It’s almost 7pm, and I’m sitting at a two-top at the Horse Brass. I’m trying to think of what to write again, nursing a locally-made Baltic Porter and staring at the empty broiler boat that- until very recently- was holding about 8 pickle spears for $3.50. No sales tax.
Where else would I be now? I’m a beer nerd with a cloak on a rainy day in Portland near Mount Tabor. I’ve got the back half of a short week at the bakery to start tomorrow morning, the blessing of my boss, and ideas for how my weekend will go. Where else would I be but here?
I might be back in Jersey. That beer might be a more expensive local brew, but those pickles might have been the Pickle Plates at Downbeach Deli that still live in my memory- their selection of greyed full-sours and perky green half-sour pickles supporting recurring guest stars of Pickled Onion, a Cherry Pepper, and a few wedges of Green Tomato atop a pool of commingled brine. That is, if they were ever separated at all.
Maybe it’s the beer and time of year, but I can feel the rose-colored Nostalgia Glasses settling into place. I’m gonna tell you about some fond food memories.
The Breakfast Spot
The Breakfast Shop was the kind of place that only locals and perennial Shoobies knew about in Somers Point. Across a clamshell-paved parking lot from Smith’s Marina, it was the slightly-more-than-seasonal back venue of The Clam Bar, a.k.a “Smitty’s.” During the summer, the Clam Bar proper was packed to the gills with locals and tourists elbowing each other for a chance to sit at the counter, let alone a table. The whole place smelled of the bay it hung over in the best way possible. Tightly-packed tables in hallways with glass-slatted windows channeled any stray breeze through, carrying salty air and the smell of fryer grease. The faithful came for the chowder and specials. Tourists came for the fish-fry until they knew better, and children like me got. Pizza Bagels and Chicken Parm until we learned to love seafood.
The Breakfast Spot- hanging off the back of the building and hanging on to business partway through the fall- offered a staple menu of eggs, bacon, sausage, and omelette off of a three-man galley kitchen with a hot griddle and a lot of patience. Weekend mornings for me occasionally meant joining by parents at a drafty, vinyl-tableclothed table looking over the bay through a forest of white boat masts. It was special for me because, as a kid, I loved ordering little boxes of the sugary cereals my mother never kept in the house.
Don’t give me shit. I came to good food later in life. For the time being, I was a kid. Those cereal boxes were up there on display for kids. Marketing works, people.
What I remember distinctly is that the boxes had perforated fronts that you were meant to tear open, cut open the bag inside, and use the box itself as a little bowl. That ingenuity fascinated me, and I always begged my parents to help me eat the Froot Loops they normally wouldn’t let me have out of a box like a hobo instead of the bowl the nice waitress brought.
All this an unholy big glass of Mott’s apple juice are what childhood memories are made of.
Jersey Diners are their own thing. Their own space, their own establishment, their own genre, their own dimension. The absolute closest anyone has ever gotten to describing one was Patton Oswalt describing why people wind up at Denny’s.
Don’t confuse a Denny’s with a Jersey diner though. Seriously, don’t you fucking do that. People may “wind up” at a diner the same as a Denny’s, but if Denny’s is a safehouse where you plan next steps, Jersey diners are the monastery that gives you sanctuary. A sanctuary that will serve you cheesecake and gravy fries at 3am without question.
My primary diner was always the Point Diner, once again in Somer’s Point. Where else could an EMT count on getting a good end-of-shift meal with the understanding that if the beeper went off, we’d be back? So many mornings with my parents and booze-mops with friends and roommates, the Point Diner is an indelible part of my culinary DNA.
One other diner next door, the Windjammer, holds a separate and special place in my memory. One night after a rough day on the ambulance, I was out with my roommate getting a couple drinks (the Windjammer, unlike some diners, had a liquor license). As the waitress approached and asked for our order, I half-jokingly said “I’ll take a stout, a cheeseburger, and sledgehammer for my skull.”
A few moments later, the beer and burger arrived… along with a mysterious cocktail. I shrugged and assumed it was complementary somehow, or that somehow had ordered it for me. It was sweet, smooth, and strong. When the waitress checked on us, I finally had the wit to ask about Random Cocktail, and she looked at me confused. “Well, you ordered a Sledgehammer and that’s what it is.”
I didn’t live that down for as long as I lived in Somers Point. Never doubt the power of an Amelia Bedelia-esque waitress with a sense of humor.
My First Time at a Food Truck
I didn’t know food trucks from summers on the shore, or even local faires. It never even occurred to me that the ice cream trucks of my youth would be considered a “food truck” as I know them now. My first food truck meal wasn’t just from a food truck. It was a fat sandwich from the legendary “grease trucks” around Rutgers New Brunswick.
For the uninitiated, a “fat sandwich” is less a specific recipe or food concept and more of a beloved food-based dare. The idea- created by and for college students out of these constantly mobbed food trucks- was arguably simple. You get a good-sized foot-long sub roll (it was almost always an Atlantic City roll.) You open it up, and then you carefully pile everything that come out of a deep fryer on that roll. Chicken fingers. Tater tots. Fries. Mozzarella Sticks. Some places expanded this beautiful monstrosity by including Philly steak, meatballs, and other abusively unhealthy foodstuffs. On top of this already groaning roll, you poured red sauce, brown gravy, cheese, or all three, named it after your stoner-hero roommate, and ate it.
Once evening, I visited my older sister and she insisted on taking me around town. We hit up a record shop. She showed me her favorite cafe, and we had lunch at her favorite Chinese Buffett. That night, though, before I was to get on the road home, she took me to a parking lot in New Brunswick that had two long food trucks parked at right angles to each other in the far corner. No tables. No chairs. Just light and the smell of hot grease washing toward us through the thick New Jersey night.
“You need to try one of these” she said. “These sandwiches are fucking crazy.”
We chose to split a dripping monstrosity that looked like the kids menu at an Italian restaurant threw up on it, then covered the mess with hot French fries. We got a couple root beers to wash it down and sat on the hood of her car- pounding sandwiches are staring at the stars as the grease wound its way through our blood vessels. It was the first time I remember my older sister and I actually just hanging out. Not as an older sister and her tag-along little brother- but as a couple of adults staring at the future.
I was getting ready for college myself and it was going to take me out of New Jersey for the first and longest time in my life. It was scary and exciting all at once, and that day out with my sister reminded me I had a lot of fun to look forward too as well as work and responsibility. There’d be challenges ahead, but there would also be people to meet, things to discover, and giant greaseball sandwiches to power through study sessions with. Even now, the memory of that warm night on a car hood makes me smile.
There’s more memories for sure, and more to make… but I’ll you about all those another time.