In part I of the Tomato Diaries, entitled "Five Heirlooms, Five Stories", we looked at the Brandywine, Cherokee Purple, Mortgage Lifter, Anna Russian and Arkansas Traveler tomatoes. If you missed the first one, here's the link:
We seem to have a fair number of gardeners and tomato lovers here, so I will make the "Tomato Diaries" a series, at least until I run out of interesting material. In this edition, I will dig into the twisted genealogy of one of the more famous tomatoes from years of yore: The Rutgers Tomato. Rich in PA called it his "go-to tomato." Indeed, there was a time when most gardeners in America were in agreement. I've eaten them. My aunts and uncles all grew them. I never have. Yet.
I made the comment in Part I that I find them a bit hard to find as starts out here in the PNW, and Rich said he just starts his from seed. That started me on a quest, and I was somewhat surprised by what I found.
The Rutgers tomatoes that my relatives, and yours, grew back in the 50's are most likely not the same tomato as the "Rutgers" on sale in nurseries or seed catalogs today. I know...that's shocking, and hard to swallow. But I'm afraid it true. Those old Jersey beefsteaks exist mostly in our memories, though people are still on the hunt for them.
The original Rutgers, which put the "mmm mmm good" in Campbell's tomato soup, and filled countless bottles of Heinz catsup, it's most likely gone. Misplaced. It must be around here somewhere, but damned if anyone can find it. How embarrassing.
Here's the story of the real tomatoes that made New Jersey famous, long before Snooki was even a gleam in her father's eyes.
There are only 6 states that I have never visited or traveled through: New York, Connecticut, Delaware, Rhode Island, Maryland and...you guessed it...New Jersey. When I first learned that New Jersey's nickname was "The Garden State", I was sort of surprised. I always thought of the state as being mostly urban areas. And not very good ones, at that. Growing up on the West Coast, I was weaned on countless jokes about New Jersey on the Tonight Show when it was still Johnny Carson's gig. I always associated NJ more with its hazardous waste sites and chemical industry than with its beefsteak tomatoes. The stereotypes of NJ was about as far on the other end of the spectrum from farms and tomato fields as you can get.
But New Jersey was and still is a major agricultural state, and even though the heyday of its tomato industry has passed, it still ranks 5th in the nation in commercial tomato production (it ranks 9th for fresh market tomatoes). The Campbell Soup Company was established around 1870 in Camden, NJ, and there was a time when that company alone used so many tomatoes at its plant that thousands of boxes would arrive each day during the season on barges, trucks and train cars from growers in the southern part of the state. In the early decades of the 1900's almost every town in South Jersey had its own local processing plant.
In 1897 Campbell's Co. hired the nephew of its General Mgr, a man by the name of John T. Dorrance. Dorrance was a chemist, and MIT grad, who developed an innovative way to produced condensed soup. That, along with advances in commercial canning, led to explosive growth for the company. According to Wikipedia, Dorrance was paid a weekly salary of $7.50 when he was first hired. By 1914, he was chosen to become president of the company, and some years later he bought out ownership from the Campbell family. Under his reign, the company engaged in an agressive outreach program to the tomato growers in Jersey it depended upon, as well as engaging in tomato research of its own.
It's hard to overstate the influence of Campbell's, as well as, later and to a lesser degree, companies like Heinz, Hunts and Progresso. They purchased virtually the entirety of the state's tomato crop for processing. Campbell's would host informational seminars for tomato growers, and used them to encourage the growers to begin growing newer varieties that were being developed with earlier maturation times, so as to extend the growing season. Marglobe was a variety released by the USDA in 1917 that had improved disease resistance and produced more tomatoes per plant with fewer blemishes. Campbell's developed their own tomato, named after its president, the "JTD" tomato. Rutgers University began experimenting with the two varieties, and came up with their own improved variety which they released in 1934...the original "Rutgers" tomato. It quickly garnered praise, gained acceptance by growers and was planted widely throughout the state. In many ways the variety launched the reputation of the "Jersey beefsteak tomato" on a region-wide basis.
But a strange thing happened. Rutgers never really embraced the tomato strain they had developed as the sort of intellectual property that it clearly was. Instead, they released it and encouraged seed companies and commercial processors to continue experimenting with it. In 1943 they released their own, newer version of the Rutgers tomato, this time a hybrid instead of an open pollinated variety. By the 1950's, thousands of tomato growers in New Jersey as well as many Midwestern states were growing Rutgers tomatoes, but to the extent that they were procuring their seed from many various seed companies, the seed itself had undergone enough variations that they weren't really growing the same Rutgers tomato.
There was a time when Rutgers Univ. was more well known for its namesake tomato than it was for anything else. Which makes it all that more perplexing that they eventually lost track of the parent seed stock. In 1968 Rutgers pulled another rabbit out of its hat with the introduction of another hybrid called Ramapo. Though not an open pollinated variety, and therefore not able to be classified as an heirloom, no matter how old the variety may be, it was an excellent beefsteak tomato, and once again quickly gained widespread acceptance among commercial and home tomato growers. It was relatively thin walled, resistant to a number of tomato afflictions, and had excellent taste. And once again, Rutgers lost control of the seed stock.
