Nothing Says Summer Like The Jersey Tomato

Commentary By: Dean P. Johnson, Follow South Jersey Editor

New Jersey is known for many things:  miles of sandy beaches, Washington crossing the Delaware, the Jersey Devil, traffic circles, and bad jokes.  But there’s one thing that, although most other states have it, is just not the same if it is not a Jersey:  the tomato.

Legend has it that the first tomato eaten in America was right here in New Jersey.  On September 26, 1820, so the story goes, Robert Gibbon Johnson mounted the courthouse steps of Salem, New Jersey and, to the marvel of the hundreds who gathered to watch, ate a tomato that, at that time, was considered poisonous.  Johnson’s survival launched an entire industry.  There are, though, several versions of the tomato story, all very much the same.  One story actually touts Thomas Jefferson himself taking the first brazen bite.

Around Memorial Day, our family followed tradition and planted our garden with tomatoes as its centerpiece.

Tomatoes were the crowning achievement to my father’s backyard garden.  Late May he would plant tender little plants he purchased from Rocky’s Farm Market, a small, family owned roadside stand that today is a sad, barren roadside eyesore.  As the plants grew, he placed tall cedar poles in the ground next to each plant and gingerly tied each one to the pole with torn strips of a soft rag.  As the plants grew higher, he added more tiers to keep the plant from bowing to its own bountiful weight.

By just after Independence Day, the first tomato was picked by my father, of course.  No one else was allowed in past the chicken wire fence that separated the garden from the rest of the world.  Because of my father’s kid-in-the-candy-store excitement, the first fruit was usually more on the orange side of the spectrum.  A day or two on the window sill and the tomato was a deep, delicious red.  Within a week or so, a sudden barrage of tomatoes flooded into our house.

Soon the novelty of picking red ripe tomatoes wore down, and I was often sent to pick eight or ten tomatoes for my mother’s tomato-cucumber salad.  I remember walking among the vines that stood taller than I.  I picked each tomato with a twist and pull, just like I had watched my dad do.  

The smooth tomatoes were warm to the touch from the summer sun and smelled thick and earthy and sweet with a hint of acidity hidden within.  Along with the tomatoes, I was ordered to gather three or four cucumbers (None of my mother’s recipes were very specific:  five or six teaspoons of butter, two or three large eggs, a pinch or two of salt.  Yet everything was always so good.), and five or six leaves of basilica, which is basil, although I did not know that until I was in high school.  My mother would mix them all together with one small onion, doused with extra virgin olive oil, a little oregano, pepper and salt to taste.  This was lunch.  This was summer.

By September there were more tomatoes than we could give away.  No one came over to our house without leaving with an Acme bag full of over-ripe tomatoes.  And though my parents canned both red and pickled green tomatoes, by the time the once valiant vines lay drooped over the rag ties that held them brawny against their cedar stakes; many tomatoes started the compost that would be the next season’s fertilizer.

I attempted to emulate my father’s farming gift a few times, but it only resulted in tall plants with little fruit.

Fortunately for our family, out front of a farm about a mile past the lake just down the street, there’s an old wooden cart laden with the summer bounty.

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