Bourdain’s Field Notes
NEW JERSEY, May 2016—I woke up this morning in Borneo and went for breakfast in a crowded kopitiam (coffee shop), where I greedily devoured a lip-burning, nose-running, utterly delicious bowl of Kuching-style laksa. Tomorrow, I’ll board a long boat and, for the second time in my life, head up the Skrang River—hits time for Gawai, the Iban harvest festival where I will (I am warned) be drinking way too much rice whiskey.
And yet, and yet … in the midst of all this … exotica, my mind runs to New Jersey.
New Jersey, too, was exotic to me once. For much of my childhood.
The then-working class riviera of Barnegat Light where I spent many happy summers. The dark mysteries of off-season, pre-casino Atlantic City with its vast, empty hotels, novelty shops, boardwalk, saltwater taffy, and amusement pier. Leafy bedroom communities where I grew up, others where I was later whisked off to school. The hard-packed nighttime slopes of Great Gorge and Vernon Valley. The fabled Pine Barrens, where untold horrors waited amidst the discarded gangsters and mythical, griffon-like creatures said to feast on little boys. The fastidious, house-proud Victorian severity of Ocean Grove right next to the decidedly honky-tonk Asbury Park. The Palisades. The Meadowlands, a vast wonderland for juvenile delinquents. Even the refineries of Elizabeth had secrets–their omnipresent but ever-changing odors unknowable.
I came of age a passenger in cars driving aimlessly around Route 80, Route 46, Route 4, cruising for burgers, cruising for girls, cruising just … because. So, to me, much-maligned New Jersey was always magic. Until, like so many of us raised in the Garden State, I left—forever—for better, more “sophisticated” territory. In my case, right across the river to New York City.
Everybody, of course, is from New Jersey. Frank Sinatra, Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep, William Carlos Williams, Alan Ginsberg, Queen Latifah, Stephen Crane, Glenn Danzig, Peter Dinklage, Donald Fagen, Ray Liotta, Martha Stewart, Lee Van Cleef, Tom Colicchio and, oh yeah, Bruce Springsteen. Anyone else not listed here was probably born there but just won’t admit it.
I get angry now when people speak badly of my home state. (I may not have been born there, but I was certainly raised there from infancy until age 17.) And, I get angry from afar when people abuse it and try to paint it in a bad light. It would be easy to make New Jersey look amazing if I concentrated on its farmland, its beaches, its parks, and its finer restaurants. Easier still if we chose to film in summer. But I thought, let’s shoot this show in winter, when New Jersey is supposedly at its grayest, most inhospitable, ugliest. And let’s go right to those parts of New Jersey that are supposedly the most fucked up, the places where everything went horribly wrong.
It is my contention that New Jersey is so magnificent, so unique, its spirit and sense of humor so unsinkable that even there, seeing those places—as I do—with affection and respect and no small measure of hope, that those who watch this episode will find my beloved home state awesome and beautiful too. Even in the refineries, the sprawl of bridges and highways and clover-leaf interchanges, there’s beauty there. We worked mightily to show you those things as we saw them; as I feel about them. New Jersey, it is my contention, was amazing all along. It was when we tried to “fix it” that we went astray.
Drive Ventnor Avenue from Atlantic City to Margate, look out the window and you’ll see, still there in parts, what was lost and what could be again. Look at Asbury Park—how it’s coming back, against all odds. And watch one lone woman’s struggle in Camden to take back, one block, one child, at a time, in a city she grew up in, loves fiercely and won’t let go of.
The hero sandwich of my youth. Steamer clams. Jersey Italian. Birch beer. The smell of dune grass. Vanilla salt water taffy. Fried clam strips. These things should be eternal. They are eternal.