For The Love Of Food: New Jersey Style

David Todd McCarty

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New Jersey is known for many things, not all of them good, but whatever else you might think about it, it’s a food lover’s paradise where the residents are passionate enough about it that they’re liable to fight you over it. But it’s a love thing. Trust us.

There is a scene in the 1990 Steve Martin comedy My Blue Heaven where Rick Moranis’s character Barney, a midwestern FBI agent, tries to say “capisce” to Steve Martin’s Vinnie, a New York mobster. Capisce is Italian-American slang for “you understand?”

“Did you just try to say capisce,” Vinnie asks incredulously? “Well, don’t do it. It hurts my ears when you do it.”

They say that food is the language of love, and if that’s true, the people of New Jersey are some of the most loving people on the planet. We may not show it the way you’re accustomed to, but if you know what you’re looking for, there is no mistaking the passion as anything other than unadulterated love. 

We just don’t like it when other people f*ck it up.

The Garden State is known for having what some might call, a bit of an attitude. Our reputation tends to precede us as we are known for having strong feelings about things, but there is nothing we feel more strongly about than what we allow you to put on our plates. The truth is, we don’t just have strong opinions, we have high standards, and frankly, we don’t understand how the rest of the world is getting by with what they’re settling for. 

We have become accustomed to living life after a certain fashion, which is why it’s so disturbing when we travel and we learn what other people are calling bread, let alone pizza, or whatever St. Louis is trying to pass off as a cheesesteak these days.

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Bread

To really understand the heart of New Jersey you have to understand our relationship with flour, water, salt, and yeast. Humankind’s love affair with bread is ancient and storied for a good reason.

Being on the East Coast as we are, maybe we’re just closer to the source than the rest of the country. The farther west you go, the worse it gets. At some point, you’re just better off getting a tortilla or a wonton.

Even Julia Child, a Yankee woman who spent her formative cooking years in post-war France, once quipped “How can a nation be called great if its bread tastes like Kleenex®?” 

Baking proper bread couldn’t be easier in terms of ingredients. It’s just flour and yeast, water and salt. But it must be mixed with a strong hand and a spirit of revelatory ecstasy or you end up with whatever Subway is claiming that cardboard they serve is.

A lot of people think it has something to do with the PH factor of the water, that the alkaline levels of water east of the Mississippi are not conducive to edible bread. It’s hard to know if that’s just urban legend or scientific fact, but it makes more sense than just assuming no one else can figure out how to bake a decent loaf of bread.

There is a Vietnamese dish called Cao lau, which is a regional noodle dish from the city of Hoi An, in central Vietnam's Quang Nam Province. It consists of pork and greens on a bed of rice noodles made from rice that has been soaked in lye water, giving them a characteristic texture and color, that sets the dish apart from other Vietnamese noodle dishes, even including others from the same region.

Local legend suggests that the lye must be made by leaching the ashes of certain plants from the nearby Cham Islands and that the water used in soaking the rice and boiling the noodles should be taken from an ancient well in Hoi An. For this reason, the legend states, cao lau cannot be found outside the vicinity of Hoi An. Who can argue with that?

The point is, we have great bread. Maybe it’s because we magical water—who can say—but that drives everything else and that’s all that matters.

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The Sandwich

No matter what anyone else tells you, a sandwich is all about the bread. We don’t really care if you call them Po-Boys, Hoagies, or Subs, but if the bread isn’t right, all you have is Oscar Meyer lunchmeat on a dinner roll, probably served with Miracle Whip, an unholy substance if ever there was one.

The roll is the thing, everything else is technique and personal choice, but the quality of your meats, cheeses can certainly make or break a decent sandwich. Not to mention that very few places even comprehend what a decent tomato is supposed to taste like.

One of the reasons we have such good sandwiches is that everyone in the state lives within a few miles of a corner deli that will make you a better sandwich than most of the other states in the Union combined, can muster at their finest restaurant.

When that’s the bar, the low bar, you end up with real artists who can deliver mind-blowing creations tucked within the sanctity of good bread and glorious ingredients.

One little tidbit that you might hear talked about but which you can’t find outside of the area is Taylor Pork Roll. This is sliced round loaf of cased meat, seared on a flattop covered in cheese and sometimes a fried egg, then served on a soft kaiser roll with mustard. It should be eaten while still hot, but can stand to ferment for a good 10 minutes in its foil wrapper before you tear into it. This is something you eat in the front seat of your car, or on a park bench. When you’re done, you roll the foil into a ball and toss it in the can, brushing the bread crumbs from your chest. Don’t even bother looking for one of these outside of New Jersey. It’s our little secret. 

