Festomato! organizer Nagisa Manabe with a melon grown on her River Stoan Farm.

On a cold, gray, rainy day last March Nagisa Manabe had an idea: why not create a celebration of the tomato? After all, the colorful tomato is the iconic New Jersey vegetable, and there really is nothing like it when picked fresh off the vine. And while many people might have had such a wishful idea, Manabe is one of the few, if not the only one, who could actually pull off such a celebration in Princeton. And that’s why there will be a Festomato! in Hinds Plaza on Saturday, Sept. 7, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

This is a tomato celebration that literally goes beyond bounds. There will be a tomato tasting featuring 50 organically grown varieties outside on the plaza and lectures inside the Princeton Public Library; there will be cooking demonstrations and a canning workshop; there will be activities for children; there will be dining samples featuring new tomato based recipes such as tomato jam and tomato sorbet; there will be a tomato-based alternative to tuna called Ahimi (you have to taste it to believe it); and much, much more.

So, how was Manabe able to pull this off in less than six months? First she had to convince the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Jersey (NOFA-NJ), where she serves on the board of directors, that it was a good idea. That wasn’t difficult: In the late 1980s NOFA-NJ had sponsored a tomato-featured cooperative that closed after a few years because demand outstripped supply. More recently, it has been a close partner with the Princeton Public Library’s Environmental Film Festival.

Second, she had to ensure that a site was available, and NOFA-NJ’s involvement with the library made Hinds Plaza an obvious choice. Kim Dorman, the library’s community engagement coordinator, quickly agreed. “Food literacy is part of the library’s mission,” Dorman explains, “and we have a shared sense of stewardship with NOFA-NJ and its emphasis on the importance of sustainability.” Festomato! is the library’s first signature event featuring food.

Third, sponsors were needed. NOFA-NJ board president Stephanie Harris, owner of the organic Stonehedge farm in Hopewell, touched base with Princeton residents Gordon Douglas and Sheila Mahoney, two of the founders and major funders of the Princeton University’s Princeton Studies Food program. The two felt the event was an excellent example of furthering that program’s mission to connect with the community. Food, they feel, is the best way to bring people together as it is the nexus of major water consumption and environmental problems facing humanity.

NOFA-NJ Executive Director Adrian Hyde, a Princeton resident and owner of Hopewell’s organic Dunwald Farm, joined Manabe in asking the Whole Earth Center and McCaffrey’s to also sign on as sponsors. Both grocery stores, long time supporters of local agriculture, readily agreed and will be present at the event.

Contacting local businesses and organizations comes naturally to Manabe as she grew up in Princeton, moving here as a five-year-old in 1968 when her father joined the university’s Geophysical Dynamics Laboratory as a senior research meteorologist. There, Syukuro Manabe pioneered in the use of computers to simulate global climate change. After assignments in his native Japan, he returned to Princeton and currently serves as a senior meteorologist for the Program in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences.

While attending Princeton public schools, Manabe not only enjoyed but appreciated her mother’s culinary preparation and presentation skills. Nobuko Manabe is a member of the Omotesenke School of Tea and has taught Japanese cooking classes at the Princeton Adult School, among her many activities. Manabe credits her mother for introducing her to the pleasure of fine dining.

Well aware of the skills involved, Manabe decided to enroll in a Paris cooking school. With a degree from Yale and several years under her belt as an analyst at Morgan Stanley, she took a four-year intermission and earned a Diplome d’Etude Culinaires from La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine. She returned to the U.S. to earn an MBA at Harvard’s Graduate School of Business and then spend almost 20 years in marketing positions for various companies. Her tastiest job, in this writer’s opinion, was as head of marketing and product development for Godiva North America. She also made time during the past 11 years to become the majority owner of the Simply Yoga studio in Kingston. She still serves as a senior instructor at the studio and is a familiar name to residents throughout the area.

She really, really likes fresh food. “There’s nothing better than eating produce from your backyard or patio,” she says. What is it with this super organized, exceptionally friendly, thoughtful, and personable woman? Not content with her marketing jobs and her yoga instruction, she convinced her husband, Oscar Schofield, a distinguished professor and chair of Rutgers’ Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences, that they should go beyond a backyard or patio growing area and establish an organic fruit, vegetable, and egg farm.

In 2014 the two bought a 3.9-acre former goat farm in Kingston and named it River Stoan farm. There are lots of stones on the property as it was a river bed in ancient times, and while the word “stoan” is a Middle English alternative spelling for “stone,” in Manabe’s case it consists of her family’s initials: Samantha (daughter), Tobias (son), Oscar (husband), Allegra (daughter), and Nagisa.

Neither Schofield nor Manabe had ever farmed before. “I was often the brunt of family jokes,” she reports, “because I killed any plant that was left in my care.” But they were fortunate in having many friends and in Manabe’s case yoga students who were avid vegetable growers. Manabe also enrolled in the numerous and varied classes provided by NOFA-NJ throughout the year. She joined the organization last year and became a board member this past January. “They chose me for my marketing skills,” she readily admits, “and not for my farming expertise.”

She hopes that her experience as a teenage destroyer of plants and now as a successful organic farmer will show others, as NOFA-NJ believes, that organic gardening is both a feasible and flavorsome path not only for small operations but also for home owners to enrich diets and health.

