I met Tony from Leonia for dinner in Atlantic City one blustery night in January 2015.
For 15 years New Jersey had been the center of a nonstop pop-culture feeding frenzy—The Sopranos, Jersey Shore, The Real Housewives, Bridgegate—that had made the whole friggin’ state look like a bunch of mamalukes. It was hard to find a Jerseyan who wasn’t weary of it.
Then one day after I had published a series of stories on the woes of Atlantic City, I got a call from Tony’s people. Telling me he wants to make things right. Do an episode of Parts Unknown about the state where he grew up. Tell the story of what really goes down here. No Christies. No Snookis. No nonsense. They ask me if I want to split a tower of oysters with Tony at Dock’s Oyster House and talk about what a terrific, beautiful mess Atlantic City is.
I’ll eat oysters with anyone. But I also knew Tony Bourdain would do Jersey right on national television. Jersey needed it—needed him. Urgently.
We met up at Dock’s during the first snowstorm of the season. I had spent the day photographing the storm on the streets of Atlantic City. Images from the day—of the city’s 150-year-old lighthouse bathed in the orange glow of snow-reflected halogen, of the wiggly tracks left by the casino jitneys in the snow-dusted streets—had left my head spinning with the sense of beauty and ugliness and hope and loss that the city just oozes. These contrasts aren’t easy to explain to folks who look at the place and see little more than garish casinos and hookers lining up on Pacific Avenue.
Bourdain was not one of those people.
We order drinks. And a tower of oysters. And crab bisque and lobster and stuffed flounder. My god, did we eat. We discussed our mutual hatred of Billy Joel music. He ranted about Donald Trump’s hair. And we talked about the beauty—yes, the beauty—of Atlantic City. It’s not a conversation you can have with many people these days. But Bourdain saw it clearly.
Still, that night he seemed to be struggling with a riddle: How had a city with such a rich history, dynamite location, and so much natural beauty end up this way?
He was trying to make sense of the difference between his memories of the summers he spent there as a child and what he saw there that day. And yet he could still see—more clearly than any of the casino magnates or clueless politicians who had ever stuck their fingers in the Atlantic City pie—that all was not lost.
“There’s no other place with this kind of history and legitimacy,” Bourdain says about Atlantic City in the episode. “This place has deep romantic allure.”
When it aired, the New Jersey episode washed over the souls of percipient Jerseyans like a sweet salve.
Bourdain found beauty in places the rest of the world saw as the most screwed up: the Jersey Shore. Atlantic City. Camden. The episode appears to have been shot entirely in various hues of gray. And it is full of beautiful stories about strong, honest people who are funny as hell. That’s New Jersey for you. You have to look hard for the beauty sometimes, and then you realize how it still abounds.
Bourdain nailed Jersey as I knew he would.
And so New Jerseyans experienced something people in Kenya, China, Singapore, and the scores of other places Bourdain visited have: the relief and joy of seeing your sacred story told right.
Bourdain has a lot of great lines in that episode, but the one that showed up all over my Facebook feed the next morning was “To know Jersey is to love her.”
It feels like a slogan. It should be on the state flag.
Not only does it deliver an eloquent pat on the back to our Jersey motherland, but it also brandishes a middle finger at all those who think they know her but don’t.
Bourdain got New Jersey because he was from here. But I think one of the reasons he was so perceptive everywhere he visited and why he tried so hard to understand misunderstood places was that he was from New Jersey.
Because when you come from a place that’s so misunderstood, so misrepresented by so many lazy, cliched, garbage late-night-talk-show monologues and tawdry reality-TV shows and you suddenly find yourself in the role of storyteller, you instinctively know you need to scrape off the top 10 layers of b*lls*** to get at the essence of a place.
Bourdain didn’t need anyone to teach him that. He was from Jersey. He knew.