I don’t gamble. Not on slot machines or dice rolling or spinny, slotted wheels, or—most especially—on dubious food destinations. Which isn’t to say that I don’t gamble on food at all. No, no, no. Exploring new dishes and ingredients and holes-in-the-wall and on-good-authority lauded white-cloth spots is kind of what it’s all about. Like the inaugural story Elina Shatkin wrote a few weeks ago on the Hawaiian-diner wonder-dish, loco moco—I would totally, blindly wade into an ocean of brown gravy with Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, fork in hand and at the ready. Life’s too short for bad meals, or tossing good money after bad at video poker. And this is why I’d never set foot in Atlantic City.
AC, it turns out, has got some culinary points of interest, not to mention some fun food history.
I grew up in eastern Long Island, so the Jersey Shore with its many sea-town allures was not something really known to me. If I want a fish shack, I think in terms of 495 East, not the Garden State Parkway. So, when an invitation landed on my desk to check out the Atlantic City Wine & Food Festival sponsored by The Food Network, I was… confused. Intrigued. Compelled. I mean, Atlantic City? Isn’t that just Vegas on the water? And what’s up with having a food festival there? Sure, there have been chefs lending their names to the stream of casinotels and chi-chi spots like the Borgata, which opened with much fanfare far and beyond the cha-ching-ishness of the place, but I never took that to be anything other than a food façade. You know, you’ve got to give the high rollers something else to spend their money on.
AC Stands for Attitudinal Cuisine
But AC, it turns out, has got some culinary points of interest, not to mention some fun food history. Like salt water taffy, which may be the easiest to overlook because it’s utterly synonymous with State Fairs, hokey souvenirs, and seaside towns. I was strolling down the Boardwalk, heading back to my hotel, trying to work off what I’d just consumed from the Fest’s Brews, Blues and Barbecue shindig at the House of Blues, when an old sign caught my eye above the fray of stands hocking T-shirts and sarongs and suntan lotion. It was big and red, and scrawled in an old-timey script was Fralinger’s Original Salt Water Taffy. On the door to the shop it noted the date 1885.
Inside, rectangular shaped, sea-green colored boxes with a drawing of a twenty-three-skidoo bathing-capped beauty in the ocean were neatly stacked into tower-like displays, while bins and bins of pastel-hued, waxy-paper wrapped candies dazzled the eye like a sweet, psychedelic sunset.
At the register, the Ukrainian-accented cashier gave me some back-story: While Fralinger’s is old, the competing taffy maker down the way who bought them in 1885, James’, lay claim to the candy’s very name itself. James’ original owner, David Bradley, began to sell his taffy on a stand by the shore in 1880. One windy night, a mini-squall of sorts blew salty sea water all over his wares, leaving Bradley with slightly soggy candy that he sarcastically billed the whole next day as salt water taffy. The name stuck, and a legend was born. Who knew?
I didn’t. And as I plunged my hand into my bag of multi-colored sticky treats, chewing until my teeth ached, it started to seem that maybe AC was the perfect spot for a Food Network-backed fete. Paula Deen; Guy Fieri; the Neelys; Sandra Lee: These are not the Daniel Bouluds or Thomas Kellers of the culinary world by a long shot. These are down-home, work-a-day, working-class kitchen heroes. The Bruce Springsteens of the stove. An above-the-fold cover article in last Wednesday’s New York Times was devoted entirely to the magical lure of Fieri (“The Chef-Dude Is in the House”), the host of the uber-popular “Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives”—and as New Jersey is home to more diners than any other state in the Union, his audience was, in a sense, built in.
“He stopped in!” one of the sandwich makers at the still-family-owned White House Sub Shop told me, while I waited on line for one of their famous, cold-cut piled sandwiches. White House has been making subs since 1946 when Anthony Basile opened his ever-crammed front door, and the walls of the place are lined with the faces of the famous who’ve sunk their teeth into cheese steaks and cappacolla-laden bread—everyone from Sinatra to Seinfeld. Still, Fieri’s presence seemed to hold special star power. “He was really cool. He totally hung out!” the sandwich maker told me as he sliced open a nearly two-foot long locally baked Italian loaf.
And that’s the thing that separates AC from Vegas – AC doesn’t necessarily have to fly in its fare. It is part of the Garden State, after all. Of course, the big-smiling stars of the Food Network were the major draw here, but New Jersey was on display, too, like at Claire Robinson’s Jersey Tomato Brunch and among the local food and wine vendors at the Grand Market held at Bally’s, where I met a cool local family who had emigrated from Malaysia, started out working in a Nabisco factory, and busted out to make their own line of salty, seasoned crunchy plantain chips, or the little Lambertville, NJ, microbrewer, River Horse Brewing Company, whose great cardamom-infused witt beer was both spicy and refreshing. The night before, I dined at local restaurateur Stephen Starr’s Continental at Ceasar’s Palace, whose menu makes nod after nod at diner and boardwalk favorites, kicked up a notch (to borrow a phrase from a former FN celeb). And even if not all the food or events took advantage of the local talent or produce, at least parties like Paula Deen’s splashy, white-tented Boardwalk bash made good use of the seaside scenery.
Here, hundreds and hundreds of fans forked over $75 a ticket to fill up on Paula’s bacon-wrapped corn, sticky ribs, and other gut-busting specialties of the big-haired hostess.
While I waited on line, I chatted up retired fire chief John Russo and his wife, who’d been to last year’s Festival and were none too happy that Paula had yet to show up and mingle.
“Last year, Guy hosted. He was great! He worked the audience! He mingled.”
I said goodbye to Russo at the rib station and jockeyed for a seat at one of the packed tables. I slowly worked my way through my plate of Deen delicacies, but an hour has past and Ms. Deen had yet to show up. So I skedaddled, tempted instead by a different star I’d noticed on my way in. Set up right outside Paula’s party, was a farm stand packed full of some of the first local tomatoes of the season. They were only there for the Festival, which seemed like a pity. Fresh local produce on weekends on the Boardwalk? Mmmm. Now that seems like a pretty great idea and easy enough to implement, I thought as I filled up a bag full of locally grown, multi-colored heirlooms. What happens in Vegas may well stay there—and that’s okay. They can’t grow anything there anyway. What happens in AC seems to have a little more flavor.