Indeed, the underlying theme of Festomato! is to further a deeper appreciation for our area’s regional farms as well as to increase food literacy. While Manabe’s March idea has led to Festomato!’s exuberant celebration, she emphasizes many times that other members of the planning group have been crucial in making it possible. For example, Princeton resident Kim Rizk, owner of Nassau Street’s Jammin’ Crepes, which relies heavily on produce from local farms, drew on her contacts to convince regional farmers – Abe’s Acres Farm, Cherry Grove Farm, Cherry Valley Farm, Chickadee Creek Farm, and Muth Family Farm – to participate in the event by offering samples of and selling over four dozen different tomatoes, the vast majority not available elsewhere.

Festomato! will also have seed saving classes, tomato preserving demonstrations, and a garden doctor booth open from noon until 3 p.m. At various times there will be blues music, American roots music, and a string band. And a dozen Princeton-area restaurants will be tempting passersby with tasty tomato treats from their kitchens. A full schedule and the times for various activities is on the event’s website. It promises to be a fun, educational, appetizing day, rain or shine. There will be a tent outside and many classes held in the Library’s Community Room. While March rains are supposed to lead to April showers, in this case they have been the catalyst for a terrific, delicious occasion open to the entire region.

Festomato! Hinds Plaza, 65 Witherspoon Street. Saturday, September 7 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. www.nofanj.org/event/festomato.

Fruit or vegetable?

Botanically speaking, the tomato is a fruit since it is formed from the mature ovary of a flowering seed plant. It is called a vegetable because the U.S. Supreme Court said so. That pronouncement was made in 1893, when fruits were exempt from import duties and vegetables subjected to a 10 percent tax. Seeking to protect their market from outside growers, American tomato farmers argued that the tomato was a vegetable and should be hit with an import tax.

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed. In writing the decision in Nix v. Hedden, Associate Justice Horace Gray noted: “Botanically speaking tomatoes are the fruit of the vine … But in common language … tomatoes are vegetables which are usually served at dinner with the principal part of the repast and not like fruits generally, as a dessert.”

With the tomato legally classified as a vegetable, imported tomatoes became too expensive, and local growers went on to reap profits without foreign competition. The Supreme Court ruling still stands, though the vegetable tariffs no longer exist, especially since the passage of the North America Free Trade Agreement.

Tomatoes are not part of the current trade war between the U.S. and China. When the tomato was introduced to China in the 1500s its Chinese name translated as “barbarian eggplant.” Today China is home to 32 percent of world tomato production, ranking it first among all countries. Nary a one of those tomatoes is exported to the U.S., taking these legally designated vegetables off the trade conflict plate.

The return of the Rutgers Tomato

For all intents and purposes, the Rutgers tomato — once the most popular tomato variety in the world — did not exist 20 years ago. This was a plant originally developed by Campbell Soup scientists in 1928 and then refined and introduced in 1934 by Rutgers professor Lyman Schermerhorn. It featured lots of juicy flavor and a perfect balance of acidity and sweetness.

Though the Plant Patent Act had been introduced in 1930, there never were any steps taken to patent the Rutgers tomato. That meant the plant could be and was modified beyond recognition but still had the familiar Rutgers name. The modifications did not eliminate two significant drawbacks: the newer Rutgers tomatoes remained unsuitable for mechanical harvesting or long-haul distribution, qualities needed to provide canning and processing factories and grocery store produce throughout the year. Other tomato varieties did provide such traits while slowly extinguishing flavor.

Rutgers is believed to be the only land grant university that seeks to develop plants suitable for both the home gardener and the small scale farmer rather than primarily furthering the interests of large scale, commercial farming. Its work is generally conducted through its New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station in New Brunswick. With this in mind, two Rutgers researchers — plant biology professor and extension specialist Tom Orton and Cooperative Extension agent Pete Nitzsche — were immediately responsive to a 2010 call from Campbell Soup. Long thought to have disappeared, it turned out that Campbell Soup had preserved the parent seeds of the original Rutgers tomato in a temperature-controlled vault. Would Rutgers be interested in bringing back that old tomato flavor and adaptability to small scale gardening? Of course it would.

“It took five years,” Orton says. “Working with the parent seeds, we cross-pollinated and grew plants at the Rutgers Snyder Research Farm in Pittstown. Each year we winnowed the selection by choosing those with the documented attributes of the original Rutgers tomato.” Taste tests were conducted yearly and in summer, 2015, three finalists were offered in several New Jersey locations. The winner was named Rutgers 250 and introduced in 2016, Rutgers’ 250th anniversary.

“We believe it has all the juiciness, flavor, and taste of the original,” Orton says. “It certainly has a rich red color and a skin that is not heavy but which does not bruise easily. In addition, it need not be eaten at once but can sit on a counter for several days when you find you have bought or harvested too many.” Both seeds and plants sell out quickly. Sources can be found at www.breeding.rutgers.edu/tomato-availability. Better yet, Professor Orton will be distributing free organic Rutgers 250 seeds at the close of his Festomato! lecture, currently scheduled for noon in the library’s Community Room.