Proust had his cookie of choice, and Citizen Kane had that subtext-loaded sled, but New Yorkers who like to eat have an equally potent—and, with all due respect to the madeleine, much more satisfying—totem for their summertimes. That would be the Jersey tomato, tentpole star of farmers’ markets from Cape May to Riverdale and dear friend of lazy home chefs everywhere: slice; dust with salt; drizzle with olive oil; feel like Mario Batali, minus the unfortunate ponytail and Crocs. This year’s weather has led to an uncommonly strong crop, but then (with the exception of blight-blighted 2009) seemingly every summer is a good one for Jersey Beefsteaks. They’re delicious, sure, but their power lies in their fleeting availability. They taste like summer. And then they are gone.
Or so it used to be: With increasing frequency, the New Jersey Department of Agriculture’s Jersey Fresh logo is turning up on canned tomatoes. The offerings range from the boutiquey Jersey Farms Crushed Tomatoes—found at Chelsea Market, and topping pasta at Le Cirque—to the more generic Jersey Fresh Crushed Tomatoes, which can be had for around two bucks at North Jersey supermarkets. The fancier brand naturally has the more unassuming packaging, but the preserved produce under Jersey Farms’ plain brown wrapper and Jersey Fresh’s more familiar here-is-a-lot-of-red label is virtually the same. Superficially, this seems like a boon: So long as you are not afflicted with nightshade allergies, having access to more Jersey tomatoes is a good thing. It’s also good for the farmers of Gloucester, Salem, and Cumberland Counties, for whom tomatoes are a livelihood (the Garden State’s tomato economy was worth around $32.4 million in 2010, according to the USDA). But for diehard tomato-worshipping partisans, there’s something confounding and a little bit wrong about August in a can.
Is there an aspect of silly ingratitude in this resistance? Undoubtedly, and doubly so given that the Jersey Fresh Crushed Tomatoes I sampled were a satisfying brick-red color and unsurprisingly delicious, and every bit as good as a fresh-off-the-boat can of San Marzanos. (“There is no tomato in this country or in Italy that’s as good as the New Jersey tomato,” Colavita founder and Staten Island native John Profaci Sr. told the New York Times. “There’s nothing that can match it overall.”) Still, there’s a melancholy aftertaste to canned Jersey tomatoes, some unmistakable notes of gloom amid the characteristic sweetness. Locavorism, for all its virtues, often seems more a balm for the psyche than the taste buds—there may be earnest potatophiles who can tell Long Island spuds from their Idaho cousins, but for most of us the gustatory differences are slight. But Jersey tomatoes actually are singular. Their terroir comes not from soil but from the backyard or roof-deck tables where they are enjoyed, before climate and a reversion to careerism push life back indoors. New Yorkers can get fresh trucked direct to their apartments anytime, but Jersey tomatoes are an effortless pleasure that visits for only a few warm, wonderful weeks per year. It feels sad to see them hunkered in cans as summer fades. Even if those cans may have their own allure come mid-February.