When thinking of New Jersey, the first things that tend to come to mind might be HBO’s The Sopranos, MTV’s The Jersey Shore or best care scenario, Bruce Springsteen’s catalog. Despite the Boss’s best efforts, the state’s image has, unfortunately, suffered at the hands of pop culture in recent years. However, New Jersey has a lot more to offer than sketchy beaches, fist pumps and mob ties—specifically in terms of agriculture and edibles. Author of Dishing Up New Jersey: 150 Recipes from the Garden State, John Holl recently spoke with WellWell about New Jersey’s soaring and unappreciated gastronomical and agricultural reach.
What’s foods and produce from New Jersey are painfully underappreciated?
We are the garden state for a reason. Our tomatoes, blueberries cranberries and even corn are unrivaled. Our fruits and vegetables don’t get the credit that they’re due when it comes to being Jersey produced.
Do you think the state’s fruits and vegetables are underappreciated because people typically view New jersey as industrial?
I think when you land at the airport and you see the Anheuser-Busch factory or IKEA at the turnpike out of your small plane window, people outside of the state are going to get a pretty skewed view of what Jersey is. But when you go 30 minutes west from the airport, you’ll see a different Jersey. You’re in rolling hills that are just absolutely beautiful and there are still some farmlands out there and there are all sorts of food artisans that are popping up these days that are really creating wonderful things with honey. I think that there are some things that people dismiss us on because they don’t see the other Jersey. Of course, The Jersey Shore and The Sopranos didn’t help our image either.
What’s a trend you’ve noticed in the New Jersey food industry?
I definitely think that we are seeing a rise in farm to table restaurants. These chefs know that they have great farms in their area that are close by and they’re using that to their advantage.
Do you think the rise of farm to table restaurants is due New Jersey’s rich diversity of plant life?
Absolutely. The range of vegetables being grown out here these days is incredible. You’re even finding greenhouses in certain parts of the state where they’re trying to grow dragon fruit. They’re trying to grow tropical fruits that haven’t grown here before. We’re certainly seeing that.
What other types of food does the state offer?
The cool thing about Jersey is we are a melting pot. Ellis Island is based in Jersey. So when you look at the diverse cultures that we have here, from great Halal food up in the north and in Passaic County and Indian food in Edison, the Italians have stamp their influence throughout Essex and Union Counties and beyond, and the Irish and Polish cultures have chimed in as well, depending on where you’re coming from—there’s such diversity. And don’t forget the Asian cultures that exist, you can get great Vietnamese food down in Vineland. There also are Amish markets down in Gloucester County. I think pretty much anything that you have a hankering for is a relatively easy drive away depending on traffic.
Are these restaurants solely traditional or do they experiment with the classic cultural cuisine?
I think it goes both ways. Regardless, they tend to always be authentic because tradition plays a huge role here in Jersey and it goes back to grandparents, the state emphasizes family. That said, we also have some chefs who are really groundbreaking and restaurants that are focused fusion cuisines and bringing new things in all the time and that to me is also a lot of fun. You can have traditional and you can always go to the same restaurants, the same place where the clam chowder always tastes exactly like you want it to or the pie is cooked just right or the desserts are butter perfect, whatever it is. And then there’s always going to be new places that open up and say, “Hey, we do it this way” and hopefully they find an audience. There’s no one size fits all when it comes to food for everybody.
Based on your exploration of Jersey and its foods, would you say there’s a more food diversity near big cities or in smaller towns and the countryside?
It’s interesting. Obviously, the cities are where the concentration of people are but I think sometimes those can be pocketed or redundant. In the suburbs or country, they’re going to have more diversity and even creativity just because those are small places trying to get a little piece of that local pie and gain attention.
So with all this diversity, what’s the best way to enjoy Jersey’s eats?
I think for the most part, it’s about exploring areas you maybe haven’t before. That’s the cool thing about food, especially in New Jersey. If you hear of an awesome dumpling place in a town that you’ve never been and you really love dumplings, you might drive there and discover something new. That’s the fun part, to travel for food and you can do it in your own state.
About John Holl
John Holl is a journalist covering the beer industry. He’s the author of several books including Drink Beer, Think Beer: Getting to the Bottom of Every Pint and The American Craft Beer Cookbook. He is the co-host of Steal. This Beer, a podcast. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post and Wine Enthusiast, among other publications. He also has lectured on the culture and history of beer and judged beer competitions around the world.