It all started when Theresa Viggiano returned to New Jersey to study at Rutgers New Brunswick, where she soon will earn a Ph.D. in sociology. Her specialty is aging and mental health, and she has been doing research in that field at the university’s Institute for Health. Having gone to college and grad school at the universities of Kentucky and Indiana (Purdue-Indianapolis), she says, “I got used to open space and farmers markets. When I came here, I just couldn’t bring myself to live in an urban environment.” So she rented a farmhouse in Griggstown. Because the farm had 100 acres attached, she and her roommates decided to plant a few tomatoes, and eventually found themselves with a successful farm stand on their hands.
Little did Viggiano realize that that move would lead, in seven short years, to a fledgling business, First Field, which makes artisan ketchup from organic New Jersey tomatoes. Nor could she foresee that she would be in partnership with her husband of less than a year, Patrick Leger, a certified financial analyst who is managing partner in Giverny Capital Advisors on Nassau Street in Princeton. Neither grew up in a farming environment — she spent part of her childhood in Morristown and East Windsor, and he lived in Montreal until he was 10 — but with his financial skills and her scientific background, their endeavor is thriving. “I love what I do,” Leger says, “but investing is a solitary pursuit, as is medical research. Gardening and making ketchup takes us both out of ourselves.”
Before opening the Princeton branch of Giverny, which is based in Montreal, Leger worked for Steginsky Capital, also in Princeton, for three years and prior to that was with PricewaterhouseCoopers in New York. He has an MBA from Vanderbilt University and an undergraduate degree from McGill. He is the youngest of three children in a family that he says moved around a lot. His father, a retired electrical engineer in telecommunications, worked for Bell Labs in the 1960s and his mother is a homemaker.
The couple, both in their mid-30s, met in 2005 through an online dating service. “I was in academia, which is not conducive to meeting people,” Viggiano says. To which Leger adds, “We were in two different fields. No longer can anyone rely on just walking down the street and meeting the person you want to spend the rest of your life with. And we’re not really bar people.” At their wedding they served jams, apple butter, and other canned goods that they had put up the year before. Soon after meeting, Viggiano got her future husband hooked on farming, and in no time they had so many tomatoes that even after canning jars and jars of sauce, there were still too many.
Since Leger’s French-Canadian family had for years been making their own ketchup, he thought he’d try adapting the family recipe. “In that part of Canada, using ketchup on many dishes is traditional, including on things like holiday meat pies. But it’s sweeter ketchup than we’re used to here, often using apples as a base.”
They began by learning the science of preserving and making shelf-stable products. “Canning is a scary process,” Viggiano says. “It took us a year to feel secure. We made many trips to Lancaster County to consult with the Amish to learn about things like hot pack and cold pack. We got the USDA guide. Even so, you have to take into account that the pH — the acidity level of tomatoes — can change from the beginning of harvest season to the end.” One important lesson they learned, she says, is that if you know the source of your ingredients and you use good science, safety can be assured, especially with a naturally high-acid product like ketchup. Heinz, for example, has all their tomatoes grown for them, enabling them to use an unsealed plastic screw-top on their famous squeeze bottles.
Leger and Viggiano began experimenting with recipes, using different types of organic tomatoes and playing with the amount of vinegar, sugar, onion, spices, salt, and canola oil, which now comprise the totality of the ingredients in what is First Field Original Jersey Ketchup. It is sold in eight-ounce jars at the Whole Earth Center in Princeton and can be ordered by E-mail via the business’s website, www.first-field.com.
In the early days they conducted taste tests on friends, cousins, other grad students — “anyone we could get our hands on,” says Leger. Their aim was neither to make a gourmet ketchup nor an organic version of Heinz, which they acknowledge has come to define the taste profile of ketchup in the U.S.
They call their approach “seed to spoon,” which includes growing as many ingredients as they can. They also want to bring the “sweet and savory” taste of New Jersey tomatoes back into ketchup. Hence, less sugar — and certainly nothing trendy like agave syrup — and only locally grown organic tomatoes. In addition to the traditional “paste” tomatoes, Romas and San Marzanos, these include sweeter Jersey varieties, such as Rutgers or Ramapos. “Whatever Rutgers comes out with, we give a try,” says Leger. The couple currently grows about 200 tomato plants from seed, often certified organic, seeking out those that do well in the local climate.
