Produce Pete: Talking Tomatoes

Local fruit and vegetable expert on what makes locally grown Jersey tomatoes so great.

Produce Pete
Produce Pete and Katie Donaldson at Donaldson Farms’ farm market in Hackettstown. Photo courtesy of Pete Napolitano

Jersey tomatoes are what my family built their business on. When I was a kid growing up in Bergen County, my father would go to the farms, buy the tomatoes, and we’d peddle them door to door. Later, when my family was running Napolitano’s Produce in Bergenfield, we’d go to the Newark market on Sunday nights to pick up our produce from farmers who would bring tomatoes and other crops they’d grown. I was always amazed by the way the tomato farmers would drive up the New Jersey Turnpike in rack body trucks with their tomatoes in peach baskets stacked maybe 10 high—they literally had hundreds of open baskets on their trucks but would never lose one tomato as they drove.

Back then the tomatoes were different varieties, and while they didn’t necessarily always look good, they ate great. Today, we want them to look pretty, last for weeks, and stay hard. In my opinion, that’s not a tomato, that’s a baseball!

The key to a great tomato is leaving them on the vine until they reach maturity. At Napolitano’s Produce, we’d sell 700 to 800 25-pound baskets of Jersey tomatoes a week to people who came from miles around for their great taste. The farmers we bought from grew the best tomatoes, and to this day, I still remember that special taste. Tomatoes have always been my favorite and I would go 100 miles to find a good one!

Let’s Talk Tomatoes

A member of the nightshade family, tomatoes originated in South America but didn’t become popular in the U.S. until after the Civil War. Today, over 150 years later, the tomato is the third most popular vegetable in America, after potatoes and lettuce (though tomatoes are technically a fruit). The classic Jersey tomato is a beefsteak variety, which offers the perfect balance of sweetness and acidity thanks to New Jersey’s optimal soil and climate conditions.

Good tomatoes are sweet, tender, juicy, and rich in color, but beginning in the 1950s, hybrids were developed so that they could be more easily shipped from coast to coast without bruising. Though the scientists and businessmen who developed these hybrid tomatoes were successful in increasing their shelf life, they unfortunately bred out all the flavor.

It’s better to get locally grown tomatoes at great Garden State outlets like Donaldson Farms in Hackettstown, a 600-acre, family-owned farm that’s been in business for over a century.

“We grow at least 30 varieties of tomatoes, including Jersey, heirloom, cherry, low-acid, plum, green tomatoes, and so many more,” shared Katie Donaldson, whose farm (owned by her husband Greg, his siblings and their parents) features a farm market, agritourism activities, a nursery and greenhouse, and a wholesale operation that serves a network of grocery stores and markets. “Our tomatoes have been available since mid-July and will run through the first hard frost in late October/early November, especially our heirlooms, which are grown in high tunnels to protect them from the elements,” she said.

“Jersey tomatoes deserve all the praise they get,” Donaldson confirmed. “Nothing beats a fresh, red Jersey tomato picked right off the vine, often that day or within 24 hours. “With their perfect color, texture, and richness, they’re just bursting with flavor.”

Some of the 30+ varieties of tomatoes available at Donaldson Farms in Hackettstown. Photo courtesy of Pete Napolitano
Produce Pete
Produce Pete inspects a tomato plant at a New Jersey farm. Photo courtesy of Pete Napolitano
Photo courtesy of Pete Napolitano
Produce Pete
Produce Pete discusses tomatoes during a recent segment on NBC Weekend Today in New York. Photo courtesy of Pete Napolitano
Farmers in Swedesboro load up their trucks with tomatoes to bring them to the Newark Farmer’s Market in the 1920s-1930s.Photo courtesy of Pete Napolitano

Rules of the Road

A great tomato is worth looking for, but the way you handle it at home is equally important. The two most important rules to remember about tomatoes are:

—Don’t ripen them on the windowsill or put them in the sun to ripen. Just put tomatoes out on the counter, stem end up, in a relatively cool place—not right next to the stove, dishwasher, etc.

—Don’t ever refrigerate tomatoes, not even after the tomato is ripe, because refrigeration kills their flavor, nutrients and texture. If you’ve got too many ripe tomatoes, make a salad or a raw tomato sauce for pasta; you can even freeze the sauce for use in the winter.

I may be biased, but I think that when in season, the Jersey tomato is the best around. Roughly half of the tomatoes shipped and sold in the U.S. come from Florida and are the ones you find in the store in the winter (along with winter tomatoes out of Mexico, California, Holland, Belgium and Israel, and some hydroponically-grown varieties). In my opinion, these tomatoes are hard and thick, they never turn red and they have no taste.

What happened to tomatoes, you ask? The commercial quest for longevity is what happened, and it undermines the very essence of a delicious ripe tomato. For me, Jersey tomatoes are synonymous with great memories, simple pleasures and the good old days. I’ll never forget helping my father sell produce off the back of his truck as a kid; at lunchtime, he’d pull off to the side of the road, slice some fresh bread, cut up a tomato and an onion, and make tomato sandwiches for us. I still dream of that taste!

September is a great time to buy and enjoy local Jersey tomatoes. Be sure to get your fill of them now—and all the great memories they invoke—because they’ll only be here for another 2-3 months.

About “Produce Pete” Napolitano
With over 65 years of experience in the produce industry, New Jersey’s own “Produce Pete” Napolitano is a renowned fruit and vegetable expert, author, and television personality who’s appeared on a highly-popular segment on NBC’s Weekend Today in New York broadcast every Saturday mornings for over 27 years.  For more information, visit Pete’s website.

About Susan Bloom
A contributor to New Jersey Monthly and a variety of other well-known local and national publications, Susan Bloom is an award-winning New Jersey-based freelance writer who covers topics ranging from health and lifestyle to business, food and more. She’s collaborated with Produce Pete on a broad range of articles for nearly a decade.

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