- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Remember when a tomato was really a tomato? Big, squishy, juicy, seedy and tasting like a tomato?

Old-timers do, and yearn to find one.

The tomato, in fact, was once upon a time almost erotically luscious, called “the love apple,” and even considered a bit naughty. (The French, ever on the scout, considered it an aphrodisiac.) Young people, who have grown up munching the hard, waxy and bland tomatoes found in today’s supermarkets, don’t know what they missed.

Agricultural officials in New Jersey are trying now to help both groups find and enjoy the tasty farm-fresh tomatoes of old.

The Rutgers Cooperative Extension Service at Rutgers University has started a program to increase production of “heirloom” tomatoes, so called because they were treasures of the heritage of the farm.

Rutgers is encouraging farmers to grow the older varieties favored for taste, not appearance, along with heartier commercial fruits. As a result, better-tasting tomatoes are being found at roadside stands and tailgate produce sales on the back roads of the Garden State.

“The public really wants great-tasting tomatoes back … and we’re going to get them,” says Jack Rabin, assistant director of the New Jersey Agriculture Experiment, the agricultural research branch of Rutgers University.

“We’re trying to restore tomatoes to the way they were more than a half-century ago, and bring joy to those who eat them,” Mr. Rabin says.

He insists, with a diplomat’s skill, that he’s not condemning all of the so-called “vine-ripened” tomatoes on the market today, which are grown in Mexico, California and Florida, and bred to have a longer shelf life.

“You can break the windshield of a truck with a vine-ripened tomato,” he jokes.

The big problem, Mr. Rabin says, is that breeders have emphasized long shelf life and long growing seasons, firmness, durability and crop yield. “But we forgot to have people eat them,” he says.

As part of the project to restore the heirlooms, state agriculture agents and farmers are testing different varieties that have been around at least 50 years.

They have colorful names such as Red Brandywine, Eva Purple Ball, and Mortgage Lifter. Unlike the hybrid red, round tomatoes that are the mainstays at most supermarkets, heirlooms are softer because they have thinner, more fragile skins. They come in different colors and shapes and are not necessarily pleasing to the eye. They may only last three or four days.

“They split open and crack,” Gary Donaldson, a farmer in Mansfield Township, N.J., who has grown about 30 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, tells the Associated Press. “They have big scars on them. They look ugly, but they taste good.”

Mr. Donaldson says customers don’t grumble about the looks of the tomatoes or their $2.99-a-pound price tag, which is about twice what he charges for tomatoes that are little more than synthetics compared to the older varieties.

Mr. Rabin says his office has been sponsoring tomato-tasting booths in conjunction with wine-tasting events at different locations, and they have been a hit. “There were 600 people crowded around our tomato-tasting booth at one recent show.”

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