Posted September 20, 2015
'They were out of this world': the quest to resurrect America's best tomato
Years tinkering with the juicy and plump Jersey tomato has led to a harder and less tasty version of the fruit. Now, following an idea from a Campbell’s Soup manager, scientists at Rutgers University are trying to bring back the original
By CAREN CHESLER
It might seem strange that the state known for mobsters, gas refineries and toxic superfund sites also gave the world one of the most delicious fruits known to man: the plump, red and juicy Jersey tomato.
“I so miss Jersey tomatoes. There are none as good anywhere else,” said Jennie Phipps, a writer who lived in South Jersey and Delaware for 17 years but now lives in Michigan. “I like them sliced with a little salt, and I love tomato sandwiches on whole wheat with lots of mayonnaise. And I’m happy to eat one just like an apple.”
But Phipps might not recognize the Jersey tomatoes sold today. They’re harder and less juicy than they used to be, and that’s no accident.
Food scientists have been tinkering with the molecular structure of the tomato for years, so tomato processors who now harvest by machine could have fruit that easily falls off the stem. Scientists also thickened the tomato’s skin and interior walls so they were more durable during the shipping process.
All that tinkering has affected the fruit’s taste, say Jersey tomato connoisseurs. Over the last 30 years, the Jersey tomato, while still delicious, is only a shadow of its former self.
But scientists at Rutgers University want to change that – they’re trying to bring the Jersey tomato back to its mouthwatering heyday.
The original Jersey tomato is the offspring of plant biologists working for Rutgers University and the Campbell Soup Co, who collaborated in 1934 to create a tomato that was plump and juicy enough for tomato soup while being resistant to pests.
They came up with a variety that was so popular that it became a main ingredient for Campbell’s as well as Heinz ketchup. By the 1950s, 70% of the tomatoes grown in the US were Jersey tomatoes – also known as the Rutgers tomato.
“You don’t know how good they were until you’ve tasted one. They really were just out of this world,” said William Hlubik, a faculty member with the Rutgers Cooperative Research & Extension.
Hlubik would know. He grew up on a farm in Chesterfield, New Jersey, that started growing tomatoes to feed the demand of the giant tomato processors. In the summer, lines of trucks would go back and forth on the local roads, carrying tomatoes from the fields to Campbell’s soup plant in Camden.
“Sometimes they would have baskets and collect the tomatoes. Sometimes they would just back the truck up to the farm, and the tomatoes would go up the conveyer,” Hlubik said. “Back in the 1950s, the Rutgers tomato was the greatest thing, because of its productivity and its flavor, and with the Campbell’s soup plant being nearby, everyone was growing them.”
It wasn’t just agrobusiness that hurt the taste of the Jersey tomato, Hlubik said. Plants naturally change over time; the insects and diseases that prey on plants change. Diseases mutate and become more virulent or aggressive. Scientists must constantly breed a variety of new material just to maintain the status quo, he said.
“Over time, you’ll see changes in any line, whether it’s tomatoes or anything else. Epigenetics, the environment, all these factors outside the regular genetics of the plant can affect how genes are expressed,” Hlubik said. “If there’s a change in the diseases attacking the plant, you need to change the plant.”
The idea to resurrect the Jersey tomato was actually sparked by a woman from Campbell’s, Dot Hall, who had headed up the company’s soup product development. She was at a tomato tasting sponsored by food scientists at Rutgers about five years ago when she made the suggestion.
As it turns out, Campbell’s had retained seeds from the two varieties used to create the Rutgers tomato. They were the Marglobe and the JTD, named for Dr John T Dorrance, a chemist who served as Campbell’s first president and invented canned condensed soup.
Campbell’s had kept the seeds in an archive because its research group would periodically plant different seed varieties to see if it could improve the yield and health of the company’s tomatoes, which are now grown in California. The company was also concerned about taste.
“You’d hear people say, ‘The tomato soup doesn’t taste as good as it used to taste,’ so we’d go back and plant plots in California to see if we could improve the taste,” Hall said. “But our goal was to get tomatoes that were higher yield. Flavor wasn’t necessarily an attribute we were trying to improve.”
Hall also believes Campbell’s soup doesn’t taste like it used to, but she says it’s partly because they no longer use fresh tomatoes that have been recently harvested. They now use a tomato paste made from tomatoes that have been preserved in sterile packaging.
After Hall’s conversation with Rutgers, scientists began planting Marglobe and JTD seeds from Campbell’s archive. The two varieties were then cross pollinated again, as they were in 1934. Simply put, pollen from a male flower of one variety was used to pollinate a female flower from the other variety. When the cross-pollinated plants bore fruit, the seeds were taken out and used to create about 250 new plants.
Researchers are now trying to figure out which of those 250 plants is best, and it’s not an easy task. Despite having all come from the same two varieties of tomato plants, each of the resulting crossed plants are genetically different. Rutgers plant researcher Peter Nitzsche says to think of the Marglobe and JTD as parents, and the 250 plants as their children – they may share characteristics with their parents, but each are assembled in a unique way.
“Whenever you cross two things – two parents, two dogs, two different tomatoes – the genetic combination of each progeny is always slightly different. There are potentially thousands, or millions, of combinations, from each genetic cross,” Nitzsche said.
Scientists narrowed the 250 plants down to about 20, then 10, then five, and now three. They’ve been holding taste tests across the state, asking residents to rate the tomatoes based on their sweetness, flavor, acidity and texture. The final taste test will be in a week or two, as scientists sort through the data. They hope to have a winner next month, in time for Rutgers’ 250th anniversary next year. The seeds of the winner will be available for sale in January.
“This will not be the old tomato, but the old tomato improved – at least we hope,” Nitzsche said.
If it’s anything like the old Jersey tomato, the formula will be missing only one thing: the salt.