Jersey tomatoes are ugly beauties in red
July 28, 2009
By Bill Barlow
Sometimes, it seems as though there should be sort of a reverse toll at all bridges leading over the Delaware into South Jersey, with a nice old man in work trousers stopping each car.
“Welcome to New Jersey,” he’d say. “Here’s your tomato.”
It might prove impractical, so until there is a way to deliver tomatoes by E-Z Pass, you’re just going to have to go get your own.
Don’t worry, you’ve got time.
According to Pegi Ballister-Howells, Jersey tomatoes are starting to ripen in full force, although like almost everything else they’re a little late this year. While there are some in local markets, they still cost a little more. In a week or two, the yield will be closer to an eruption, she said, and the plants will continue to produce through August and September and into October, typically until the first hard frost.
“In another week or two, they’re going to be everywhere,” she said. “Right now, they’re a little pricey.”
Ballister-Howells is a botanist, author and radio host who runs the Tri-County Cooperative Auction Market up in East Windsor.
She’s also the recording secretary for the Vegetable Growers Association, so it’s possible she’s a little biased when she says of the Jersey-grown tomatoes, “all of our tomatoes are, in my opinion, better than anybody else’s tomatoes.”
There’s no doubt that New Jersey is known for its tomatoes. Ballister-Howells, a former Rutgers Co-opertive Extension Agent, said Jersey farmers put a lot of work and research into their tomatoes. But the main difference she cites seems to primarily be a matter of the same qualities local food advocates cite for just about any fresh crop.
First off, a Jersey tomato isn’t a variety, it’s a tomato grown in New Jersey.
“When someone says it’s a Jersey tomato, in general what they mean is it is a tomato that’s grown in Jersey, with Jersey soil, and in the Jersey farming style, which is to let them ripen on the vine and a short trip to the market,” she said.
That extra time in the field means a tastier tomato, she said, rather than ripening in transport or artificially with the gas ethylene, which she said can turn the tomato red, but won’t add any flavor.
The local tomatoes range from cherry or plum tomatoes to monster beefsteak tomatoes, and can be anything from deep red to yellow or orange, or even with some purple on the ripe fruit. There are also plenty of heirloom tomatoes that are grown in Jersey.
But what most people think of as a Jersey tomato is a big, ugly, imperfect lump of flavor that isn’t perfectly round, or smooth, or uniformly red.
“They’re wonderful, juicy, cut-‘em-a-half-inch-thick-and have-‘em-for-a-meal tomatoes. They’re my favorite,” she said. “You smell it, and touch it, and dream about eating it, and you look at them and you think wonderful, luscious thoughts, but it’s a pretty fruit, no.”
But this isn’t about pretty.
Ballister-Howells said tomatoes grown for shelf life, to be shipped halfway across the country, or those bred to be perfectly round and without a blemish, just can’t hope to measure up to one that is bred just for the best possible flavor. She cited the French term Belle Laide, a reference to something simultaneously beautiful and ugly.
Ballister-Howells tried to head off an old argument right away.
“A tomato is a fruit by the way, but it’s also a vegetable,” she said. Botanically, it’s fruit, but vegetable is a social term, which refers to the part of a plant eaten with a meal instead of as dessert.
That classification has proven surprisingly important, and was even the subject of a Supreme Court ruling in 1893, when the court decided it’s a vegetable. It mattered because of tax rules at the time.
For a vegetable (or a fruit) so connected to Italian cooking, no one outside of the Americas saw a tomato until after Columbus made his big trip. In the 16th century, they were introduce to Spain, and spread to the rest of Europe and beyond from there.
But the spread was slow. Several sources indicate that the English thought the fruit to be poisonous, a belief that continued in parts of North America into the 19th century.
The English were not just crazy. Like other New World crops like the pepper, the tomato is related to belladonna, also known as deadly nightshade, an association that keeps some macrobiotic eaters away from them entirely. Then again, tobacco is in the same family, and after Sir Walter Reliegh, the English seemed to take to that well enough.
A ripe tomato doesn’t need much, although some basil, olive oil, salt and pepper can make a good thing even better.
A BLT on a summer afternoon, even with fake bacon for the austere or the pig-friendly, is essentially perfect. Those who disagree may file a complaint care of this paper, but it will be ignored as the ravings of an obvious nut-job.
For those who want more to do, they can be used in salsa, stewed, breaded and fried, made into sauce (yeah, we know, it’s really called gravy, but just play along for now) or juice.
While some say they can’t be frozen, Ballister-Howells does. She said she dices the tomatoes and either simmers them a little or put it right in the freezer. She said you couldn’t really put them on a salad once they are defrosted, but that’s not in the plan anyway. It will be a main ingredient for Caponata, a Sicilian dish she said has a little vinegar. You can also throw them in the blender, and either cook them down a little or else freeze them like that for future recipes.
For those planning on canning or freezing, however, Ballister-Howells suggests buying when the season is at its peak, not only because the plentiful fruit will be at its most flavorful, but it will also be cheaper.
The steady rain this spring has meant that peak will come along a little later than some years.
“The initial rains were somewhat nightmarish in terms of getting things in the ground,” she said, but the more recent weather – sunny days and a lot of rain at night – could not be better for tomatoes.
Rob Seitzinger can be e-mailed at seitz [at] catamaranmedia.com or you can comment on this story by calling 624-8900, ext. 250.