Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Ovus Mundii: The Egg Platter of the World

"Oh Jersey, oh thou gutsy state. O, Jersey, thy state with human yeast, oh Jersey, thy moiling state of incessant activity and unbelievable slobs, oh Jersey, the great state stands as a legend... and so, Jersey, we salute thee tonight. Possessed of devils, hounded by a consistent sense of just having missed out on history." Jean Shepherd, "The Jersey Devil"

21 Egg Plate Varieties! 
As I often explain, New York City - my birthplace - is a small island nation located a short distance off the coast of America. In 1966, in the hopes of making a living duping rubes in the construction industry, my father committed the unpardonable sin of moving the family across the Hudson River to New Jersey. Although not far in distance - we were four miles from Manhattan - life in Jersey both made me and scarred me for life. North Jersey is both an extension of the NY metropolis and a defiantly independent entity in itself. It boasts sprawling factories exuding toxic smoke and sludge into the vast Jersey swamps, vapid shopping malls for the worker drones to consume, and hideous Trump-owned casinos to sop up the remaining wages not yet consumed. Patches of old time Americana vie with ethnic neighborhoods offering "home" to some of the world's less publicized communities:  Coptic Egyptians, Meshketian Turks, Kalmyk Mongols, Ramapough Indians, Syrian Jews, Armenians, Scots, Albanian Vlachs, Plattsdeutsch speaking Germans, Cubans, Vietnamese, and of course, that breed most unique to the region, the Jersey Italian. All brought their unique cuisines, but all shared one acquired Jersey trait: the day starts with eggs at a diner.

The Egg Platter, Paterson NJ
In New Jersey you drive to your job, usually along outdated roads that reflect the infrastructural needs of a more bucolic era. Route 4, once a jaunty country road extending west from the George Washington Bridge, remains just that except that now there are millions of commuter SUVs and semi trucks rushing along it every day. Route 46 was the road that trucked fresh vegetables into Manhattan... Route 17 carried vacationers into the Catskills... none were designed to handle the traffic they receive today. Unless you grew up driving here, they are all death traps: outdated, overcrowded, badly designed, constructed by the semi-literate in-laws of the local mayor, and liberally littered with the mortal remains of all those who failed to reach their exit ramp at the proper speed and angle. Modern four lane superhighways do exist in New Jersey, but just not where you are driving at any given time.

I-hop. Breakfast endures.
And if you have to drive to work, you stop at a diner for breakfast. Eggs, of course. With bacon... home fries, toast, and watery coffee that would make a Romanian train station snack bar sneer with superiority. New Jersey is still an empire of diners. From the 1930s to the 1970s, small, sleek metallic roadside eateries were churned out by New Jersey builders on custom order. NJ probably has more surviving steel domed diners than any other state: they are just too successful to tear down. I worked as a city garbage collector in Hackensack after High School, and the sight of the gleaming, shiny dome of a diner promising an egg breakfast halfway through the workday at 7 AM was the high point of a busy morning spent trucking trash down to the Lyndhurst dump.

Paterson's Egg Platter: the best preserved New Jersey breakfast diner.
One of the diners we used to stop at was, in fact, Harry's Corner in South Hackensack. Harry's gained a measure of fame with the confession of Richard Kuklinsky - AKA "The Iceman" - a professional hitman for the NJ Mafia with over 100 murders to his name. In 1982 Kuklinsky killed pharmacist Paul Hoffman (beating him with a crow bar after his gun misfired - so very Jersey!) in a drug deal gone sour and stuffed the body into an oil drum which he carefully placed on the sidewalk outside Harry's diner. For more than two weeks Kuklinsky would drop in for a meal at Harry's to see if patrons had noticed anything strange or if cops had shown up. Nobody noticed. One day the oil drum wasn't there. Case closed. In Jersey, we just simply do not give a shit. Also in 1982 Kuklinsky fed a cyanide laced hamburger to one associate in the York Motel in North Bergen (near our favorite Korean supermarket!) and stuffed the body under the box springs of the motel bed. Over the next four days patrons renting the room never commented on the odd smell. Because, what the hell, its a motel in North Bergen, New Jersey!

