Rutgers football may be just entering the Big Ten this fall, but the Rutgers tomato was in the top 10 of tomatoes starting in the 1950s. For several decades the Rutgers tomato reigned in popularity for its Jersey tomato taste. It was tart, sweet, tender, round, red and ripened on the vine.
Companies, like Campbell Soup, loved them for juice, soup and ketchup. So why use the past tense when talking about this variety? It fell victim to commerce. As the interstate highway system expanded in the 1950s, more produce was being trucked longer distances. The soft Rutgers tomato did not travel well. Scientists worked on developing varieties that did travel.
Those newer hybrids were firmer with thicker skins and interior walls and could be ripened after picking. And they tasted lousy.
I have been a backyard gardener since I was a kid helping my father. We planted Rutgers tomatoes. My father saved seeds from the best ones for next year. But I moved on to buying plants at the garden center and at some point in the 1980s the Rutgers plants disappeared.
My tomatoes only travel about 100 feet, so “shippability” doesn’t matter – taste does. The next generation tomato from Rutgers was the Ramapo, developed in 1968 which had a good ten-year run, disappeared and the was reintroduced in 2008. It tastes like a Jersey tomato, but doesn’t ripen until August. Gardeners and farmer like a product in July.
“Heirloom” tomatoes were big for a few years. Those are varieties that go back pre-WWII. Nostalgic, but flawed for the same reasons that they fell away in the 1950s; they cracked, softened in heavy rain, got fungus and other diseases and you ended up throwing too many away. So much for nostalgia.
It probably surprises folks that New Jersey, even with its disappearing farmland, still ranks fourth in the nation in value of agricultural products sold per acre.
The tomato that we often find in stores now is pretty dreadful compared to what I can pick in my backyard. Stores, and many consumers, want firmness and picture-perfect fruit. Now that a lot of production is in Florida, California and Mexico, those supermarket tomatoes are picked green and then gassed with ethylene to turn a sickly red, then refrigerated for shipping. Tomato gardeners know that you never refrigerate your tomatoes unless you want to halt ripening.
My mom showed me the gassing method without knowing the science. Put some half-ripe tomatoes in a brown bag with a few slices of an apple and close it up. She couldn’t tell you why it worked, but it did. It didn’t taste like one picked off a plant, carried into the kitchen, sliced and eaten with a little salt, or olive oil and some oregano., but better than the store-bought ones that she called “greenhouse tomatoes.”
The Rutgers agriculture people have been working to resurrect the Rutgers tomato we once knew and are down to a dozen or so contenders from several hundred. It will be a Rutgers tomato reborn.
They have been having a Great Tomato Tasting for the past few years (this year’s will be at the end of August) where regular folks taste and rate.
The new name is still undecided. “Rutgers250” is a possibility to mark its debut in 2016 which is the 250th anniversary of the college. We’ll see if it tastes like the summer of 1962, but hopefully it will taste like summer.