The cheesesteak, often associated with Philadelphia but arguably perfected in New Jersey, is a perfect representation of the entire terroir. It’s a working-class sandwich, low class, and always a bit sloppy and poorly-presented no matter how hard you try to polish it up. If you doubt that, try to find an appetizing photograph of a really good cheesesteak. It’s impossible to find because it’s not an appetizing looking creation. It’s fatty meat and cheese on a good roll. It’s hot and delicious and practically made to eat while standing up at a counter, before you go back to work. Cheesesteaks are consumed, more often than not, without even taking your coat or hat off. Those of us with beards have just learned to suffer through it and wipe ourselves down as best we can afterward.

The worst are the people who try to sell you some abomination with ingredients such as Kobe beef, truffle oil, and served on a French baguette. These people should be strung up for heresy, or fed to the guillotine with the other elitist pigs. If you ever see the phrase Philly-style in front of the word cheesesteak, just walk away. There will be no greater disappointment in your life than what they will try to serve you.

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Pizza

The only thing possibly worse than a cheesesteak outside of Delaware Valley is what far too many Americans, unfortunately, call pizza. Like bread itself, it’s hard to understand how something so simple can be so utterly misunderstood and bastardized. 

Outside of it being a baked crust with tomato sauce and cheese, whatever they’re calling pizza in much of the rest of the world, is not pizza.

The best pizza in the world is flour, water, yeast, salt, olive oil, mozzarella, and a sauce made of Roma tomatoes, garlic, onion, oregano, salt, and pepper. Pasta sauce is not pizza sauce, as a red sauce suitable for pasta is thinner and has a higher water content. Pizza sauce is closer to paste than sauce. The slight sweetness should come from the ripeness of the fruit, never from added sugar.

The only cheese you should ever use is fresh, whole-milk, buffalo mozzarella cheese. The dough should be thin and chewy, but not crunchy. It’s not a flatbread. The crust is not an afterthought but practically the entire point. Which is why it’s hard to fathom what pizza chains pass off as real food.

According to their website, a Dominoes “Brooklyn-Style” pizza contains: Enriched Flour (Wheat Flour, Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate, Niacin, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Water, Soybean Oil, Contains 2% or Less of the following: Sugar, Salt, Whey, Maltodextrin, Dextrose, Dough Conditioners (Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, Enzyme, Calcium Sulfate, Ascorbic Acid, Calcium Phosphate, L-Cysteine), Yeast, Corn Meal (used in preparation). 

Presumably, that is just the dough. After that, you can add a monstrous number of incongruous toppings and cheeses. Your choice of toppings for a pizza from Dominoes include, but are not limited to, the following: American cheese, Alfredo sauce, butter-flavored oil, baby carrots, cinnamon sugar, croutons, hamburger dill pickles, shrimp, and something called “sandwich bread.” The actual list is four times this long and also includes cheddar cheese, which is simply unimaginable.

For many people, the hockey puck they buy in the freezer section at their local supermarket is what they think pizza is. The sad reality is, it wouldn’t make any difference if they removed the cardboard from the bottom first or not.

We can’t even get into the desecration that Chicago is subjecting their overweight, mustachioed citizens with. It’s fine if you’re going to eat that, but it is nothing more than a deep-dish, cheese pie. Stop calling it pizza. We beg of you. You’re ruining the brand.

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Fresh Mozzarella

As long as we’re on the topic of pizza and sandwiches, we should take a moment to reflect on the quality of cheese in New Jersey in general. We can’t compete with places like France or the sheer abundance and selection, but we do appreciate a quality cheese, whether it’s a smoked provolone or a crusty Parmesan. We have our standards.

One thing you can expect to find almost everywhere up and down the Parkway is high-quality mozzarella. Preferably whole-milk buffalo mozzarella, made from real buffalos. Kidding aside, fresh mozzarella shows up in everything from sandwiches to pasta, salads to pizza. It’s a real staple of comfort food throughout the state, and the one cheese most likely to be found in the fridge of your average Jersey home.

