Saturday, August 02, 2014

New Jersey: Gone to the Dogs.

“Wait." Clary was suddenly nervous. "The melted metal-it could be, like, toxic or something."
Maia snorted. "I'm from New Jersey. I born in toxic sludge.” 
― Cassandra ClareCity of Ashes

Unfortunately, you can go home again, if you are from Jersey. Like a lot of Garden Staters, I was born and raised in New York City and only sent into cruel exile beyond the GW Bridge in my teen years, but it was enough to brand my soul with the existential sense of emptiness and pizza grease that defines a Jerseyite. Sprawling out of the New York urbanopolis like a bad rash, New Jersey exists in several simultaneous time zones.

Bits of history lie scattered about the suburban lansdscape. Old Jersey Dutch families from the 1600s linger on as drug dealing real estate agents and high school dropouts. Lenape Indian descendants fight lawsuits against Ford Motors in Mahwah, five minutes drive from the Garden State Mall. Half the towns in Bergen county are called "Boroughs" or "Boro" in the local spelling: reminders of a half witted scheme in the 1890s to lower taxes. The depression era 1930s is still alive here, as are the suburban migrations of the 1960s, the highway strip mall culture of the 1970s, the immigrants of the 1990s replacing the old German and Italian speaking neighborhoods with Peruvians, Lebanese, Bosnians and specialty enclaves offering Kabardins, Tatars, and Kumyks from the valleys of the Caucasus. Ye shall know them by their bakeries.

I am "home" again, the home I left a lifetime ago and still feel wrong in, but it is where my folks live and where I will have work for the immediate future, so here I am. And so is my son, visiting the Grandparents and Aunts and Uncles, tasting the ethnic specialties that his Dad was raised on... corned beef sandwiches, pizza, Chinese food, and yesterday, an introduction into the peculiar Jerseyite cult of the Texas Wiener. I have posted before about the Jersey Hot Dog. New York has the classic kosher dirty water dog, the soggy push cart variety as well as the snappy skinned grilled deli style. New Jersey has several regional styles, including the deep fried ripper made famous by Rutts Hutt and by Hiram's in Ft. Lee. Since Uncle Ron got the air conditioned Jew Canoe for the day, we took Aron out to try the lesser known locavore specialty known as the Texas Wiener. Texas wieners are not from Texas. No Texan would ever deign to do this to a Wiener.

Texas Wiener at the New Corral Grill
Texas Wieners are a regional hot dog style from the area around Paterson and Clifton New Jersey, a snarl of highway overpasses, used car lots, aluminum siding retail lots, and a large and shifting ethnic population heavy on Middle Easterners ever since Syrian merchants were attracted to the booming silk trade centered in Paterson in the 19th century. The silk industry is gone, but the flavor of a Balkan red meat sauce spiced with oregano and cinnamon remains, slopped onto budget hot dogs with onions and considered to be authentically Texan enough to merit the name "chili" and thus "Texas Wieners." (Usually spelled "weiners.") Drive ten miles away and they are again called Chili dogs, but in the Clfton and Paterson area, Texas Wieners do daily battle with fans of the deep fried hot dogs known as rippers.
Taylor Ham: its what's for breakfast!
Our first stop was the New Corral Diner. Aron was impressed by the interior: anyplace else that looked like this would be considered a hipster graphic artists's idea of an ironic American diner. But no, this is the real thing. Breakfast served all day, because that is how we roll in Jersey. The Texas Wiener was excellent: some kind of weird Grandma's spice from a forgotten region that once interested linguists due to their absolute lack of vowels or past tense. Aron heard the staff speaking some language that may have been Izhor, or possibly a Mandean Aramaic dialect, or possibly Zazaki. we will never know. This is Clifton, after all, so it could be anything besides Albanian, because we know that is what they speak over at the Hot Grill. We are here for Texan food, right? Not Albanian. The Corral is nothing if not honest, simple New Jersey food, with such standards as chocolate pudding, eggs and bacon, and that most New Jersey of Mystery Meats, Taylor "Ham."
Corral Grill: Texas Wieners without irony.
The real reason we were in Clifton was to visit the Istanbul Food Bazaar - I have to eat, after all - and to find Rutts Hutt, which we did not locate, it being famous and located on the main highway and us being... well... us. But passing the great steaming lava spread of used car dealers and highway detritus that leads to Teterboro airport we found ourselves at Hank's Franks. By accident, of course. Hank's Franks is not a destination. Nobody leaves their house saying "I am going to Hank's Franks. That will be my destination. I am sooo there! At Hank's Franks!" It is just a place you find yourself, and they happen to have Texas Wieners. Ask your local Zen practitioner for details.

