Jersey Jewels: Growing Tomatoes in the Garden State

By Karasik, Sherry | The World and I, September 1998 | Go to article overview
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Jersey Jewels: Growing Tomatoes in the Garden State


Karasik, Sherry, The World and I


"There's no tomato better than the Jersey tomato in the world," says Robert "Mattie" Matarazzo. For three generations, his family has been farming in New Jersey, growing the Garden State's most notable crops like tomatoes, sweet corn, and peaches. A burly farmer with Ford tractor blue eyes, a whitening beard, and wind-swept hair, he owns a four-hundred-acre farm in Belvidere, western Jersey.

Matarazzo says he's the kind of man who wakes up in the morning with a dream and spends most of his day figuring out a way to make it come true. His dream now, one he shares with two dozen other farmers, is to save the Jersey tomato and the tomato farmer, something legend alone can't do.

In recent years, Garden State farmers have been squeezed by an ever-increasing population that has caused cities to spill into suburbia, swallowing up fertile, irreplaceable farmland. Confronted as well by the challenges posed by growers in the South, West, and overseas, the Jersey tomato has barely survived. Available from Independence Day to Halloween, the fruit has a delicious reputation. Historically, it has rarely crossed state lines (at least not in its full-bodied glory). The Jersey tomato was an unmovable feast. It's hard to grow, when you factor in the likely chance of pounding hail, parching drought, or searing heat. And until recently the crop didn't travel well, making it difficult to ship anywhere but down the street. Still, it's always been the love apple of farms stands and home growers, munched on by passersby, gardeners, and those bound for the Jersey shore. Thus it was through word of mouth that the passion for those fist-sized, silky-skinned, mouth-stinging, flame-colored globes of delight began.

Overshadowed by its larger neighbors, Pennsylvania and New York, New Jersey has always had something of an identity problem. For many, New Jersey isn't bucolic but a maze of tangled, smog-smudged, turn-pike-choked, congested cities. But the Jersey tomato was something to cherish. "People tell me the Jersey tomato is the only thing they miss about the state when they move away," says Matarazzo.

The rise and fall of the Jersey tomato

Some historians claim the rise of the Jersey tomato began with Col. Robert Gibbon Johnson's appearance on the courthouse steps in Salem, southern Jersey, in 1820. Johnson proclaimed the virtue of the fruit by eating tomato after allegedly poisonous tomato in front of a crowd who readily expected he'd go the grave with tomato juice dribbling down his chin.

Johnson's spectacle eventually spawned an economic treasure, but for a while farmers thought the tomato repugnant; author Andrew Smith quotes one as saying: "They appear so disgusting that I thought I must be very hungry before I should be induced to taste them."

Eventually, the popular appetite for tomatoes developed into a mania, and people ate them with every meal--straight or fried, green or red--although one woman swore she lost all her teeth, one by one, after eating tomatoes for a week solid.

In September 1847, Harrison Woodhull Crosby became another state folk hero. He soldered six well-scrubbed little sand pails and filled them with stewed tomatoes, then sealed the lids by soldering on more tin. The next year he filled a thousand tin pails and sent them to Queen Victoria, President James K. Polk, senators and congressmen, and the editor of the New York Tribune.

The tomato canning industry was born--in sheds, stables, and kitchens across the state. Crosby formulated and produced "Crosby's Celebrated Ketchup," later a mainstay of the Campbell Soup Company, the world's biggest user of tomatoes.

By the 1940s, farmers were producing 44,000 acres of tomatoes for the canneries that stewed, pureed, crushed, and chopped the tomatoes used for soups, sauces, and ketchup; the national demand for the Jersey tomato seemed insatiable. But twenty years later, in the sixties and seventies, the formerly forbidden fruit was driven from the Garden State to the Golden State.

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