Stephen Gerike / July 2013
What happens when a region loses the dishes that define its spirit, its history? Stephen Gerike wonders, too, as he recalls the soul of South Jersey and the rest of the Mid-Atlantic region, now just a remnant begging for revival.
If you keep a mental list of things in America that you can kiss good-bye, you could probably start adding mom-and-pop restaurants to it. I’m talking about those small town places that do one unique dish better than anyone else, successfully following a formula that hasn’t changed in nearly a century. When I began experiencing food outside of my mother’s and grandmother’s kitchens, there were plenty of these places around, and we took them for granted.
So, when the aftermath of last October’s Superstorm Sandy revealed the true extent of what was lost, I, like everyone else who lives in the Mid-Atlantic states, grew concerned for all of the affected people. But I had another thought as well—a selfish thought, a trivial thought perhaps, but one that struck me nonetheless: Did we lose the Holiday Snack Bar in Beach Haven on the south end of Long Beach Island, New Jersey, just a few miles from where Sandy made landfall? Was “home of the homemade snacks” gone for good?
The entrance to the Holiday Snack Bar sits at ground level on the bay side of the island, just four blocks between bay and ocean. This isn’t a place that’s known for great food, but it’s one of the last places that’s truly original and hasn’t strayed from its simple roots. It’s also one of the last places that’s unchanged since the 1950s, even down to the tabletop broiler used to make their proclaimed Holiday burgers topped with homemade chili sauce. To say nothing of their 10-inch-high devil’s food chocolate cake lathered with a marshmallow-like white icing that on hot days causes the top cake layer to slip like a kid hurtling down a water slide. Islanders celebrate every kind of occasion with their cakes and pies, which really don’t need any occasion at all to warrant a 30-mile round-trip drive from the north end through summer congestion to fetch one. The cakes sit like busts of Roman generals on pedestals in the center of the five-sided snack bar. They command attention.
This got me thinking about all of the other places I was nostalgic for, all the great food that once defined the Mid-Atlantic region and is unlikely to come back. We used to eat seasonally, which is local by default. This is how my grandparents and parents ate when they were growing up in southern New Jersey. I was exposed to it when I was young and am sentimental about those experiences. It was simple, quality food that belonged to where we were. It was prepared well and was only available when the ingredients were available and at their best.
I believe that this is the engine, if not the whole drive train, propelling the surge of the chef-owned restaurants, as well as the return of the butcher and the fishmonger and the local artisan making sausages or cheese or pickles. These are the cornerstones of our local food identity that were lost to supermarkets, frozen dinners, chain restaurants, and the indifference of my parent’s generation while they explored these new “conveniences.” Now the foods, and the places to get them, the folks who remember how to make them and why we ate them in the first place are fast disappearing, if not already forgotten. These were foods that celebrated the change of seasons, tied into community events that raised money for a volunteer fire department or charity, or celebrated the start or end of fishing, hunting, or farming seasons. Recipes were passed down through generations, shared with others in churches and schoolhouses. Food gave contours to every social gathering.
I grew up in an area of New Jersey that’s mostly farmland and sandy pine forests. The lower half of New Jersey inspired the slogan of the Garden State. Bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the east and Delaware Bay to the south, the region teems with oysters, hard-shell clams, blue crabs, eels, bluefish, weakfish, king fish, and flounder. The largest sea clam fleet in the country sails out of southern New Jersey, and Barnegat Light’s Viking Village is the home to tuna, scallop, and sword fishing fleets that supply restaurants throughout the Mid-Atlantic. The Pine Barrens, or the Pines, as we call them, cover 22 percent of the entire state, a forested area nearly one and a half times larger than Yosemite National Park. There are 1.1 million acres within seven counties designated as The Pinelands National Reserve. The sandy, acidic soil, covered with pygmy pitch pine trees, cut by creeks colored brown by the bog iron that was forged into munitions for the Continental Army during the Revolution (the deserted forge towns of the Pine Barrens dot the woods more numerously than all the ghost towns of the Old West combined). And lurking underneath it is the 17 trillion-gallon Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer that holds some of the purest water in the United States. This is where Ocean Spray has one of its largest cranberry cooperatives and where the town of Hammonton proclaims itself as the Blueberry Capital of the World. It’s been occupied and influenced by the Lenni Lenape Indians; German Anabaptists (Pennsylvania Dutch); the Hessian soldiers who deserted the British cause during the Revolution and hid out in the forests; and Italian, Portuguese, and Scandinavian fishermen. The Pines provided bricks, glass, and, of course, iron from the bog ore during the infancy of this country.
