Repeat after me: New Jersey is the center of the food universe.
If you live in New Jersey, you know this already.
If you live elsewhere, you’re cackling hysterically.
But as Jack Nicholson, the pride of Neptune, said in “A Few Good Men:” ”You can’t handle the truth!”
The truth is that food-wise, New Jersey takes a back seat to no one. No. One. We have it all here, in one compact package of a state. From high-end to low-rent, from fussy, white-tablecloth restaurants to sketchy yet delicious dives, New Jersey is food heaven.
And it’s time the rest of the world acknowledged us as such.
Consider the fine dining here: You don’t have to schlep into the city for the deluxe experience. Jersey City, Hoboken, Montclair and other cities are home to high-end restaurants the equal of NYC. Restaurant Serenade in Chatham. Fascino in Montclair. Cafe Matisse in Rutherford. The Frog and The Peach in New Brunswick. The Red Store in Cape May Point. Among many others.
And while New York City has long been considered the center of ethnic food diversity, New Jersey has equaled if not surpassed it. A total of 21.2% of NJ residents are foreign-born, a rate higher than all but two states, New York (22.7%) and California (27%). The most diverse city in the country? Not New York, but Jersey City, according to one survey (New York ranked sixth).
So that means that while there are Italian, Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Korean, Thai and other restaurants in the Garden State, you can also find Afghan, Ecuadorian, Ethiopian, Ghanian, Peruvian, Russian, and dozens more.
Yet everyone says New York is better than New Jersey food-wise because, well, just because it is.
“Everyone knows New York City is home to the world’s best bagels,” Time Out magazine once crowed. Really Time Out? Everybody? Or just everybody who hasn’t visited Kosher Bagels Supreme in Springfield or O’Bagel in Basking Ridge, Hoboken and Stirling, among many top-notch bagel spots in New Jersey?
Unfortunately, this same attitude of “if it’s from New Jersey, it can’t be all that great” affects food writers from coast to coast. Thrillist recently ranked New Jersey 26th of all states in food and drink, saying:
“Despite all the negative PR brought on by its citizenry, New Jersey is actually something of a poor man’s New York, particularly when it comes to Italian food. Which trumps being a poor man’s Wyoming.”
For casual food, there is no question New Jersey is number one. Let’s talk pizza, the world’s most popular food. For starters, the nation’s oldest continuously-operated pizzeria is in New Jersey (Papa’s Tomato Pies, Robbinsville).
And as someone who has eaten at more different pizzerias on both sides of the river than anyone (see “A Slice of Jersey” and “Pizza City”), I can say Jersey pizzerias as a whole are equal to New York. Foodies in New York City will shout heresy, but they never get to this side of the river, so they should just shut up.
(As an example of what happens when you let real people decide these things, Star Tavern in Orange has been voted the nation’s second best pizzeria by readers of The Daily Meal. Take that, food critic snobs.)
Now let’s talk hot dogs. New Jersey is the very cradle of hot dog civilization. The chili dog or Texas weiner was born here, in either Paterson or Plainfield (both cities claim the title). The Italian hot dog is a Jersey thing, too; the first one was made at Jimmy Buff’s in Newark in 1932. Sabrett, a staple of hot dog trucks from coast to coast, is headquartered in Englewood.
And the Garden State is home to Rutt’s Hut. Enough said.
And how about diners? New Jersey is the world’s diner capital; there are more diners here (about 600) than any other state. New Yorkers, don’t you dare chime in here; you don’t even know what diners are! (The population of the city apparently sees no difference between diners, luncheonettes and coffee shops. One word: clueless).
And do we even need to mention Taylor ham/pork roll?
It’s not just that we serve great food in New Jersey. What also makes us the center of the food universe is that so many essential food producers are centered here.
Unilever (Hellmann’s mayo, Dove soap, Lipton tea, Ben & Jerry’s) is headquartered in Englewood Cliffs. Goya, the largest Hispanic-owned food company in the U.S., is in Secaucus; Wakefern (ShopRite), the nation’s largest retailer-owner cooperative, is in Woodbridge, and Manischewitz in Newark.
Campbell’s Soup, whose brands include Pepperidge Farm, Prego, Swanson and Goldfish, is in Camden, while Mars Chocolate North America, makers of M&Ms, is in Hackettstown.
Pechter’s Bakery — their rye bread is a deli staple — is in Harrison. Junior’s Cheesecake, “the world’s most fabulous cheesecake” and for 60 years made only in New York City, is now made only in Burlington. In New Jersey.
In effect, all roads to your kitchen cabinet lead right back to the Garden State.