Ain’t no tomato like a Jersey tomato.

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.


28 Comments

  1. Homegrown tomatoes are the very best thing about summer! Here in Southern California we might be lucky enough to get some through October.

  2. The best part is that you got the ugly tomatoes all to yourself. Sap from tomato plants? I must not have been around enough tomato plants because I have never heard that. Interesting. Nice, relaxing post.

  3. Very well-written, Donna. And thanks for taking us down some fond times in yor life. You taking care of the tomato plants through the freezing Midwest climes was, in particular, quite touching.

    Made for a great read. Thank you.

  4. Carol in Philly

    Try your tomato sandwich with butter instead of mayonnaise. (I didn’t believe it either until I tried it.) Yummy.

  5. It was too hot all summer for our tomato plants to fruit. They just kept getting bigger and losing flowers. Now that it’s cooler we have one tomato growing.

  6. My mom is from Bergen county in Jersey but she always talked about her grandfather’s house in “rural New Jersey”. I never believed her until I went to college and met some natives who found that traveling all the way out to Dayton for college was cheaper than going to nearly any private college in-state.

  7. I experimented this year with straw bale gardening, including three Roma tomato plants. Before Irene, we were getting between six and ten tomatoes a day. Irene set them back a bit, but they seem to have made a comeback. Not perfect for sandwiches, but they’ll do in a pinch. Also great chopped for tacos. I’ve definitely recouped what I spent on the bale and the seeds!

    • Donna Freedman

      @SherryH: One of my dad’s self-sufficiency mags had an article about growing potatoes in layers of goat straw, i.e., the woman raked out her goat shed for a pre-fertilized medium and dumped it on the spud plants. She had tremendous success.
      I don’t want to raise goats, but if I got a place of my own I would put a note out on Freecycle: “I will clean out your goat shed regularly.”

  8. I love to vegetable garden, but surprisingly I do not like to eat raw tomatoes. Cooked ones are OK, but I shudder at the thought of either eating a tomato sandwich or walking through a forest of six-foot tomato plants. The plants (and the fruit) truly stink! I’ve told more than one person that I find the scent evil.

    Nonetheless, I grow them in my garden because so many friends like them. This is a disappointing year for tomatoes in the Chicago area, though. Not one fruit has turned red yet. They are all still green and not likely to ripen at all this late in the season. I expect I’ll be putting up some green tomato relish or pickled green tomatoes.

    I do love cucumbers straight from the garden, though. So crisp and tasty! And this was a banner year for cukes! :-)

  9. I am ready to swear off gardening. Here in MN I planted peppers, green beans and tomatoes in pots. The rabbits ate the beans. When I re-fenced them they were sticks. So far only a few beans. The peppers have no peppers on them, and the tomatoes have only green ones. Sept. in MN and how will they ever ripen. So disappointing.

  10. Donna, let’s plan to live near each other in a few years, because we would love to raise goats and I’d be happy to share their, er, products with an enterprising gardener.
    Meanwhile, we finally moved to an apartment with a yard, so next spring (but not too early… we are in Chicago) we’re planning to do some potted-plant gardening. I miss real tomatoes.

  11. Nothing is better than the tomato sandwich with mayo and salt and pepper..although sometimes I get a little crazy and actually make a hommus and tomato sandwich instead…either way the garden tomato is a thing of beauty..thanks for the reminder Donna!

  12. I always thought southern MI had the best tomatoes in the world. We ate those tomato sandwiches on white bread with mayo while growing up, but also would chomp on them like they were apples. Ah, I do miss em- up here in MN my tomatoes are still mostly green, had to cover with blankets twice to chase away frostbite already, and the end products won’t be fit for much other than salsa or tomato sauce. But MN homegrown are still better than the strip mined grocery tomatoes.

  13. Not a great year for toms in Va this year, my plants didnt do very well but we still got a couple caprese’s for dinner out of them. Glad you got to enjoy some Jerseys this year~

  14. A tomato mayo sandwich is the best! Great article.

  15. Now I'm a Biscuit

    South Jersey-ites consider North Jersey people trash, but you don’t mind our money keeping your economy going every summer.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Now I’m A Biscuit: I don’t consider North Jerseyites trash, although no doubt some of them are — just as some South Jerseyites are.

  16. I can grow green tomatoes with the best of them here in IL. I’m not having much luck with my little plants.
    Usually the tomatoes around here, in the off season, more closely resemble an apple texture with no taste. Hate crunchy tomatoes!

  17. bobbysgirl

    Jersey tomatoes are yummy, but mine are yummy this year too. I finally made it in the gardening world!

  18. She’s from NJ, no wonder she seems to be leaning to the Left :-)

    • Donna Freedman

      @Dave: But if you’re looking at a map of the United States, New Jersey is on the far right.

  19. I convinced my dad to grow tomatoes in our front yard for a few years just because I got tired of paying $2/lb for the flavorless bulbs from the grocery store. They were uglier than anything I’d seen in the store, and smaller to boot, but they were awfully good. Nothing like yours, though! We need to borrow your gardening thumb, I think.

    Doubt we could coax anything up in this fog up here in the Bay Area, now, sadly.

  20. I have re discovered the tomato this year! I have been battling cancer and the big red fruit makes me feel good that I am eating with a survival purpose! now…please tell me…how do i keep three labs out of them??? they either eat them or play with my huge green tomatoes like they are tennis balls!!! help!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Donna Freedman

      @Jayne: A fence? Strict supervision and extreme scolding whenever they get near the plants?

  21. There are awesome organic tomatoes coming over from Eastern WA the last couple weeks – giant, ugly & incredibly tasty. When I got them I had to run home immediately and make a mayo-tomato sandwich too! I love the resurgence of heirloom tomatoes in the last couple years. I only eat fresh tomatoes for the few weeks they are coming off the eastern WA vines. Otherwise its sundried for me!

  22. Jerseyman

    I’m in Central Jersey- just above the Giants-Eagles and Yankees-Phillies dividing line. We’re paving it as quickly as possible, but the preserved and rural “country” parts are as pretty as anywhere in the USA- and I’ve been around. Nothing grand like the mountains of the west, but real pretty little colonial towns and New England like churches inbetween the highways and malls. The West and Northwest of the state are real nice. Also you can’t beat the beaches down by Cape May.
    Tomatoes- you can’t get better anywhere. There’s a nursery near me specializes in heritage varieties- they have over 90 types! Unfortunately for me, the herd of White Tail I share a yard with usually get more of mine than I do.
    Except for the taxes- and that goes along with the pay levels- Jersey is like an adult Disneyworld. Sports, shopping, restaurants-If you can’t get it here- it ain’t available. Best schools in the country too.

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