The Garden State is famous for a lot of things - perfect coastlines, legendary musicians and movie stars, boardwalks and beach towns and perfect summer nights. But the name “The Garden State” wasn’t dreamt up in Hollywood. New Jersey really does produce some of the nation’s most sought after crops - especially when it comes to the Jersey Tomato. Fifty years ago, in 1968, the Jersey Tomato was so famous that even Campbell’s Soup and Heinz Ketchup called upon NJ farms to provide them with the freshest ingredients for their products.
In 1968 a professor at Rutgers University, Dr. Bernard Pollack, released a hybrid variety tomato that gained popularity for its resistance to cracking and common diseases. Gardeners and growers also heard it through the grapevine that this new variety was very tasty. The Ramapo Tomato, as it came to be known, was so delicious that it soon found its way into Campbell’s Tomato Soup and Heinz Ketchup. Ramapo Tomatoes were also popular because they gave higher yields than heirloom varieties. But what is the difference between a hybrid and an heirloom you ask? Heirloom tomatoes are varieties that have been reproduced for generations. If it’s been cultivated for three generations without cross pollination, it’s an Heirloom. Hybrid’s are a cross between two genetically different tomato varieties. With a hybrid, you get the best qualities of both parents.
Somehow, by the 1980s, Ramapo Tomatoes disappeared. The Ramapo likes to stay close to its Jersey roots, and it does not travel well. As the need to ship tomatoes across long distances increased, the appeal of the Ramapo decreased. In the 1990s, it became apparent that Jersey Tomato lovers were no longer happy with the lack luster taste they were seeing spring from the fields. The tipping point was when Jersey tomatoes were said to have the same taste as “super market tomatoes”. In 2001, Jack Rabin, a long time agricultural extension agent with Rutgers, launched the Rutgers Tomato Project. The project was responsible for identifying tomatoes that farmers can grow successfully and consistently that had the classic flavor Jersey Tomato lovers were looking for- equal parts acidic and sweet. They defined a number of heirlooms (some of which are grown at Beach Plum Farm).
At Beach Plum Farm, there’s no concern for the Tomato’s ability to make it from the field to the table without spoiling, since they are traveling right to the farm stand, or just two miles away to the Blue Pig Tavern, Ebbitt Room, Boiler Room or Rusty Nail. If you’re taking a walk through the south fields (the ones that are past the Wetland Marshes) you’ll find a dozen varieties. These include Cherokee Purple, Pink Brandywine, Big Beef, Champion, Green Zebra, Black Prince, Sungold Cherry, Black Cherry, Supersweet Red Cherry, New Girl, and Yaqui, a paste tomato similar to a San Marzano.
The first ripe tomato this year was picked around July 15th, and the staff will continue to pick tomatoes through the middle to end of August. The journey from seed to sauce is not a short one. “We started the seeds in the greenhouse back in early March and set them out in the field in mid- May,” says Christina Albert, Beach Plum Farm’s General Manager. But has 2018 been a good year for tomatoes? “This year has been pretty good. Tomatoes do not like their leaves to get wet! It’s been fairly wet which doesn’t halt the fruit production of the plant but it makes the leaves more susceptible to disease.” Despite the wet weather, the tomatoes have been happy, healthy, and ready to be enjoyed by Jersey tomato aficionados.
What is it about New Jersey that makes the perfect Jersey tomato? Is it pride? Is it hard work? Is it attention to detail? “Our sandy loam is great for a coastal loving crop like a tomato.” Aside from the fact that tomatoes like to spend as much time in the sand as summer beach goers, Albert says it’s also about picking the tomato at the right time. “We pick tomatoes at the “breaking” stage. We call them breakers in the field. As soon as a tomato has broken green and has begun to blush it is picked so that we can manage the ripeness for the restaurants and market. Tomatoes are held at different stages of ripeness and are set almost daily to our restaurants and market.”
Each year the Rutgers NJEAS holds a Tomato Tasting Event, usually late in August. This year it will be held at Snyder Farm, in Pittstown, North/Central Jersey. In Cape May, you don’t have to wait that long to enjoy the best of this year’s tomato harvest. Aside from the tomato sandwich menu at the Blue Pig Tavern, and the various dishes that are being whipped up at the Ebbitt Room with the new yields, come on out to Beach Plum Farm for a true celebration of this season’s favorite fruit (yep, it’s a fruit). Wednesday nights this month, the farm will be hosting 8-course tomato dinners. “It will be a true celebration of the tomato! Guests will be treated to tomatoes at the peak of season and have it taken to new levels by the chef. We will use them every which way! Roasted, marinated, grilled, sliced, pureed…” says Christina Albert. Some sample menu items include Beefsteak Tomato Salad, with arugula, mustard greens, cucumber feta and corn nuts with a whole grain mustard vinaigrette. What are some must trys, according to the experts? “Pink Brandywine. Hands down. It’s a slightly later heirloom but worth the wait,” says Albert. “And if you don’t know what a husk cherry is you should find out immediately.”
See for yourself at Beach Plum Farm’s Tomato dinners this summer. Bring your own spirits and toast to this quintessential New Jersey staple. For tickets, click here.