Two bronzed children take turns pulling a well-worn Radio Flyer down the narrow sandy path bordering a wide swath of boulevard, cars and bicycles passing at a (mostly) leisurely pace. Inside the wagon is a slick tangle of bodies and legs, scrambling and scratching at the metal sides. It has been a particularly productive afternoon, and there will be crabs for dinner.
This is a snapshot, as described to me, of my husband's idyllic childhood summers—spent not in some quaint New England seaside town, or by the Chesapeake Bay, but on the Jersey Shore.
This may come as a surprise to those of you whose relationship with the Jersey Shore was forged against a backdrop of partying as Snooki, "The Situation," and the rest of the gang on the MTV show "Jersey Shore" took over the town of Seaside Heights for four hot summers.
I confess that, like many New Yorkers, I was a bit of a Jersey snob before meeting my husband, who grew up on the outskirts of Paterson. And after one too many doses of "reality" watching "Jersey Shore," I was pretty confident it was the one of the last places I'd ever want to spend my summers.
But it took just two visits with my husband's family on Long Beach Island to put me firmly on the path of conversion from skeptic to evangelist.
LBI (as anyone who has been there more than once refers to it) is a long slip of an island off the New Jersey coast. It's 18 miles from north to south, and half a mile across at its widest point (one fifth at its skinniest). Less than two hours from New York City, it's flanked on the East by stretches of fine white sand and on the West by the clear waters of Barnegat Bay.
People head to LBI to relax and spend time with friends and family, to grill every night and watch the sun set over the bay from their roof decks, a beer or a gin and tonic in hand. By 10 o'clock at night, the island is mostly winding down so that everyone can rise early for a morning jog or bike ride before facing another extremely tough day of sand and sun and deciding which good things to eat.
So you too can feel like you're part of the extended family, I compiled eight food-related things I love about the Jersey Shore—and specifically LBI. I guarantee you won't get any of these tips on MTV.
On LBI, there are docks jutting out into the bay every seven blocks or so. If you're serious about fishing, you can drop a line for fluke or sea bass. Like my husband and his sister did years ago, kids still dangle strings baited with bunker from the docks into the water below, nets and buckets at the ready to scoop up any curious blue crabs that come begging.
LBI rivals any beachfront community of its size in sheer number of venues where you can either play mini golf or eat ice cream (or both). Most of the scoop shops import ice cream from the mainland, but all suppliers are not created equal. We've learned from experience to look for the signs that advertise Arctic Ice Cream. This Trenton-based company has been making ice cream for more than 80 years; strawberry, black raspberry, and chocolate peanut butter are particularly good—as is the passion fruit sorbet and the rainbow sherbet.
Our best dining experiences on LBI have been those hosted by our own local firehouse or some other civic organization. We've been to the annual striper tournament/fish fry, Oktoberfest celebrations with beer and live music, chicken dinners, and even a pig roast. The food is usually great, the company even better, and your meal ticket goes towards improving municipal services. Look out for signs as you drive up and down the boulevard, or pick up a copy of the SandPaper for more information.
If you're "down the Shore" at the height of summer, there's no reason to buy anything other than local varieties of these three things at one of the many farm stands and farmers markets that pop up just for the season. Try the Surf City farmers market, the Manahawkin farmers market, or head to the Country Corner Farm Market in Ship Bottom—yes, that is the name of a town—and Foster's Farm Market in Beach Haven.
Every place that cares about food has something to say about doughnuts, and LBI is no exception. There's a long-standing rivalry between Shore Good Donuts (with two locations in the south and center of the island) and Marvel's, both experts in the art of the cake doughnut: light and airy, crisp, and small in stature. Shore Good rolls warm doughnuts to order in your topping of choice, while Marvel's keeps a curated selection of flavors on hand. I won't try to sway you with my preference—instead, I recommend that you try the powdered sugar and cinnamon sugar varieties at both shops to make it a fair test.
Up at the north end of the island, just below the town of Barnegat Light, is the marina where all the fishing boats dock with their catch. Cassidy's—arguably the island's best fish market—is located right next to where the boats come in, so they get first dibs on the daily haul. You can even call ahead to find out what's just come in, and ask them to save you a fillet or two.
You'll hear the jingle of bells announcing the arrival of ice cream trucks all day long from the beach. A small fleet of drivers constantly patrols the island, taking one street at a time; they leave the truck idling at the base of the dune, jog up the sandy path to the tallest point overlooking the beach, and ring a bell to announce their arrival. Kids and parents peel themselves off their towels and shuffle over to buy a Firecracker or a Drumstick or—in the case of my 4-year-old—a Sponge Bob pop with bubble gum eyes.
This one is news even to most locals. Forty North Oyster Farms recently began seeding Barnegat Bay with oysters in an effort to revive a previously vibrant population decimated by over-harvesting and disease. My favorite of their varieties, called Rose Coves, have a clean, briny flavor due to their proximity to the ocean, with a little sweetness from the algae they feed on. Ask for them at local fish markets and anywhere they have a raw bar.
If you're going to the Jersey Shore for the food and you're willing to look past the touristy shops hawking fudge and salt water taffy, there's a lot to be found off the beaten path.
If you're going for the parties, I'm afraid I can't help you there. Sorry, Snooki.
A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).Order now