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Jewish World Review June 25, 1999 /11 Tamuz, 5759

Michael Kelly

Michael Kelly
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Smorgasbord by the Sea --
HERE AT THE CENTER FOR FOOD IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST, we have been dining a good deal lately, as is our custom this time of year, at the Jersey Shore, and we would like to take this opportunity to recognize the great contribution that the cuisine of southern New Jersey makes to this great nation. Simply put, the food of the Jersey Shore is what America is all about.

At one time, patriotic tub-thumpers loved to speak of the United States as a melting pot, and these days they call it a rainbow or a mosaic or whatever, but all of these metaphors miss the point of the glory of the whole American experiment. What we are, and I say this with the highest regard, is a food court.

One of the reasons that Americans do not make very good expatriates is that they get so terribly lonely for pizza by the slice. Also for nachos grandes, pulled-pork barbecue, fried dumplings, California rolls, spring rolls, lobster rolls, a bowl of Texas red, also a bowl of crawfish etouffee, a dozen clams casino, anything fra diavolo, some tapas, an empanada and a nice knish to round things out.

Over there, everybody eats the same stuff all the time. In France, they eat French; in Italy, Italian; in Spain, Spanish; and so on. All of which is fine and good, but it doesn't seem to have occurred to anybody how much better it is to be able to choose from all of the above, and then some, all of the time. Entire nations exist that have practically nothing to eat. Norway, for example, has precisely three dishes: salmon with dill, salmon with new potatoes and dill and lutefisk, which is some sort of herring pickled in lye or something. Nobody eats lutefisk, so as a practical matter the country has only two dishes.

We do things differently here. We have never met a food we didn't like. Other nations worry about being overrun by alien hordes. We say: Give us the wretched refuse of your teeming shore, and tell them to bring their recipes with them. We only object to the influx of those peoples who possess no good recipes, which is why, quite properly, we restrict immigration from the British Isles.

Nowhere is this uplifting egalitarianism better represented than at the Jersey Shore. There, drawing upon the foods of both Philadelphia and New York, generations of eaters have perfected a cuisine that is as simple in context as it is glorious in practice.

The Jersey diet takes the most fattening foods that each ethnicity offers, puts them all on the same menu and double-sizes them. The ideal Jersey lunch consists of a cheese steak, a pirogi and fried four-cheese ravioli. In most places, menu protocol is to never call anything "small." The least large pizza, for instance, is a "regular." In southern New Jersey, the euphemisms run in the opposite direction. A small serving of ice cream, for example, comprises two large scoops. If you want one scoop, you have to ask for the junior, or child's, portion.

My eating range at the shore centers around Cape May, which has a reputation for being somewhat more refined than, say, Wildwood. It is true that Cape May, with its Victorian mansions and its horse-drawn carriages, is not a rowdy place, but in gustatory terms, the charge of gentility is a slander. Cape May eaters can stand, or sit, with the best of them.

I will cite just one example of what the restaurants of Cape May offer. Dock Mike's, which is a fine breakfast place favored by charter boaters, gives the discerning diner a choice between two signature pancake dishes. The first consists of a stack of three plate-sized cakes, each covered in melted chocolate and the whole topped with whipped cream and chocolate morsels. The second is the same as the first, with the addition of melted peanut butter. In its busiest periods, says owner Michael Tramutolo, Dock Mike's sells probably 200 or 300 orders of each of these dishes every week. That, I think, should put to rest the canard of excessive refinement.

It may be argued that the Jersey diet is not entirely in keeping with the healthy eating dictates of the United States Department of Agriculture food pyramid, on which pancakes with melted peanut butter and chocolate syrup do not appear.

Well, this is true, and cheese steaks have their price. One sees people on the Wildwood boardwalk, laboring from Italian sausage stand to fried dough stand, who are food pyramids. But they labor, free and proud, and eat on in the noble tradition of the world's only omnivorous republic.

Michael Kelly is the editor of National Journal. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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