No doubt choosing a list of favorite New Jersey things will get me into trouble. Why? Because everyone has their own view of what makes New Jersey unique. Some feel any such list should include the Statue of liberty - It's In New Jersey territorial waters, after all - and the Turnpike (people laugh at it because it works!), These are great things, yes, but they're not necessarily everyone's - least of all my - favorite things.
As someone who has lived, traveled, laughed, and written about New Jersey, I've compiled my list in the spirit of my Uncle Carl. Well, I have to tell you, one man's Favorite Thing is another man's horror. For example, Uncle Carl had this favorite sandwich. It consisted of thick slabs of kosher salami covered with thick slices of ripe banana and a bit of mayonnaise sandwiched between two slices of raisin bread, He loved it. And he wanted all of us 10 share his joy. Now I dare you, try this sandwich as a scientific test and you'll get vivid proof of how wide the spectrum of taste can be.
Anyway, what follows are my favorite New Jersey things. Please don't write angry letters disagreeing with me. It will do you no good. It never worked when my Aunt Min made loud "Ugh, ugh" noises when her husband - my Uncle Carl - chomped his favorite sandwich. He just went right ahead and chomped away. So here goes.
In all my travels I have never enjoyed such a peculiar emotion as the day I stood peering out to sea, squinting through the eye of the legendary Margate Elephant. The experience was almost religious, like the lime l saw the Great Buddha.
The Margate Elephant was built in the nineteenth century as a posh New Jersey hotel. It was considered very chic to spend your wedding night or honeymoon cradled in the belly or the hind end of this colossus. People would come from such places as Philadelphia and the nation's capital to live the good life inside this elegant pachyderm.
I love it. Any time the world gets too earnest and sane for me, which is often during a Mondale speech, I think fondly of the elephant and thank that early New Jersey genius who came up with this mad monstrosity. Just think, today there are New Jersey oddsters walking among us totally unaware that they were conceived in the Margate Elephant. What a great way to start life!
Then there is Hotdog Johnny's. What, you've never heard of Hotdog Johnny's, in spite of considering yourself a gourmet, a lover of fine cuisine, a vivant, a New Jersey sophisticate? Hotdog Johnny's is tucked away in tiny Butzville, surrounded by lush, verdant hills in the far western reaches of of this state. Hotdog Johnny's is a veritable Vatican of the mustard - and - piccalilli set. Johnny steams his dogs in beer, slaps them between fresh, snowy buns, and offers a dazzling choice of onions, pickle relish, horseradish, catsup, and sauerkraut.
But that's only the beginning. Hotdog Johnny, in a truly inspired stroke, features Icy mugs of fresh country buttermilk to wash down your dog. Sprinkle a bit of fresh ground pepper and a wee spritz of salt on your frigid buttermilk - it doesn't get any better. And then, to top himself, Johnny features some of the best draft root beer around, as well as the increasingly rare but magnificent birch beer.
What I like most about Hotdog Johnny's, though, is the curious atmosphere of the place: a combination of bucolic simplicity and the upper deck at Yankee Stadium. Rolls Royces and Jaguars park side by side with pickup trucks and Harley Davidson hogs. The mysterious lure of hotdogs and buttermilk is truly democratic. Rich and poor, elegant and indignant, all squat amiably together in the shade, knocking back Hotdog Johnny's best.
No list of favorite New Jersey things, at least in my catalog, is complete without a salute to the benign gods who gifted this state with its glorious tomato. I am a true tomato freak, and all of my brothers and sisters In this cult live the year around those blessed days in late summer when our sun-ripened tomato is here for an all-too-brief visit. I have eaten tomatoes in the tomato states of Indiana, Pennsylvania, and California, but the New Jersey beauty beats them all. It bears the same relationship to the supermarket obscenity as Jackie O's yacht bears to a rubber raft. You eat a New Jersey tomato slightly chilled - although field-warm is great, too - with a touch of salt, and let the succulent juices fly where they may.
Which leads me, naturally, to the subject of the matchless New Jersey pizza. It's the best in the world - maybe because there are so many guys in New Jersey named Mario or Vinnie. Here's how to know you've tasted the real thing: Take a slice of pizza In your eating hand, crease it slightly, and shove it toward your trap with your eyes half-closed In anticipation of ecstasy. As you bite into that glorious combination of Italian sausage, mozzarella, olive oil, onions, green peppers, mushrooms, and anchovies, as well as the crisp, thin dough, the juice must run down your chin and drip off your elbow. Vlnnie's pizza rarely fails this supreme test. I have been in a small Colorado town where the only neon sign lit after 9 PM read proudly: "REAL NEW JERSEY PIZZA." Inside the steamy cubicle there was a transplanted Mario from Lodi, turning it out to a multitude of pizza fans.
Then there are, of course, the more subtle delights of New jersey folkways, the unique tribal rituals of what we social savants call Homo Slobbus Jerseyannus. Where else in the world but on the New jersey Shore (pronounced "Shuaw") will you find such a numberless horde of squatting natives, roistering in stifling heat or clammy rain, who have mysteriously convinced themselves that they have reached Eden and are enjoying it immensely. A town of countless plywood shacks ($800 per week rental), each surrounded by a minimum of twelve enormous cars, is what passes for the New Jersey Riviera. Hordes of mean-eyed kids consuming trillions of Budweiser sixpacks and listening to Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S .A." on the radio in bumper-to-bumper traffic, and you have Homo Slobbus Jerseyannus' idea of heaven. Any observer of the human condition must recognize this tribe as special. Too bad the late Margaret Mead never got around to an in-depth study. It would have made her Polynesian work seem like kid stuff. I love it.
Another New Jersey mystery, an intriguing favorite of mine, is the ghost-like tailgater. He appears out of nowhere on every road in the state. In the day and night, at all speeds and weather conditions, this apparition materializes to cling menacingly to the rear of one's car. Most often the tailgater appears to be zooming along in a pickup truck, psychedelic van, Cadillac, or other GM product, pursuing your car like a hound of Hell. This curious phenomenon takes many forms: occasionally it's a grim-lipped, blue-haired octogenarian female driving a gigantic Eldorado; often it's a horn-honking trucker hauling chemicals or gas on his way, no doubt, to start a fire; sometimes it's a plump adolescent girl, jaws slack, in a ten-year-old Toyota from which emanates the latest Michael Jackson hit. Who are these aliens? What do they want? What important missions are they on? And why are they after us? No one knows. But I offer a word of advice: Don't challenge a tailgater or you may be punished by an even more hideous New Jersey phenomenon - the dreaded auto insurance company.
Speaking of ghastly figures, are you aware that in the far reaches of the legendary Pine Barrens the wreck of a World War II Navy blimp lies slumbering, its aluminum ribs baking in the sun, Its rusting Wright Cyclone engines forever silent? There are nights, I'm told, when the Jersey Devil, his headlight-like eyes beaming, takes the helm of this ancient warrior blimp to wreak havoc on the state. We hear, though, from Governor Kean, that the devils been in Cleveland lately. Why Cleveland? Seems the New Jersey Devil is getting to like his hockey team.
Of course, there is another side of New Jersey: the dreaming Princeton spires; the Delaware Water Gap; the lovely deer along Route 57, lurking in the cornfields like creatures from a Walt Disney film; the crashing thunderstorms over the Watchung hills; the squadrons of mallard and Canadian geese on the Delaware; the Revolutionary stone houses that feel the restless tread of the ghosts of Washington's officers; and, yes, the sleeping shades of the ill-fated Hessians near Trenton. All Jersey, pure New Jersey.
It's quite a state.
I love it!