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  Mike's Gardening Tips

IS There a TRUE "Jersey Tomato"?!

Q. For years I've been growing wonderful tomatoes in my NJ garden and bringing them into the office in Philadelphia: Arkansas Traveler, Ozark Pink, Cherokee Purple, Black Krim, Brandywine...the kinds of tomatoes I hope to be eating in heaven if they screw up their records and let me in.

My 'question': A fellow I know says he 'remembers the true "Jersey Tomato" taste' of a variety grown by the neighbor of a friend in Wildwood that he says was called "Jersey tomato". I've tried to explain to him that there is no "Jersey tomato" among the 43,261 varieties listed in the Seed Savers Exchange. Yet, I have to admit that I exactly understand the taste he's referring to. I've grown and relished it. But the seeds I used--from an 'off-brand' seed company--were just labeled "beefsteak", as if that explained anything. Any ideas?
---Ward Dasey; Medford, NJ.

A. I grew up in a sea of row homes near Bridge & Torresdale (not exactly in either 'Bridesburg' or 'Frankford'; in fact, no neighborhood claimed our block). Every summer day "the huckster" came through, singing his song from the back of a truck: "Jersey Tomatoes, three pounds for a half a dollar, Jersey Tomatoes. Sweeeeet Corn! Sillllvvveeer Queen; Sweet Corn; white corn; Silver Queen") Cannnn't-Elope! Jerrrrrsey Tomatoes...."

Those "Jerseys" were grown in Jersey, for the hundreds of hucksters who sailed daily through the city's streets in summer (along with Mr. Softee, wadder ice trucks, and Carnival Rides on Wheels, like The Whip). The 'sweet corn' WAS "Silver Queen"--but so many people simply called it "white corn" (which we all agreed was much sweeter than yellow, whether it was or not) that "white corn" meant "Silver Queen" for many years.

The Jersey Tomatoes I saw on these trucks looked like Big Boys--a variety so popular it's what some people called every big tomato they saw. But this variety doesn't normally have what most of us think of as a "Beefsteak" shape (large and oblong). Most Big Boys are medium-large, round 'slicers'. Nonetheless, people in my neighborhood CALLED these 'Jersey tomatoes' "Beefsteaks". It was a synonym for a 'sandwich tomato'. So let's call Big Boy Bachelor #1.

Bachelor #2: There IS a 'Jersey tomato': Rutgers, bred in la Jardin State! It's also a slicer (like the "Jerseys" of me yout'). And George Ball, the head of Burpee seeds, once told me it was THE tomato grown throughout Jersey in the 1950s. Do you recall a 'juicy' flavor? That's Rutgers.

Bachelors #3 through 8: The Tomato Grower's Supply Co. catalog (1-888-478-7333) DOES have a tomato simply called "Beefsteak" in its "Beefsteak varieties" section. They say it's also known as Red Ponderosa (which I've heard of) and Crimson Cushion (which sounds like an exotic dancer). Those names are likely listed in Seed Savers (www.seedsavers.org). TGSC also lists a "Ball's Beefsteak" (from the old Ball seed company?), Beefmaster, and Super Beefsteak ("Look! Up in the vines!")

Bachelor #9: The Totally Tomatoes catalog (www.totallytomato.com) has what is likely a different "Beefsteak". It's listed as "80 days to maturity" (the time from six week old plants to first fruits), while TGSC's is 96 days--a VERY long wait! (Think about it: You put the plants out June 1st...the kids are practically back in school!).

So that's your mission this summer, should you choose to accept it: Nine varieties. One man. One mouth. One mystery.

"Of course, should you or any of your Jersey Tomato Force be cat-faced or illed, the Secretary of Agriculture will disavow any knowledge of your actions. Good luck, Jim."

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