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Soft Pretzels

A Jersey soft pretzel doesn’t look like the Bavarian kind you buy frozen and heat up in the toaster oven. Those are good too, and we’ll still eat an Aunti Anne’s if we’re stuck at the airport, but what we really want is two dense, nearly flattened, fresh soft pretzels in a paper bag handed in to the car window from a guy wearing a hoodie on a street corner.

You don’t even tell anyone about it. You don’t buy enough for the whole family. You don’t dip them in mustard (although that’s awesome) You just gnaw away and throw the bag on the floor when you’re done.

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Fresh Pasta

Most people in New Jersey don’t make their own pasta, but that’s because high-quality fresh pasta is so prevalent that there is no need. The thing that’s great about New Jersey is that because of the Italian influence in our state, there are so many places you can get amazing Italian food, that Olive Garden exists merely for the tourists who don’t know any better.

A good pasta dish is an exercise in restraint and an understanding of fresh ingredients. Most dishes are barely more than a few ingredients, relying on the quality of what you add to make the flavors sing. It is more art than science and can range wildly depending on whose tastes you are appealing to, or even where you’re from.

Spaghetti al pomodoro might be the quintessential Italian pasta dish, but if we got the pasta from Italy, they owe their tomatoes to New Jersey. At least to the natives who first cultivated them here. For all the ribbing it gets, New Jersey was made for growing things, and especially tomatoes. Something about the temperate climate, reasonably-long growing season, sandy soil, and just enough rain, causes the Jersey tomato to rise above the rest.

For many though, it’s Pasta alla Genovese that is most indicative of the taste of summer in New Jersey. Fresh pasta, basil, garlic, olive oil, parmesan, and pine nuts. Toss the basil, picked from your own garden into a food processor along with a half a dozen cloves and garlic and a healthy amount of extra virgin olive oil and a quarter cup of pine nuts, and blend until smooth. Add salt, pepper, and grated parmesan cheese, and blend again. Cook the pasta till al dente, which means toothy, toss lightly in the sauce, and serve. Dress with an unreasonably amount of grated Parmesan, a few pinches of sea salt, fresh ground pepper, and fresh parsley. Pour yourself a glass of wine and chow down.

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Sweet Corn

Garrison Keillor once said, “Sex is good, but not as good as fresh sweet corn.” He must have traveled to New Jersey at least once because that’s exactly how we feel. Having seen what they serve in other parts of the country, let alone what they pass off in the frozen food aisles at most grocery stores, we relish fresh corn season in New Jersey.

What many people don’t know is that sweet corn is delicious raw, picked right off the stalk. It already has everything you want. But the minute you pick it the sugars start to turn to starch and it’s a race against the clock to eat it. 

A real criminal offense, even with people from the Garden State, is to overcook the corn, turning it to a starch, mushy mess. Because the corn is ready to eat when you pick it, the only thing you’re doing is heating it slightly, not cooking it.

The best method is to boil a pot of salted water, and once it reaches a rolling boil, drop your ears of corn in the water and turn off. Cover with a lid and in seven minutes, pull the ears out of the water and put them on a plate. Eat immediately with salt. You can butter them if you wish, but that’s piling on where unnecessary. Try it with just a little sea salt and see if it doesn’t blow your mind.

For the record, corn is not bright yellow. Just saying.

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Honorable Mention

New Jersey is home to all sorts of other great foods that we likely take for granted, but we will not mention them here because plenty of other people can claim the same. With one hundred and thirty miles of coastline, it’s no secret that we have our choice of a whole ocean of seafood, from tuna to crabs, oysters to mussels. 

We also have an ever-changing influx of immigrant cuisine from Mexican to South Asian that are always turning up in the most unique places. The taquerias and the curry spots are becoming a more common sight. The north of the state, with its higher density and proximity to New York, definitely sees a greater diversity in their cuisine. 

We take our bagels for granted, along with our tomato pies, sausage sandwiches, blueberries pancakes, bbq, and French fries. We still relish our crab cakes and cheesecakes, our cranberries and dirty water dogs, cannolis and fried chicken, tacos, and panzarottis.

We love traveling to other places and finding out what they do well, but we’re always a little skeptical of unearned boastfulness. We are curious, so we’ll give it a try. But give us your best. Don’t f*ck around. Show us what you got. 

We’ll be the judge if it’s good or not.

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Writer, Director, Photographer, Designer, and Journalist. I am endlessly curious about politics, street food, photography, and garden gnomes.

Cape May Court House, NJ
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