THERE'S MORE TO eating in New Jersey than Howard Johnson's on the turnpike or Cool Whip pie at a Hackensack Tupperware party. At least that's what the organizers of the Smithsonian Institution's 1983 Festival of American Folklife will demonstrate, when from tomorrow until June 27 and from June 30 until July 4, the Garden State teams up with its most unlikely culinary counterpart--France.
Juxtaposed with concession stands of croissants will be fried clams, and sorbet will share Mall space with salt water taffy. France will also connect with its French-American offspring via crawfish e'touffe'e. Mostly, though, the festival aims to celebrate food and family (the French town hall secretary who makes fromage blanc for her household and dances while her husband plays the hurdy gurdy) and the glory of the old way (the retired Keyport, N.J., lobsterman who handcarves traps from an oak plank). Folks are folks no matter where they're from.
While a joint French and French-American theme was chosen to honor the 200-year anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Paris, according to Kathy Lindemann of the Smithsonian's Office of Folklife Programs, the agency approached New Jersey because " we like to show different traditions."
Different, all right, some will sneer. So what if the state's claim to fame is that Barnegat Light is the Tilefish Capital of the World? Critics must not know about those beefsteak beauties from roadside stands--meals in themselves and still tomato-red--or may not have heard of a game of skee ball and a crusty foot-long hotdog from Max's, chowder from Evelyn's in Belmar, clam shacks in Point Pleasant, homemade cheese bread from Mastoris diner in Bordentown, Kohr's raspberry swirl frozen custard. Besides, there used to be farms in Newark.
"It was not difficult" to find New Jersey food, said Allison Kahn, the Smithsonian's assistant program coordinator for New Jersey. In fact, in terms of overall festival emphasis--in both food and lore--New Jersey outstrips the French and French-American program, with the state's food focus being on what it does best--farming and fishing.
While New Jersey has given up 700,000 acres of agricultural land since 1950 to industrial development, according to Patricia Quinn of the state's department of agriculture, two-thirds of the state is still either farmland or woodland. "Most of it New Jersey is not black top and oil refineries," said Quinn. "It's just that the New Jersey Turnpike--the corrider to New York--is all people see."
If some people never see a farm in New Jersey, they won't be able to miss one on the Mall. Last year it was an Oklahoma race track, this year it's an actual 150-by-150-square-foot farm, as well as an outline of the state done in bedding plants and signs that say "New Jersey: The Garden State."
Twenty different kinds of fruits and vegetables are growing, in stages as close to harvest as possible ("so it will look good," according to Faith Goldstein of the state's agriculture department). There's an entire cranberry bog, and, of course, the celebrated tomatoes (the taste due to the soil and the fact that they are not ripened artificially, said the agriculture department). Less reknowned plants on the Mall are New Jersey's horseradish and Chinese vegetables (Northern New Jersey farmers are major suppliers of bean sprouts and water chestnuts to New York's Chinatown). And 75-pound blueberry bushes were installed; after the festival they will be presented to the New Jersey congressional delegation.
All the plants were installed, not planted. Transported in tractor trailers, the 1,500 plants arrived in giant pots and were dropped into holes in the Mall. To solve problems such as New Jersey crops not adapting to rocky Mall soil, the pot method "was a practical solution," said Diana Parker of the Smithsonian's Folklife Office.
In addition to the mini-farm, Jersey farmers will sell produce and give demonstrations and talks. Mary Sorbello, one of the many Italian farmers who settled in South Jersey, gets very upset when she hears anti-New Jersey comments, "even from Johnny Carson," despite the fact that pollution has given her crops blight. Sorbello, who has only been out of the state three times in her life, said that the middle of July is the best time to come to the Garden State for produce. At festival time, she'll still be able to bring tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, zucchini and some early sugar corn.
Farm facts peg New Jersey as housing 9,500 farms; fish facts rank it as the third or fourth largest fishing state on the East Coast, as one of the largest producers of processed clam strips (e.g. Mrs. Paul's), and previously, a 100-million-pound-a-year producer of menhaden (fish whose oil is used in paint). New Jersey's latest surprise is that this year 40,000 metric tons of squid were caught off Cape May, making it one of the largest squid landings in the United States.
Flounder and scallops are far bigger seafood industries, but the festival's featured seafood will be lobsters and oysters ("oysters and lobsters are folksy," said Nils Stolpe of New Jersey's Fisheries Development Office. Tilefish and squid are 20th-century technology-oriented industries).