The State Sandwich of New Jersey
New Jersey's classic working class breakfast is the Taylor Ham, egg and cheese sandwich. Like sushi (slice of raw fish, chunk of rice, seaweed) it looks simple but is so much more than the sum of its parts. Taylor ham is made in the state capital, Trenton. Nothing else - literally, nothing else - is made in Trenton. It is sold throughout the state, but as you get into Bergen County near New York it starts becoming rare, a shameful reminder of Jersey's Boardwalk Empire past that would offend the delicate urban sensibilities of the Whole Foods crowd. It isn't ham, and it isn't quite salami, and has a flavor someplace between Canadian bacon and ham. It is spam for people who don't admit that they like spam. Sliced and fried - and always cut with three notches to prevent it puffing up into cups on the grill - it becomes a crispy, salty base for an egg and sliced American processed cheese piled onto a kaiser roll.

The King of Mystery Meats
The Egg Platter in Paterson is a classic diner specializing in, as its name would suggest - eggs. Yes you can get burgers and sandwiches and daily specials as well, but essentially it is for breakfast and closes after lunch. It sits on Crooks Avenue amid the Arab and Turkish groceries and felaful shops attracting delivery truckers from nearby Corrado's Family affair, a quirky NJ megamarket that deserves a post on its own. The Egg Platter proudly offers "21 Egg Platter Novelties" including such delicate rarities as spanish omelette and sausage and eggs, but the Taylor ham, egg, and cheese sandwich is the one to go for. Jersey takes its eggs very seriously: in 1992 the State banned runny eggs: soft boiled, poached, sunny side up joined heroin and monkey meat on the list of things the State considered forbidden consumables. The idea was to protect the good people of the Garden State from Salmonella bacteria, but due to massive outrage and threats of violent rebellion, the law was quietly dropped soon after.

The White Manna: Origin of the slider.
While on the subject of tiny diners it has been a while since I sang the praises of the tiniest of diners: Hackensack's White Manna hamburger stand. It has stood alongside the polluted, muddy Hackensack River since 1946 and was once managed by my friend's father, a Cherokee Indian married to a Hungarian. I never ate there until I had my driver's license and began working for the Hackensack Sanitation Dept: it was just somewhere that Jews did not eat - an attitude that extended to the soul food luncheonettes and sub shops that were the mainstays of garbage man lunch. The attitude seemed to be that neighboring Teaneck was full of delicatessens and bagel shops, so leave the egg diners to the gentiles. The White Manna has been caught in a time warp ever since then. The White manna was designed as a perfect morning egg destination, but is best known for its sliders, a tiny hamburger (preferably with cheese) that is slow steamed atop a bed of onions.

Artisanal, historically correct lunch at White Manna.
Back in the depression era 1930s, sliders developed as a way to stretch out a tiny bit of meat into a full hamburger sandwich: add onions. Onions and ground meat are the Romeo and Juliet of cheap eats. From this we get both the White Castle burger as well as various tiny burgers available along many of New Jersey's less repaired roadways, such as River Ave in Hackensack, which was enjoying a massive sinkhole at the time we visited. White Manna may be the tiniest of tiny diners in New Jersey, but that hasn't kept it off of many top ten hamburger lists in the USA, and it is a regular stop for foodie porn TV shows.

The kitchen and 2/3 of the dining area at White Manna.
It is not rare to see somebody come in and order thirty for an office lunch or road crew. At lunch there is always a crowd, sometimes a line going out the door. We came at a much more civilized three PM, mainly because it is across the street from the Giant Farmers' Market, a Korean-Mexican-Pakistani budget outlet for fish and veg where I do most of my NJ shopping.

What Jean Shepherd eats in Jersey heaven.
But it is a damn good burger. Prices have risen since the good old days when burgers hovered around a buck a burger, but our bill came to $16 for five burgers, fries, and three drinks.including unsweetened ice tea (for all you Whole Foods fans!) The burger could use some seasoning beforehand, but topped with the chunks of US commodity cheese and sliced pickles it is folk art burger heaven. Jersey: don't ever change. We'll have lunch sometime, OK?

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