In 1820, Robert Gibbon Johnson shocked a crowd at the Salem County Courthouse by chomping down on a basket of tomatoes, proving to spectators that the so-called ornamental fruits were not poisonous.
The story is a New Jersey legend. It’s also probably fiction, according to journalist Fred Rossi of Scotch Plains, who tells the tale in his new book, “Jersey Stories: Stories you may not have heard about people and events in New Jersey history.”
“There were a few surprising things I learned about the Jersey tomato, and tomatoes in general, when researching the chapter on the legend of Robert Gibbon Johnson,” said Rossi. “First was that the story was not really true but was kept alive for more than a century after he was said to have shown that tomatoes were safe to eat. I also was not aware that the U.S. Supreme Court had weighed in more than a hundred years ago on the question of whether the tomato is a fruit or a vegetable. And I also discovered what sets the Jersey tomato apart from other tomatoes.”
As for the belief that a tomato could kill you — it wasn’t quite so popular as legend would have it.
“Yes, tomatoes were widely believed to be poisonous or an aphrodisiac until the early 1800s, but that belief was not universal,” said Rossi. “There were stories that some of the Founding Fathers had tomatoes in their gardens and I’m sure the Native Americans also partook.”
Rossi doesn’t actually care for tomatoes, but he grows them anyway.
“I’ve been a gardener since I was in high school, and I usually grow herbs, string beans, beets, peas, cucumbers and, of course, tomatoes,” Rossi said. “While I don't eat tomatoes, I do enjoy growing them just to see how big I can get the plants and how nice a crop I can get that I then give away or use to make sauces.”
“Jersey Stories” dives into some other great bits of Garden State history, including the surprisingly normal childhood of Addams Family creator Charles Addams in Westfield; Mundy Peterson, a Perth Amboy resident who was the first African-American to cast a legal vote in the U.S.; what it was like to be Albert Einstein’s neighbor in Princeton; and how teenage Bruce Springsteen got his high school band into a Bricktown recording studio.
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