Yesterday I bought a couple of tomatoes. I shouldn’t have: They were mushy and nearly flavorless. It was like eating catsup-tinged oatmeal.
Or maybe I’m just comparing them against the love apples I ate for a couple of weeks while visiting my dad, which would be unfair. Ain’t no tomato like a Jersey tomato.
Most people perceive New Jersey as merely a bedroom community for Noo Yawk, a state defined by traffic-jammed highways, obnoxious accents and, thanks to the creators of “The Sopranos” and “Jersey Shore,” organized crime and tippling imbeciles.
Fact is, New Jersey’s motto is “The Garden State.” We South Jerseyites considered North Jersey “The Garbage State.”
My tiny hometown was as country as it gets. No stoplights, no stores (except a convenience store/gas station), no manufacturing. Just quiet back roads running through miles and miles of corn, lettuce, beans, peppers and cucumbers. And tomatoes: untold acres of them, mostly destined for processing rather than salads. Late in the summer, when the wind was right, a tantalizing smell of catsup would drift across the river from the cannery in a nearby town.
If you lived on the East Coast, you knew about Jersey tomatoes. Big, sweet, juicy — and ugly as sin. Thanks to the relentless sun, the fruits were often cracked at the top, and sometimes they ripened so quickly that those tops were still streaked with bright green when the rest of the tomato was ready to eat.
No matter what they looked like, nothing said “summer” like a tomato sandwich on white bread with mayonnaise, salt and pepper.
Building a prettier plant
We didn’t care that they were ugly. We boasted about it, actually. When a woman in my town planned greenhouse tomato production, people laughed out loud. Why bother with a greenhouse when nature provided all the light and moisture you needed, free of charge?
Because she wanted to grow nice-looking tomatoes, she explained.
People laughed even louder at that. Why would customers care what tomatoes look like? It was the taste that mattered.
Turned out Elaine was right: The fancy markets in Philadelphia and New York did want tomatoes that were both beautiful and delicious. She built three huge greenhouses in all, and hired me to pick for her. I spent many summer hours slogging my way through vigorous lanes of 6-foot-tall plants, and left the jobsite so covered with sap that green suds bubbled from my head when I shampooed.
The heat was immense, the humidity so thick I sometimes fancied I would drown, and the plants’ metallic scent was magnified a thousandfold by the enclosed setting. Even though I was making a whopping $1.35 an hour, I swore I would never grow tomatoes on my own because the smell was just too disgusting.
Tomatoes shouldn’t be crunchy
I kept that promise for a long, long time. First I moved to Philadelphia and didn’t have a backyard. Later I got married and moved back to Jersey – but to a condo development that didn’t allow private gardens. Then we spent 17 years in Alaska, where you could only grow tomatoes if you had a greenhouse or if you used wave-selective plastic and floating row covers.
I wasn’t interested in either route, so for 17 years I consumed those pink, crunchy, square-shouldered varieties found in the supermarket, the kind that humorist Garrison Keillor swears are “strip-mined in North Dakota.” On trips to see family, I would eat Jersey tomatoes until I broke out in canker sores.
When I moved to Oak Park, Illinois, I realized that I was potentially back in tomato territory. It will actually get hot next summer, I thought. Maybe I’d put in just one tomato plant, to see if it would grow.
I was wrong: It got hot that spring, reaching the mid-80s by mid-April. Giddy in this tropical clime, I came up with a devastatingly clever plan: Put the plants in now and I’d be eating tomatoes in June!
Love apples on life support
Home Depot could have been a reality check, but instead it was an enabler, with what looked like acres of vegetable starts. I wound up with five tomato plants (three regular, two cherry) and two pepper plants.
This is great, I thought a few days later. Look how well they’re doing! But gee, it feels a little chilly, doesn’t it?
Of course it did. This was a Midwest spring, and the temperature soon plummeted back to freezing-or-thereabouts. A normal person would have let the plants die, and learned her lesson. Not me. Every night when I got home from work, I went out with plastic bags and pop bottles full of hot water, creating mini-greenhouses. Every morning, I unveiled the dazed plants to the feeble sun.
The plants were a little cranky at first, but they survived. And thrived: By mid-June they had topped the four-foot chain-like fence to which they were staked. I pruned like mad, getting rid of non-blossom-bearing stems, and still the branches spread to create a jungly mass that smelled just like my first job.
But I didn’t care. The open air diluted the smell, and the sap got only on my hands rather than covering my entire body. In a way, the scent made me nostalgic for the days when I could bike three miles to work in 95-degree heat and what felt like 95% humidity, pick for several hours in a staggeringly hot greenhouse, ride the three miles home and still have enough energy to play baseball after supper.
While I didn’t get tomatoes in June, I did have them by the first of July. They were absolutely terrific: red as stop signs, yielding sweetly to the touch and dripping succulent juices when sliced. And thanks to the summer heat and the fact that they grew next to a chain link fence, they were just as scarred and ugly as the field tomatoes I had grown up eating.
I was thrilled, and not just for nostalgic reasons. Because they were so ugly, my then-husband didn’t want to eat them. I didn’t have to share! He preferred the blemishless cherry tomatoes.
That was fine with me. Ugly is in the eye of the beholder. Or between two slices of white bread with mayonnaise, salt and pepper.