes they sell at the supermarket! :-)

    1. My home-grown tomatoes are also not as good as those from my CSA farm, but they are far better than supermarket ones. Unfortunately there are some very long winter months when local tomatoes are unavailable.

  2. Now that's a worthy endeavor if ever there was one. I'm growing my own here (major hyperbole for the 4 I produce each season), but I still can't produce the flavor I remember from years ago.

  3. I love Jersey tomatoes, and I'm happy to hear that my alma mater is doing such great work in cultivating the old-fashioned ones.