As part of their research Viggiano and Leger uncovered a dissertation called “The History of Ketchup,” which claims that tomatoes for the original Heinz ketchup were grown in Bridgeton. “We are tapping into this important part of New Jersey history. No other ketchup is being made in the state today,” Viggiano says. After her early years in New Jersey, her family, which includes three other siblings, moved to California and Boston because her father, now retired, was vice president in chemical engineering with PepsiCo and Breyers, among others. Her mother has always worked for blood banks and is currently quality control officer for one in Pittsburgh. But her dad grew up in Jersey City, where his Italian mother always kept a vegetable garden and fruit trees, and this is where Viggiano’s love of farming and tradition stems from.
Once Viggiano and Leger had settled on a recipe, the next step was to find a health department-approved kitchen. “We asked around at restaurants but no one had space,” recalls Leger. “At the time, the culinary school of Elijah’s Promise (the New Brunswick-based non-profit that provides culinary education to underserved communities) was just starting their farm-to-table series. We arranged a barter: they wanted us to teach their people how to can and preserve and we could use the kitchen on weekends. They became instrumental in our start-up. They were so trusting.” At this, Viggiano shakes her head, recalling how they had estimated that they would need about two hours to make a batch of ketchup. “I clearly recall leaving the kitchen at 3 a.m. Once, we even set the alarms off. We would have four or five pots going at once, with burns up and down our arms.”
Lisanne Finston is executive director of Elijah’s Promise. She and her staff take special pride in having partnered with First Field. “We affectionately refer to Patrick and Theresa as ‘the ketchup people.’ Sharing our facility was a way for us to further the mission and vision that fresh, local food is the best way for us to combat hunger and create healthy food options,” she writes in an E-mail. “They produced food for our operation, taught people how to preserve, and continue to inspire us.”
The name “First Field” is a reference to the original field, from among the several fields on that 100-acre farm in Griggstown, where Viggiano planted the very first tomato plants. Viggiano and Leger have since moved to another farmhouse further down Canal Road, but a tenant farmer works for them at the original site. “Plus,” says Viggiano, “it refers to people’s first gardens, which are what they cherish and connect with above all others.”
First Field eventually outgrew the Elijah’s Promise kitchen, and these days the couple carts bushels of tomatoes down to Rutgers’ Food Innovation Center in Bridgeton, where they work primarily with Bruce Masters, a quality assurance specialist. “We want to be thoughtful about quality control,” says Viggiano. “For every six or seven batches we make, we are happy with maybe three or four.” Important factors include maintaining an exact pH level, scaling up the spices, which can be disproportionate, and monitoring the consistency of the ketchup. “It can’t be too sauce-like or it won’t stay on a hamburger,” says Viggiano.
“The folks at the center have given us invaluable advice,” Leger says. One key piece was to skin and seed the tomatoes (using a press they had purchased on a trip to Montreal) and then to freeze the puree in giant tubs. “We could then process the puree at a later time.”
Freezing turned out to be crucial when last August’s tomato blight hit the state. “We had no tomatoes to process!” recalls Viggiano, “So we used the puree we had frozen the previous March.”
First Field ketchup is now processed in giant 100-gallon kettles. These days Viggiano and Leger spend every hour of the growing season on the business — when, that is, they are not working at their day jobs. “Scaling the business has been an issue,” says Leger. The couple have also reached the limit of how many tomato plants they can grow themselves. “We are in the process of talking with other organic farmers to see what they have as surplus so we can expand,” Leger says. Other flavors of ketchup are in the works — Cumin-Chipotle should be out soon — and First Field relish hit the Whole Earth Center shelves the week of July 12.
Writes Leger in an E-mail update: “The relish is slightly more textured and not the super-sweet variety often found. It’s more vinegary, but still with a touch of sugar. It’s made of different types of green summer squash and cucumbers (both of which we grow), onion, green pepper, organic sugar, organic spices, apple cider vinegar, and salt. The relish was another way of preserving a bumper crop and adding value to a vegetable that isn’t usually preserved, especially since zucchini is another highly seasonal item that people can get overwhelmed with.”
The couple is also committed to bringing back the traditional art of home canning, or what they term on their website, “bringing back the full four-season cycle of sustainable agriculture.” Leger says they are reaching out to other farmers “to see what they’re growing and how we can preserve that.” His wife adds, “People have lost the art of preserving and canning. We can fill that niche.”
For more information visit www.first-field.com.