In search of the perfect Jersey tomato

Maureen Keane displays one of the many beautiful tomatoes that she picked in the Rutgers EcoComplex greenhouse on April 18, 2006.

Few things give me the ongoing pleasure of planting and harvesting a small garden. And over the years, I've come to realize the particular joy of starting from seed instead of gaining an edge from a garden store.

Last season, my lettuce thrived from seeds I purchased at Altomonte's Italian Market. I couldn't read the packaging, but I got several harvests and countless salads. My California sweet peppers were also a hit. My herbs, too, flourished, especially the mint. Only my carrots were a disappointment on account of my planting them in shallow soil. Lesson learned.

This summer, I'm going to try to grow the perfect Jersey tomato in my backyard, albeit on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware. Already for three weeks, I've been nursing vegetable seeds indoors: carrot, cucumber, radish, and peppers. But it's the four types of tomato seeds I'm most excited about, especially the one called the Rutgers 250, a development of the Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station, the research and outreach arm of the State University of New Jersey.

The Rutgers 250 is the result of years of effort to re-create the original strain of the quintessential Jersey tomato, which had lost its edge in recent decades.

"There was a process that happened as agriculture has been modernized and perishable produce ceased to become kind of a local thing," explained Thomas Orton, a professor in Rutgers' department of plant biology and pathology. "It became more of something that was shipped in from long distance and to the supermarkets, and was available year round, which is a nice thing, but during the summertime when we can grow things locally, those things kind of got squeezed out.

"To compete, a lot of the local commercial growers moved to the varieties that were being used at long distances that were bred to be able to be shipped," he added. "In other words, they were kind of hard and tasteless, and so, over time, the flavor got squeezed out of the picture."

Orton told me that researchers set out to re-create the variety called the "Rutgers," which was released in the 1930s and remained popular through the 1950s. But where this prized tomato was bred jointly by Rutgers University and Campbell's, the university had no remains from the process.

Then came a discovery, in 2010, that the germ plasm from the classic Rutgers tomato had been preserved in Campbell's temperature-controlled California vaults, raising the possibility of re-creating the cross of the original Rutgers tomato, or an improved version of it. After a few years of experimentation that winnowed the selections, the field was narrowed to three in 2015, and after consumer taste tests, the final selection was chosen. The debut last year coincided with the university's 250th anniversary, so it was dubbed the Rutgers 250. Which is one variety I'm now hoping to sprout in trays in my family room before moving them outside.

"We wanted to re-create the 'Rutgers' using the original sources of seeds, the same parents that were used to introduce the 1934 original," Orton said. "But we wanted to put a modern spin on it and kind of capture the flavor, but with a better package for growers so they could reap the benefits of things like disease resistance and higher yield and that sort of thing.

"There were two parents that were used to create the 1934 version of Rutgers," he said. "One was JTD, which stands for John T. Dorrance, who was the inventor of condensed soup for Campbell's, and the other one was called Marglobe, a leading variety developed by the USDA. They're both kind of like heirloom varieties. And those were the ones that were maintained in the vault by Campbell.

"We obtained those and we made a hybrid between those and then we went through a program to sift through the genes using traditional breeding to combine all of the positive traits from JTD and Marglobe into a new version of Rutgers. Today, most seed companies would use molecular biology to help, to move that process along, but we decided . . . to do it the old-fashioned way, just so that we'd have something . . . that was pure - from the standpoint of not only did it use the same original parents but also the same process to get to the end point."

Demand for Rutgers 250 seeds, which have been sold via the web, continues to outpace supply.

"The general reaction was extremely positive," Orton said, "much more positive than I ever could have imagined because one of the problems with flavor perception is that everybody is different."

And here's the best part: If all goes according to plan, those of us who are growing the Rutgers 250 will be able to do so in perpetuity. Orton said most commercially purchased seeds are hybrids and will not breed true to the original seed source. But the Rutgers 250 is an open pollinated variety, which means that if gardeners want to save their own seeds, they can do that "just the same way as your great-grandparents did in the 1800s," he said.

To do so, it's important to remove the seeds and let them sit for a couple of days so that the jelly gets fermented off. (Otherwise, there is an inhibitor that will prevent the seeds from germinating the next year.) Then put the seeds in a jar with desiccant and store in the refrigerator until the following season.

Happy growing.

Michael Smerconish can be heard 9 a.m. to noon on SiriusXM's POTUS Channel 124. He hosts "Smerconish" at 9 a.m. Saturdays on CNN.

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