“Colonel Johnson has raised the love apple to his lips. He’s bitten into it! He’s eating it with evident relish. He’s taken another bite. The crowd is open-mouthed with astonishment. They can’t believe their eyes. They’re waiting, waiting for the poison of a deadly tomato to take effect, to strike Colonel Johnson dead on the spot. But the Colonel is still very much alive. He’s taken another love apple out of Mr. McCullough’s basket. He’s bitten into that one!” The crowd breaks into cacophony. Shouts and screams overwhelm the reporter’s commentary. Amidst the hullaballoo and wonderment, a strained voice can be heard shouting, “And the crowd is breaking into tears, tears for Colonel Johnson!” As the fireman’s band begins to play, the reporter regains his platform, “And Colonel Johnson still goes on eating those tomatoes, biting into them with great satisfaction and relish. And the thing which nobody thought was possible has come to pass right here before our eyes.”
The historical tomato, known commonly as the “love apple” or “wolf peach,” was considered by many to be poisonous. This explains the curiosity and disbelief many posed when learning that a prominent citizen of Salem, New Jersey, Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson, had announced that he would eat a tomato on the local courthouse steps on September 26, 1820—making him the first person in the United States to do so. At least that is how it was presented at 2:30 PM on the Sunday afternoon of January 30, 1949, when CBS aired its “You Are There” reenactment of the historic occasion. TV and radio personality John Daly played the part of Chief Correspondent. There was only one problem: the story was hogwash.
In 1908, future publisher of the Salem Standard & Jerseyman William Chew reported in his Salem County Handbook that in 1820, “Col. Robert G. Johnson brought the first tomatoes to Salem in this year. At that time, this vegetable was considered unfit for use by the masses.” Oral histories dating back to the late 1880s corroborated the notion that Johnson introduced tomatoes to Salem. The story that seemed plausible in 1908, however, devolved into an outright fabrication by 1949. Between these two bookends, no less than five authors expanded and embellished the tale, adding fictitious details and dialogue to bring the story to life.
By the time of the CBS broadcast, Joseph Sickler, who published two highly different accounts of the story, was considered an authority and hired as “historical consultant” for the production. In his second version, published in 1949, Sickler recounted that in 1820, “Johnson mounted the flat stone step of the courthouse and turned in scorn on the crowd. ‘Here,’ he said, ‘I’ll show you dumb blankety-blank fools these things are good to eat. What are you afraid of? Being poisoned? Well I’m not, and I’ll show you I’m not.’” Sickler may have increased the story’s entertainment factor for CBS, but his so-called “authority” stemmed not from any due diligence done on his part, but by mere association with the tale.
Historian Andrew F. Smith has extensively documented the Johnson-tomato legend’s historiography. In exploring possible reasons for the surge in erroneous embellishment, Smith suggests that Sickler’s personal motivation is worthy of note. Joseph Sickler was a newspaper reporter, state assemblyman, and amateur historian. He was appointed postmaster for Salem in 1933, but was removed from this position in 1948 amidst “a cloud of suspicion involving the misappropriation of funds.” Shortly after the CBS broadcast, Sickler stated that it was a plug “for our Salem and for me.” The broadcast gave him “national acclaim as preserver of the story.” Thus, Smith believes Sickler engineered his part in the broadcast as a means to gain national fame or at the very least “restore his local reputation.”
Sickler’s second version of the story, published the same year of the CBS broadcast, is revealing. He concludes that when Colonel Johnson sunk his teeth into the tomatoes, he launched “a new and mammoth tomato industry.” The New Jersey tomato industry had been in development for over a century, made prolific in particular by the canning industry, the establishment of Campbell’s Soup Company in 1869 in Camden, New Jersey, and the invention of condensed soup by Dr. John T. Dorrance in 1897. These are the usual suspects in tomato history. Nevertheless, a newer and still unassociated development may have been at the forefront of Sickler’s mind when expanding and embellishing the Johnson-tomato legend. This was the creation of the Jersey Tomato.
