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A Final Word By Marjorie Preston

All Hail Big Red! Summer is a season of exaltation for tomato lovers, especially in the Garden State

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ou say “tomato,” I say “tomahto.” You call it a vegetable, I insist it’s a fruit. But there’s one thing we can all agree on: There’s nothing as delectably yummy as a Jersey tomato at the height of summer. The names are legion, and legendary: Big Boy and Early Girl, Rutgers and Ramapo, Beefsteak and Moreton. They’re good enough to eat out of hand, like apples. At first bite, there’s an explosion of sweet-tart juiciness that’s as good unadorned as it is dressed up in a salad. But the highest and best use of the summer tomato, in my view, is in that all-star lunch-box sandwich — sliced tomato on Wonder bread, with Hellman’s mayonnaise, and a dash of salt and pepper. It’s simple. It’s sensational. Unfortunately, it’s also seasonal. At this time of year, farm-fresh produce is abundant. You’ll find tomatoes heaped up in bushel baskets at roadside stands everywhere, as if the Garden State were the Garden of Eden. But the rest of the year? Fuggedaboutit. From October through May or June, the best we can hope for is the pink, plastic tomatoes sold in grocerystore cellophane-packs. They may look nice, and they’re certainly long-lasting. They’re probably in the pantries of survivalists everywhere. But why bother when they taste like a cross between a Wiffle ball and a piece of PVC pipe? Blame it on mass production. Starting back in the 1930s, tomato breeders started cross-breeding the strains so the produce would ripen in uniform fashion, have firmer flesh, and could be trucked hundreds of miles to market without softening. Those same mad scientists bred tomatoes to be about the same shape and size, for easier packing and display. In the process, they created Frankenfruit: tomatoes with a longer shelf life, but next to no flavor. It’s like the people who bred the delicious out of Delicious apples. Did they really think our taste buds wouldn’t notice? Fortunately, the old-style tomato is making a comeback, thanks in part to the jolly green scientific team at Rutgers University. “They want to recreate the flavor that people wax nostalgic about — that fully ripened, fresh-from-the-vine tomato, straight out of Gramps’s garden,” says Rick VanVranken, Atlantic County agricultural agent. “The challenge is recreating those features in a tomato that can be grown on a large scale.” As early as 1968, Rutgers produced hardier, diseaseresistant tomatoes for mass consumption, but the varieties were overwhelmingly rejected by commercial growers, who still demanded

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higher yields and harder fruit (shaking my head). Over time, the “parent” seeds of old-style tomatoes went missing. But with a little sleuthing, the scientists lucked out. “They were talking with somebody who had worked for Campbell’s Soup, who said the company actually had some of the parent lines in their seed vaults,” says VanVranken. “They made a deal with Rutgers to get the parent varieties, and then started experimenting.” It took almost seven years, but the growers finally came up with the Rutgers 250, so-named in honor of the university’s 250th anniversary. The new crop “came pretty close to that old flavor, and that’s what’s getting all the publicity,” says VanVranken. The strain is “still best for home garden use, but they’re trying to make it sturdier without losing the flavor.” So why does the classic Jersey tomato taste so great? “It’s a balance of sweetness and acidity, which can change between varieties and with the state of ripeness,” VanVranken says. For the best flavor, tomato lovers know not to refrigerate their favorite fruit. “Put them in cold storage below 55 degrees, and the sugar taste almost goes away. They won’t ripen any further,” says VanVranken. There are recipes that purport to improve on the good old-fashioned tomato sandwich, using artisanal breads, substituting olive oil for mayo, and adding slices of avocado or bits of goat cheese. My friends, it’s a fool’s errand. The problem with tomatoes began when people tried to tinker with perfection. As the old commercial used to say, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.” Tomato Trivia • The tomato is the state vegetable of New Jersey. But it’s botanically classified as a fruit. That’s because it has seeds and grows from a flowering plant. • There may be as many as 25,000 tomato varieties grown around the world, in many colors including yellow, brown and purple. • Green tomatoes will ripen more quickly if you store them with apples. • Each year, the Spanish town of Buñol hosts La Tomatina, a festival where 40,000 people throw 150,000 tomatoes at each other. Sounds like a fun party game! • Tomatoes keep longer if you store them stem down. • The average American consumes about 24 pounds of tomatoes each year. Do your part this summer, and eat up! n

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NJ Lifestyle Magazine Summer 2016  

NJ Lifestyle Magazine Summer 2016  

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