Even so, oysters from along the Delaware Bay--known to local aficionados as "New Jersey oysters"--have a local identity, like Chincoteague, said Stolpe. Joseph Gibbs, a Port Norris oysterman, who admits that Maryland oysters are better ("the water in New Jersey is brackish, it doesn't have a real salty taste"), knew about oystering before there were such things as conveyor belts, when you had to get down on your hands and knees in the boat to cull. Gibbs will be shucking oysters at the festival, as well as singing in a gospel choir--not an unfamilar combination for him. "When you work all day long, you get tired. When you sing, it seems that the burden gets lighter."
Sea life in New Jersey is not complete without a boardwalk, and the festival doesn't miss that, either. A 150-foot-long boardwalk has been constructed on the Mall complete with seats and umbrellas. No salt air, but there will be caricature artists and balloon men and displays on the history and culture of the boardwalk. And the food? A taffy puller was still uncertain as of last week, although the New Jersey hospitality tent will give out 4,500 pounds of free salt water taffy. So far, that's it--but new ideas keep cropping up every day.
In addition to the fisherman and the farmers, there are more than 100 ethnic groups in New Jersey. Five of these groups will be highlighted at separate "festivals within the festival"--music, dancing, folkways and food demonstrations that will culminate in one-day celebrations.
For example, Betty Bunger, a German living in Piscataway, will be demonstrating how to make German rouladen (beef rolls), while her husband Bernie will be busy leading a German band, and her mother and father-in-law dancing.
And a community of Galicians (a northwest province of Spain) who settled in New Jersey will perform the Queimada Ritual, an alcohol-burning ceremony to purify the town (in this case, Newark) of evils. Julia Lara will demonstrate pulpo a la feria (octopus with a sauce). Getting octopus in Newark is never a problem, said Lara, because the city's Ferry Street is lined with Spanish and Portuguese shops. And by the time the mollusk is imported to Newark, it is usually more tender, too, since it's not as fresh as those in Galicia. (The fresher the octopus, the tougher its muscles. Lara's mother used to beat their octopus meat with a bat to tenderize it.)
There's a celebration for Italians (no food demos, but there will be an Italian restaurant concessionaire from Tuckerton selling meatball and sausage subs), and less expectedly, a Buddist festival and beef sukiyaki demonstration from Seabrook's Japanese. Sweet potato pie and fried corn will represent Alabama Day--an Afro-American festivity commemorating the Alabamans who moved to Elizabeth and East Orange 12 years ago.
Claudette Beaulieu was in New Jersey once, and she ate roast beef at a friend's house in Berkeley Heights. Not too exciting for Beaulieu, an Acadian school principal living in Madawaska, a town on the St. Johns River in northern Maine. Cooking Acadian is "very basic," said Beaulieu; it's a logical combination of the plants and game that were in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick when the French arrived in the 17th century and the influences of the English and Scots settlers.
Thus, Beaulieu will be demonstrating sixpate, a six-layered casserole of dumplings, vegetables and wild game. According to Kathy James of the Smithsonian, the agency is able to supply Beaulieu with all the game--venison, partridge and jackrabbits--except the moose. (Beaulieu offered to bring her own, but moose is not USDA inspected or approved for sale.)
Molasses pie is also an Acadian specialty, traditionally made with blackstrap molasses that settlers used to buy by the barrel. Beaulieu will also prepare ployes, or pancakes made from the buckwheat that grows along the St. Johns River Valley--a crop that was originally grown in Nova Scotia because the French couldn't plant wheat flour on the province's salty marsh land.
No French-American celebration would be complete without Cajun cooks, and Elmo and Maude Ancelet from Lafayette, La., will be ready with roux for gumbos and with creoles and crawfish. Forty pounds of live crawfish will be shipped to Washington for Elmo Ancelet's crawfish boils, and he will be carting up his own barbecue pit to cook Cajun sausages and chicken.
From France, a vineyard owner from Bourbonnais--who also plays the bagpipe and makes his own instruments--will demonstrate grafting grape vines. And the town-hall secretary from Lurcy-Levis will take four days to make her fromage blanc, starting from milk and ending in cheese.
In addition, French sparkling cider and grape juice will be sold at a concession stand, plus roast beef sandwiches on french bread. They even sell that in New Jersey.