Anyone who has tasted the juicy “sweet-tart” flavor of a Jersey tomato understands its well-deserved claim to fame. The classic Jersey tomato is much more a cultural construct, historically spearheaded by plant scientists at Rutgers, than a specific type of tomato. Its creation is a combination of genetics, sandy-acidic soil, a humid climate, and growing and harvesting techniques prominent in the Garden State. No “Jersey” variety appears in seed catalogues. Unlike the uncontrolled breeding of heirlooms, the classic Jersey tomato is a hybrid, bred by seed companies or in laboratories like those of Rutgers University. A title reserved for nondescript, red, round tomatoes, the first variety to reach the gold standard of “Jersey” status was the Rutgers.
In 1928, Campbell’s Soup Company crossed two leading tomato varieties, Marglobe and JTD (named for the aforesaid condensed soup creator). One year later, Rutgers professor and plant breeder Lyman Schermerhorn selected the best plants from the Campbell’s cross and spent six years crossbreeding and field testing until, in 1934, the most superior selection was released as the “Rutgers” tomato. A “general use” fruit good for both local processing and fresh markets, the Rutgers quickly rose to international fame for its sweet tangy flavor. Jack Rabin, Associate Director of Rutgers’ New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station, says, “Through the 1940s and early ‘50s, it grew to become the number one tomato in the world.”
Why did it disappear? The Interstate Highway System signaled the death knell of the Jersey tomato’s golden age. By enabling produce to be trucked longer distances, genetic engineers responded to changed demands by producing tomatoes with thicker skins and tougher walls. Shipping quality, shelf life and cosmetics became the new criteria by which tomatoes were judged. North Carolina State University breeder Randy Gardner created a high-yielding, crack-resistant variety that by the 1990s was the East Coast standard. Finally, the mechanical harvester took reign in California. Jersey tomatoes like the Rutgers, bred for immediate, local consumption, were too soft to make it through this machine. As the industry gravitated elsewhere, principally to markets in Florida, California, and Mexico, the chief casualty in the transition was flavor. In its stead were tomatoes that were picked green, gassed with ethylene, and refrigerated for shipping, leaving their “taste” akin to something like cardboard.
In reaction to the decline in quality products, the Garden State began several initiatives to support locally-produced food. In 1984 the New Jersey Department of Agriculture initiated the Jersey Fresh campaign. Amidst grassroots calls for a return to flavor, Rutgers’ New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station began the Rediscovering the Jersey Tomato project around 2008. As part of its mission, scientists have worked to provide seeds for four varieties that harken back to the old time Jersey flavor. These are the Moreton, KC-146, Ramapo, and as of early 2016, the Rutgers 250—renamed in honor of the school’s sestercentennial. Dr. Tom Orton, Professor and Extension Specialist at Rutgers, says, “The purpose of the Rutgers 250 celebration is to have us look back and appreciate what has come before us and what has made us what we are today.”
Local pride has always been integral to the Jersey tomato culture. Could this pride have been on the mind of Joseph Sickler when championing his mythic story of Colonel Johnson’s tomato consumption? Sickler first legitimized and popularized the legend in 1937 with his published history of Salem County. The ascendance in 1934 of the vine-ripened Rutgers, which came to define an industry and coin a civic term, was still in its heyday when the CBS “You Are There” broadcast aired in 1949. To complement Andrew Smith’s assertion that Sickler’s motivation was, in part, “to restore his local reputation,” what better way to do so than to appeal to local culinary pride, manifested most assiduously in the Rutgers tomato?
If genetics, soil types, climate, and cultivation techniques all comprise the Jersey tomato concept, so too does the local culture that seeks to develop and embrace it. Though a myth, the Johnson-tomato legend is a testament to the enduring tomato culture in New Jersey. If Sickler used the Rutgers’ popularity to support his own goals, perhaps he unintentionally returned the favor by giving the Jersey tomato a legend from which to grow. If you’ve never tasted a Jersey tomato, take a summertime trip to the Garden State to see what all the fuss is about. You won’t regret it. Its luscious flavor may just bring you back to that day in Salem, when Colonel Johnson stood proud on the courthouse steps and never actually ate a love apple.
Andrew F. Smith, “The Making of the Legend of Robert Gibbon Johnson and the Tomato,” in New Jersey History, vol. 108 (1990): 59-74.
Andrew F. Smith, The Tomato in America: Early History, Culture, and Cookery, Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1994.
Marc Mappen, “Man Eats Tomato and Lives!” in There’s More to New Jersey than the Sopranos, New Brunswick, NJ: Rivergate Books, 2009, 62-66.