By 1970 New Jersey still had a reputation as the East Coast tomato capitol,but things were clearly changing. The major processors were shifting the locus of their operations to California (and Florida), which had superior growing conditions, and research into new varieties no longer focused upon flavor, but upon the ability to hold up under mechanical harvesting techniques and rough handling in the transportation chain, as well as shelf life at the retail level. Consumers were already begining to notice that tomatoes just didn't taste like the tomatoes they grew up with.
By 1992 there were only about 19 commercial tomato growers left in New Jersey, and the number of major in-state processors had shrunk from 30 to just one. The rest had moved out of state. In a NYT article from that year:
On Feb. 24, the last major tomato processor in the state announced that it would not buy some 28,000 tons of New Jersey processing tomatoes, about 80 percent of the anticipated production.http://www.nytimes.com/...
Campbell's Company closed down its historic plant in Camden for good in 1992, eliminating 940 jobs. At its peak, the plant was one of the 3 largest employers in Camden. Today, the only thing it makes there, as the NYT article puts it, is decisions.
About all that was left for the New Jersey tomato growers was the fresh market, and yet the taste of the average tomato had declined as a result of 3 decades to plant breeding that emphasized just about every tomato quality except its flavor. In the 90's, when consumers rediscovered heirloom tomatoes, with their various colors, fruit shapes and remarkable flavor, many growers began switching immediately to growing old open pollinated varieties for the fresh market. And for many of them, it was a rude awakening.
There's a perfectly good reason why heirloom tomato varieties gave way, over time, to hybridized tomatoes. They were not resistant to diseases like blight, fusarium wilt, tobacco leaf mosaic and many others. Early hybrids resulted in varieties that were not only resistant to these diseases, they were also more prolific fruit bearers. And they still tasted good. You had the best of two worlds. Then, sometime around mid-century, the direction of plant breeding began to change. Flavor was no longer of concern to those employed in the field ofvegetable breeding. The end all of research into new varieties was shelf life, ability to hold up during transport to market, ability to undergo mechanized harvesting.
When growers first got caught up in the heirloom tomato craze of the 90's, they had largely forgotten why people switched to hybrids to begin with. For many, their fields were dismal. Sickly plants, with low yields. The tomatoes harvested were remakably better tasting, but many of them were lost just in getting them to market due to jostling, compaction, bruising and splitting. Once at the market, several more were lost due to the tendency of consumers to be heavy handed in their handling of fruit while they select "just the right ones" to take to the cash register. So while those heirlooms command a hefty price, that in no way means the grower was necessarily making more money. In some cases, even as you paid $4.50 to $6.00 a pound for those beautiful heirlooms, the grower was making less money.
Recognizing that there might be a happy medium in between tasteless modern varieties and finicky, poor performing heirlooms, Rutgers Univ. a few years ago launched a project called "Rediscovering the Jersey Tomato." Among some of the things they found:
The original strain of the first Rutgers tomato is lost. Long lost. I have read that someone may have found a jar of the original parent seed while cleaning out the desk of a retired/deceased faculty member, but I'm not sure. Rutgers never safeguarded the parent seed.
The Ramapo hybrid was lost commercially several years ago. Harris Seed Company, which had acquired the seed from Rutgers, stopped offering it. Unlike Rutgers, though, Harris still had a sample of the original seed archived. Rutgers partnered with a seed producer in Israel to regrow the old hybrid, and now you can once again obtain the seed for this variety.
Though "Rutgers" is the variety that everyone associates with New Jersey, in fact there was always more like a portfolio of several beefsteak tomato varieties that were being grown throughout the state. They were similar, but Rutgers had the name recognition, and the name stuck.
Another variety that Rutgers researchers have "rediscovered" is the Moreton tomato. Like Ramapo, it had largely disappeared, but seed stock has been built up, and Rutgers is now offering the seed for sale. While Ramapo is a mid to late season tomato, Moreton matures early in the season, and still has that "old Jersey taste."
Rutgers has realized that the furure of New Jersey tomato growers is in the fresh market, not the commercial canning market, and that consumers demand a better tasting tomato these days. They continue to "reverse-engineer" the tomato, searching for cultivars of previous decades that were developed for both productivity, disease resistance and taste, and then seemingly lost over time.
So far they have had some success. Let's hope they continue to make strides.
That's about it for Part II. Except for one thing. I started off mentioning that my impressions of New Jersey when I was young were based in large part on jokes I heard about the state on the Johnny Carson Show. The only New Jersey joke I can remember is one that a woman from Moonachie, NJ, whom I used to date, taught me several years ago. Here's the joke:
What's the first thing a New Jersey girl does in the morning?
Sorry...I just had to.