It’s hard to imagine, but what if there were no ripe juicy Jersey tomatoes in your grocery store or farmers market? The man who proved they were safe to eat was a New Jersey man, Col. Robert Gibbon Johnson.

Believe it or not, there was a time when the tomato was considered to be poisonous and unfit for human consumption. According to History 101, when the tomato first made its way to England, the first man to cultivate it, John Gerard, decided since the tomato contained tomatine, a poisonous chemical, it shouldn’t be eaten.

While the tomato does contain tomatine, it is in too small a quantity to be dangerous. Still, when the tomato arrived in the Colonies, it was strictly an ornamental plant.

This is where Col. Johnson, a noted horticulturist, comes in.

He had introduced the tomato to the region; according to the (disputed) legend, on June 28, 1820, Col. Johnson ascended the steps of the Salem County courthouse and addressed a crowd estimated to be about 2,000 people about the virtues and history of the tomato.

He then picked up a tomato from the basketful next to him and took a bite; legend has it that a woman screamed. There was a physician on stand-by just in case.

Well, of course, Col. Johnson didn’t die; in fact, he continued to eat tomatoes on the courthouse steps, proving they were safe to eat.

Because of Col. Johnson’s exhibition, the tomato became a popular crop in South Jersey and it proved to be quite a hit, especially in Philadelphia, and its renown grew from there.

It was refined at Rutgers University and that version of the Jersey tomato had 60% of the commercial market in the U.S. during the twentieth century. As you enjoy one of New Jersey’s most loved crops this summer, thank Col. Johnson for (according to lore) popularizing the fruit.

The post above reflects the thoughts and observations of New Jersey 101.5 talk show host Bill Doyle. Any opinions expressed are Bill Doyle's own.

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