Some folks left for greener pastures; some “Pineys” stayed for good. And they learned to survive on and enjoy what the Pines had to offer. They ushered in January with “marsh rabbit” and hominy dinners—buttered hominy and stewed muskrat with frost-tinged greens—in every gun club in the Pines. Large pots of it served to folks who came together to shake some cabin fever and enjoy whatever the new year had to offer. If I close my eyes, I can still see the signs for these dinners on the side of the county fire roads that snake through the Pines. A few of these same rod ‘n’ gun clubs still host game dinners in the fall and winter. I recently attended one in Pole Tavern, New Jersey (near Elmer), but the cooking is starting to reveal that the older women are passing the torch to a younger generation that I suspect shops for the meal with a Costco card.
It wasn’t long ago, either, that venison sauerbraten in a gravy thickened with ginger snap cookies and served with tender potato dumplings stuffed with one large buttery and crunchy crouton also was cooked up for these gatherings. It was a way to share the legs of the deer that were hunted by local club members each fall. Squirrels and beavers were also served, cooked in onions and brown gravy until falling off the bone.
These same folks hunted ducks and geese from boats unique to both coasts of South Jersey—the sneakbox of the Barnegat Bay and the Delaware Ducker of the Delaware Bay and Maurice River. The vessels are essentially floating duck blinds that ride low to the water and could be sailed, rowed, or sculled to the marshes. From these boats, hunters supplied the markets and restaurants in Philadelphia and New York City for over a century with waterfowl, a staple on all late fall and winter menus.
Fall is when the snapper blues (small bluefish) and striped bass—called rockfish in Maryland—begin to run in the ocean. You can still get great smoked bluefish with white pepper sauce in Maryland. And this isn’t made from white peppercorns. This is made from the local fish pepper while the fruit is still a variegated white and pale green. It’s been added to béchamel and mayonnaise for centuries to add a piquant quality when served with fish dishes. The oysters begin to fatten up to survive the winter and the spring’s spawn, and the hogs are ready for slaughter and processing for winter storage. Ham and oyster dinners still occur in a few towns in the Mid-Atlantic region that, within a 60 mile radius from the Pines, covers most of Delaware, the Eastern Shore of Maryland, southeastern Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, and the beaches of New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland. More generously, the region also could include Virginia’s Tidewater, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and the surrounding areas south to Richmond.
General George Washington, a regular in these parts (New Jersey is also called the “Crossroads of the Revolution”), fed his troops pepper pot soup to keep them warm and full during the brutal and famous winter of 1777–1778 when he quartered his troops at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. His cook was from the Caribbean and created an adaptation of this peppery fish stew using what was on hand (the dish also is attributed to Christopher Ludwick, the army’s baker): fish peppers (rather than Scotch bonnets), onions, potatoes, tripe, and dried beef in place of fresh fish and shellfish. Once a staple in Philadelphia restaurants—Campbell’s (based in Camden, NJ) even made a version of it until the middle part of the last decade—I haven’t seen any variation of this soup in many years. Snapping turtle soup is another dish that’s difficult to find these days. Made from local snapping turtle cleaned and roasted to create a thick rich bisque sweetened with Sherry and topped with chopped hard-cooked eggs, it was once on every menu in Philadelphia. Now only a few versions can be found.
