Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Counting the Crap on the New Jersey Turnpike

(they've all come to look for America...)

I took a brief solo road trip about a week and a half ago and found myself, the Saturday before Easter, driving the highway you just have to love to hate, the New Jersey Turnpike.  (And yet, it is a road that, when driving on it, I find I strangely miss).  I think Jersey drivers are fooled by my Virginia plates.  It's only after I pass them in a huff that they realize they were messing with one of their own.

They're doing a pretty massive widening of the turnpike, from about exit 8 (where the bus & truck lanes merge with the car lanes) all the way down, it seems, at least to exit 5 (south of the Pennsylvania Turnpike exit).  It looks like it's just about doubling in width, from two lanes in each direction to four.  Most drivers of that highway will say (myself included at times) that this was a desperately needed "improvement."  But, as every civil engineer since Robert Moses has known, nature abhors a vacuum, so I guess "Yay, more cars?"

Needing a restroom, I pulled into the Molly Pitcher Rest Area (southbound only, milepost 71.7).  As I turned off my car, I decided, just for shnits and giggles, to bring my journal in with me and to record what, if any, healthy food choices were available for the weary travelers making their way through my Garden State.  Any guesses as to what I found?

There was a Cinnabon.  Mmm, highly processed white flour covered with globs of warm and melting white sugar, cream cheese and plenty of chemicals thrown in for good measure.

There was an Auntie Anne's Pretzels.  More highly processed (and nutritionally worthless) white flour covered with salt (or cinnamon sugar, or pepperoni, or sour cream & onion).  Am I naive to have actually been surprised that they didn't offer a whole wheat pretzel?

There was a Roy Rogers.  Mmm.  No really, mmm.  One high school summer I worked at the Roy Rogers on Route 34 in Matawan, NJ.  I worked in the kitchen and was in charge of frying the chicken.  I dipped the pieces in the batter, and deep fried them until golden brown, crispy on the outside, moist and juicy on the inside.  I loved that fried chicken, but of course wasn't allowed to stand there and gorge myself on it (but why???).  What i did instead was take small pieces of the batter or breading and throw them in the deep fryer with the batches of chicken.  When the chicken was done, I would take those beautiful nuggets of fried goodness and gobble them up.  That was one delicious job - a bit stinky though.  I walked out there every day smelling like a walking grease trap.  I'm pretty sure the uniform included some brown polyester pants as well.

There was an Arthur Treacher's Fish and Chips.  What a throwback!  I thought this chain had gone out of business decades ago.  Arthur Treacher's was a sort of the precursor to today's Long John Silver's, but way, way better.  Not a fast food joint.  There was an Arthur Treacher's on Route 35 in either Hazlet or Keyport when I was growing up, and I loved that place.  Deep-fried cod with those big steak fries.  I'm pretty sure that's where I was introduced to Malt Vinegar, which, when paired with lots of salt, was better than anything on some hot fries.  The place was a coronary waiting to happen, to be sure, but that hot greasy and crispy fish was one of my favorites.

And then there was a Nathan's.  Now, don't get me or my family started on Nathan's.  Oops, too late.  Nathan's hot dogs, if you've not had them, are hot dogs totally unlike any other.  They are the only hot dogs worth eating.  They have a certain saltiness, a certain piquant je-ne-sais-pas, a joie-de-vivre  that is entirely unique.  I assure you, if any piece of meat could have joie-de-vivre, it's a Nathan's hot dog.  (Perhaps it's the added nitrates.  Or the added pig's lips.  Okay, that's just gross).  But it's not only the Nathan's hot dog that held (and holds) such a place of honor in my family, it was also Nathan's the place, Nathan's the landmark, Nathan's the institution that to this day stands along the Coney Island boardwalk and lives large in my childhood memories.

