Raised in a Swamp…(but hate the Gators)

I am from about as far away from Louisiana and the south as just about anywhere in the US that is east of the Mississippi.  New Jersey is a tiny, heavily industrialized Northeast state that exists pretty much for the housing needs of NYC in the north and Philadelphia to the south.  It is bordered by a great American River, the Hudson, and has a long coastline teeming with seafood and fine beaches.  In the center it has an indigenous culture that produces some pretty good little league teams and some rather impressive slacker films.  NJ also produces an impressive number of good college football players. It has it’s own language, culture, and food (can you say yuse guys, Jersey Shore, and Taylor Ham), and more impressively it’s own music (Springsteen and Bon Jovi).  It’s politics are corrupt, it is run down, it has large unusable marshy areas that we heedlessly built on anyway, and large tracts of land that are dominated by oil refineries and chemical processing plants.   People look oddly at the denizens of the Pine Barrens as if they are some otherworldly hicks with strange bloodlines, and cringe at the gangs and gun violence in our major cities.  We are state of contrasts, tremendous wealth and crippling poverty, natural beauty and bleak industrialization, good people and goodfellas; a place people dream of getting out of only to realize it will always be home.

I grew up in a swamp.  Literally.  The Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Swamp_National_Wildlife_Refuge) is one of the more unique places in NJ.  A flat, marshy area that is teeming with trees and wildlife, a basin that is the remnants of a great glacial lake.  While we were too far north to have gators, we did have a fair share of snakes, deer, duck, geese, fox, and even the occasional bear.  We spent summers hiking the trails blazed by the deer, and crossing the Black Brook on the trunks of fallen trees.  Sometimes we would catch carp, and maybe even the occasional bass.  Unlike our school friends, we didn’t grow up on a block, but instead a long narrow country road, dotted with only a few houses.  People called us swampers, which is funny considering what most people think of now.  We lived modestly, although I never thought of us as poor.  My parents still live in the house that I grew up in and my father has four trucks, three parked in the driveway and one on the lawn, only one of which runs.

And we had two restaurants in town, once of which was Mexican, and the other, oddly enough, owned by a man from Louisiana who served authentic cajun food.

We were blessed with my mother’s extended Italian family who we visited often for the holidays, sharing simple but bountiful meals.  My Uncle Joe had a long table we only took out at holidays, the legs made out of 2″ galvanized pipe that we threaded on.  We set it up in the living room to accommodate all the cousins, and sometimes had a card table for us kids as well.  We always had more than enough food, and as was customary after the meal we dropped in on friends and family throughout town to share the holidays with them.  In the evenings we would go to my grandparents and relax while my grandmother watched Lawrence Welk reruns on her new TV that was atop her old TV.  We never thought of it as strange.  And so life went on.

And like every other kid who ever grew up like I did I got the hell out of dodge and moved to Boston for college the minute I turned eighteen.  And I vowed never to return.

Boston was an intellectual and cosmopolitan city that still felt like a small town.  It was the perfect place to go to college.  You were on your own, in a big city, but never in too much danger.  We had no money, and our favorite place to eat was a Tex-Mex/Lousiana joint that served totally inauthentic and over-spiced food, but on the cheap.  Everything was blackened, but we didn’t know any better, and the mix of Dixie Beer and zydeco was music to our underage souls.  When we had any money at all, we would go to a place called the Cajun Yankee, where the real deal (as real as it could be in Boston) was to be had.  We were enamored with the culture.  I had just read “All the Kings Men.”  What was this place Louisiana?  I had to know.

As it turns out, I didn’t find out until fifteen years later, as a sour economy had me headed straight back to NJ to work in my father’s electrical contracting business, the one thing I had tried to avoid my whole life.  I lost Lousiana and Dixie and zydeco and picked up a pair of pliers for ten years.  Every now and then we would hit that place up in Boston but the food didn’t taste the same, but fortunately, that’s not where the story ends.

Now, I could get into all the details, of how I got married, became a professional chef, had a kid, got divorced, worked in some of NYC’s better restaurants, met a Louisiana girl, quit at the height of my career, fell in love with Louisiana, and started writing this blog… and I will.  But the trick to any good story is to reveal the details slowly, and build carefully.

What I will tell you is this: While home is always home, sometimes you find home where you’re not looking for it; and sometimes you step into a place that feels like it has always been home.  And then you realize, it is because the home you had and the home you found aren’t that different to begin with… and this is where we will end the beginning of our journey… pictures, tall tales, and recipes to soon follow…

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