Fine dining near Teterboro
Hanks serves basic New York Kosher Sabretts dogs in classic mustard and sauerkraut style, but also, this being Route 46, the Texas Wiener. And it was quite good, as things Weiner and Texas go. Spicier than the usual, but with enough cayenne in the sauce to feel the heat, and lacking any trace of the ethnic herbs that Grandma brought back with her when she fled from Wherethefuckistan so many years ago.

The aesthetically unpleasant food of New Jersey.
This being the Passaic River valley, everybody's cell phones rang with warnings of flash floods as storm clouds rose over the horizon. This is another fact about New Jersey. It is geographically unsafe to live here. There are annual floods that make home-owning suspiciously affordable in certain low lying regions. There are occasional earthquakes. Chemical dumps regularly erupt in spontaneous combustion. The swamps reek of heavy metal pollution, rotting cane, and the decomposing remains of former members of This Thing of Ours. Chris Christie - the Jabba the Hutt lookalike who illegally ordered the George Washington Bridge to be shut down for political reasons - is not only still Governor, he thinks he may run for President. There is a reason that old comic books always had stories about subhuman monsters emerging from the Jersey swamps. It was true. New Jersey is the State of Mutants. 

And you can't run away. To get anywhere in Jersey you have to sit in a small metal container and plummet at insane speeds along crowded highways designed during the Great Depression when there were only 724 automobiles in the entire state, and you have to share this crumbling cement donkey path with even bigger and more dangerous vehicles driven by the angry guy who was just wolfing down Texas Wieners next to you at that stand near Clifton. And everywhere you go in Jersey there are American flags flying. Huge American flags. Just in case you ever forget exactly which Great Country you are in. You are in Jersey. Welcome home.


dlwilson26 said...

Are you sure that the Hot Grill in Clifton is now Albanian? Last time I checked the owners were Greek. The chili sauce--a Greek immigrant concoction.

If you don't know your way in Paterson, you should contact me next time you are there. You cut yourself off from some interesting food and people. And if you want to go to Rutt's Hut in Clifton, I can tell you the directions so you don't get lost.

Bergen County? I live here and there are some good restaurants that have long lineages and aren't franchises or "fern bar" decor, but Hank's Franks? You certainly can do better than that.

How do you know that I'm not some 20-something schlepper with an attitude? I grew up in Paterson and my family was from Clifton, 6 blocks from the Hot Grill. I saw it change in 1962 from an ice cream stand to its current incarnation.

I'm assuming that you are Hungarian? If you are, you are missing an opportunity here by not reviewing the places in Passaic. That would be a real public service for us.

dumneazu said...

Thanks. Paterson is a secret gem for good food. I like the Hot Grill, and was there last year and overheard some of the counter staff speaking Albanian. Like I said: Hank's Franks is not a destination. You assume right - Hungarian - but when in the USA Hungarian food is definitely not what I crave. Next time I get there it will be ceviche time in Little Lima!

dlwilson26 said...

Next time you owe yourself a trip to a Peruvian Chinese restaurant or "chiffa." There is a really good one in Paterson and several in Passaic and Clifton. Remember, Peruvian is just the most recent immigrant wave in the area. There are plenty of other national cuisines to sample, as well as some great native hotspots.

hugo said...

Weiners? Ugh! A recruiting sargeant for the Vegetarian Society!

qlf said...

Stopping by to say a brief hello — a friend in my doctoral program told me about your blog ages ago, and now that I'm in Budapest for a research year I see you are currently in New Jersey. I wish you much joy of your culinary adventures, and hope they're slightly more auspicious than this last.

Did you ever make it back to the Orient Étterem? I am hoping to slowly crib Chinese noodle/pho recommendations from earlier posts... for which, many thanks in advance.

(Incidentally if you have the patience for it I might also ask about how one might go about selecting a novice-friendly táncház — there are so many in this town! — as well as where, if one had an interest, one might acquire basic instruction in a folk instrument; I spent a long time growing up playing classical cello, thus wonder about my instructibility in folk, but hey, asking never hurts, right? Of course the deferred purchasing of a drink or several for you would be involved in this brain-picking.)

((Hm. Seems the hello has metastasized rather. Apologies!))

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