Almost every time we went to visit my maternal grandmother Enis (the one who lived in Long Island with her sister when I was growing up and who frequently gave us lollipops for breakfast - see Who Is Sausage Boy? for more info on her) we visited this this piece of culinary history en route.  From New Jersey, we'd hop on Route 440 to I-278, make our way across that poor forgotten borough of New York City, Staten Island, cross the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge (certainly my favorite suspension bridge of all time - don't get the NYC tour guide in me started), get off at Cropsey Avenue and BINGO, there you are, in the furthest reaches of Brooklyn (not too far from my mother's old haunts and my very own place of birth, Flatbush & Avenue U).  And there, nestled right in between the New York Aquarium on one side and the world-famous Cyclone on the other, is the first, the original, the only - Nathan's. 

Dear reader, I'll let you, in your spare time, peruse the history of Nathan's (opened in 1916, served by FDR to British royalty along with Churchill and Stalin, etc.).  Suffice it to say here that their hot dogs and the visits to their birthplace were an integral part of my youth.  They served these thick and chunky crinkle cut french fries (you can buy them today in the frozen foods aisle of your neghborhood grocer!) and some sort of orange drink, both of which we all ordered every time we went.  The drink was sort of a cross between orange soda and an Orange Julius, if I recall correctly.  My heart softens now remembering those visits with my family.  However, enough nostalgia - back to the Turnpike

Back to Our Story

Amidst all these disease-inducing delicacies at the Molly Pitcher Rest Area, I did finally discover something we might call "real food."  In addition to the aforementioned fine-dining establishments, the rest area had a convenience store and gift area where you could get t-shirts, gum and the like (I've been wanting to put a "New Jersey and You - Perfect Together" bumper sticker on my car for a while, but they don't seem to make those.  Darn.)  And wait, I'm sorry, they sell perfume here too?  Really, there's a fragrance counter at the turnpike rest area - where the hell am I, Macy's?  Anyway, there, in the corner of the gift area was a small refrigerated stand-alone unit that had some pre-made Oscar Meyer sandwiches, a few yogurt cups, and whoa, what's this?, some Naked Juices and, uh oh, hold on to your hats people, a few small containers filled with...can it be?  Fresh Fruit?  Yes, it's true, for $3.99 you could actually purchase an 8oz clear plastic cup filled with your choice of red grapes, strawberries or watermelon chunks.  I suppose someone at the NJ Turnpike Commission thought a small nod should be given to those travelling persons who were attempting to be healthy.  A small nod indeed - in their view, those travellers clearly make up the tiniest fraction of the population, while most everyone else is happy with those other choices.  I guess they're not really wrong.

I'd like to say I was saddened or shocked at what I found, but let's face it, we all know that's what's out there for us to eat - crap. It's not really in anyone else's economic self-interest to have me eat well.  That responsibility rests squarely on my own shoulders.  Which is why I now find myself carrying a lot of my own food with me if I have to travel.   I guess if there was something that made me sad, it was how many people were partaking.   (I am really trying not to be too judegmental here, I promise - that's a tendency I have, one I do not like, by the way.)  I got back into the car, paid my four dollars per gallon of gasoline, and headed into the sunset with my very own mango, avocado and trusty bag of almonds at my side.

Next on Sausage Boy Goes Green

I've started taking pictures of some of my culinary creations, so next up we'll have the recipe for another new favorite - Red Hot Raw Beet Salad.  (It's not really hot, there's actually nothing spicy about it, except for a bit of shallot.  I just made that up so didn't sound too plain - "Raw Beet Salad" -  it should sound a little more tempting or exciting, don't you think?)

Be well all!


  1. I hear ya,'s frankly nearly criminal the LACK of healthy food. It's almost as if someone is, dare I say it, INTENTIONALLY not providing healthy food choices! It's almost like someone wants us not to be healthy....nah...that can't be right (insert sarcasm here :-). Carry on, and yeah, definitely carry-on-your-own-food! Love your blog!
    Sue in Ohio

  2. Sue in Ohio - It's sort of like health care, better a sick population than healthy one, if you're a health insurance company at least!

    Thanks for the vote of confidence!