As spring arrived, the oyster season closed and the blue crab and hard-shell clam seasons began. What better way to end the season than with a bowl of warm oyster stew made by sweating finely diced celery and white onion in sweet butter and then adding shucked oysters and scalded milk or half-and-half to the pot, served immediately with hard oyster crackers, reminiscent of hardtack, and a pat of butter floating on top. Some sprinkle crab boil or chopped parsley on top. I’m a purest and prefer neither. And where else can you get box stew, the same as oyster stew but with the addition of chopped chowder clams? You can still get a bowl of box stew at Snockey’s Oyster & Crab House in South Philadelphia. We used to eat it at the old Cap’n Cat’s Clam Bar in Thorofare, New Jersey, a place that sold steamed fresh fish and shellfish. If you wanted anything else to eat with your steamed clams or shrimp, you brought it with you. Folks sat on coolers full of beer while they ate on the screened-in porch.
An oyster cracker is essentially a dried out beaten biscuit. There is one commercial manufacturer of beaten biscuits left in the world, Orrell’s, in Wye Mills, Maryland, at the site of the Wye Oak, once the oldest living white oak in the states. The family still makes them in their home by hand and you can get them in local Acme Markets or at their bakery on Wednesdays. According to family lore, during colonial times, it was believed that leavening was in short supply and the only way to get the biscuits to rise was by beating the dough with a hammer—or the back of an axe—or against a hard surface for half an hour to 45 minutes. This process put air into the dough. One old recipe says, “30 minutes for family and 45 for company.” The original biscuits consist of lard, flour, salt, sugar, baking powder, and water. If you have never had a warm beaten biscuit, buttered and topped with some thin slices of good country ham, you haven’t spent enough quality time on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
Baltimore’s version of this same creamy, sweet, and salty theme is the coddie—cod cakes made from salt cod, or sometimes even made with just potatoes and no cod at all, served on saltine crackers (there’s that hardtack again) with yellow mustard. Baltimoreans like to pair a plate of these with a chocolate Coke—three to five tablespoons of Hershey’s chocolate syrup mixed into ice cold Coca-Cola.
Another spring favorite is the Philadelphia or the shore dinner—on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, it’s called a Philadelphia; in Philadelphia, it’s called a shore dinner. Go figure. Basically, it’s plump fried oysters served on a platter with a scoop of chicken salad. On the Eastern Shore, you might get a slice of cantaloupe with it. The lower shore was full of truck farms that grew fruits and vegetables for the local canneries. Some of the best cantaloupes I’ve ever had were from Maryland before the farmers switched to chicken farming, as the advent of frozen vegetables shut down the local canneries.
Herring used to run up the Chesapeake and Delaware Bays in the spring, too. Shad would follow, gobbling them up all the way until they reached the Delaware and Hudson Rivers (and other rivers of the Eastern Seaboard as well) to spawn. Called the founding fish by writer John McPhee—whose 2003 book on the fish’s integral role in sustaining the early colonies carries the same title—shad were once so thick that you could walk across the river on top of them as you got farther upstream. It’s not spring in the Mid-Atlantic until you’ve had a plate of shad fillets, shad roe, bacon, and fresh asparagus. The shad are coming back, and the roe is still available in fish markets. All are hard to find on menus these days, even in chef-operated restaurants that like to tout how they’re holding true to local food customs.
Summer turns out the crabs and the hard-shell clams in earnest. There used to be a place on Long Beach Island called the Harvey Cedars Tavern, that served something called Pop’s clam pie—a prodigiously deep pie made with a flaky crust, not unlike a potpie, filled with a viscous and rich version of clam chowder, and topped with another crust. You could order a slice of a larger pie or an individual pie. With salt pork, onions, potatoes, and chopped clams bound by a cream sauce, it was sweet and salty and delicious. I wish I could find one of those again. I plan to make one this summer while I’m at the beach. I’ll start with some clams on the half shell, some sliced tomatoes from the garden, a clam pie, and some Pines blueberries for dessert. That is, after I drive by the Holiday Snack Bar to see what shape it’s in. I hope someone had the good sense to grab that old broiler and take it off the island before the storm.