To say that Anthony Bourdain changed the way we think about food is an understatement. In a world where food is often treated as a status symbol, where the wealthy and elite indulge in hard to source, premium ingredients prepared by some of the world’s most skillful chefs, Bourdain’s unpretentious outlook on the food world was a great equalizer.
Through his writing and television shows, Bourdain celebrated the everyday foods that fueled average people around the world. While food writers and journalists were scoping out new dining trends and following the movements of celebrity chefs, Bourdain was drinking soju with locals in South Korea, feasting on deep-fried fish and chips at a family owned joint that’s been open in Scotland since 1918, and dining with Bill Murray while discussing the importance of southern food heritage in Charleston, South Carolina.
Bourdain’s work whisked us away to locales around the world, but unlike other travel shows that tend to romanticize destinations with glossy imagery and hip points of interest meant to inspire armchair travelers to book a trip, shows like Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown on CNN often highlighted the real-life issues these places face. Food intersects with travel, but it also contextualizes history, culture and social and political issues, all of which Bourdain knew how to reconcile.
He was real and honest whenever he shined a light on dark subjects, inviting home cooks, restaurateur and locals to share the vulnerable parts of their lived experiences. Hard to face topics were not presented in a way that undermined a place, nor were these topics explored in a manner that made that place any less desirable to visit — in fact, some travelers may argue that these destinations became even more desirable when viewed through Bourdain’s lens. Instead, the truths that Bourdain focused on made the places he explored, the people he met and their personal experiences more relatable. Suddenly, people from other cities, states, and countries were not so different from ourselves. They, like us, face hardship with resilience and overcome setbacks with perseverance. At the end of the day they, no matter where in the world we are, we can always find comfort in a grandma’s cooking or celebrate triumphs over a traditional drink. To Bourdain, food bridged the gaps between us, and through his storytelling he led us over those bridges with grit and grace.
My home state of New Jersey got the Bourdain treatment during Season 5 of Parts Unknown. As a television host, editor, and writer myself, I am always mindful of the way places, cultures, traditions and people are presented. However, any time a journalist attempts to cover the Garden State, my editorial senses become heightened. Perhaps I’m being overly protective, but I imagine anyone who sees their hometown featured in a major publication or major television series feels the same way. Can a TV show convey the essence of a place or capture the spirit of a culinary tradition in under an hour? Can a journalist really grasp the identity of a place when it takes locals their entire lifetime to figure it out?
I love Parts Unknown and have watched several seasons of the show, but I must admit, despite being a fan of Bourdain, I skipped the New Jersey episode. It had nothing to do with my high standards, in fact, the cause for my hesitation was quite the opposite. I avoided the New Jersey episode of Parts Unknown because I knew Bourdain’s portrayal of my home state would be sincere and candid. I felt he would likely expose parts of New Jersey that locals grapple with and, as he did through most of his work, he’d attempt to turn our pain points into points of pride.
I didn’t see the episode until after Bourdain’s passing, when the State of New Jersey turned the episode into an official tourist attraction: . Since Bourdain spent most of his childhood in Leonia, New Jersey, I assumed that most of the episode would highlight North Jersey destinations like Elizabeth, Paterson, and maybe even Hoboken or Jersey City. Ask anyone from New Jersey and they’ll tell you that North and South Jersey should just be two different states. We have different accents, different temperaments, and different pizza preferences. We can’t seem to agree on whether “the city” is New York City or Philadelphia, nor can we come to a decision about whether or not breakfast sandwiches are made with “Taylor Ham” or “pork roll.” The only things we share are the New Jersey Turnpike and the thick skin necessary to take the jokes the rest of the nation slings at us.
Stuck in the middle of a season where Bourdain took viewers on a quest through Budapest, Madagascar, and Scotland, the choice to highlight New Jersey amongst these other far-flung destinations felt out of place. Could New Jersey really be as interesting of a destination as places across the Atlantic Ocean? Yes, when Bourdain is presenting it. He always had a knack for taking everyday food and elevating it to the ranks of fine dining, putting a greasy sandwich or a simple bowl of soup on the map. And that is exactly what he did with his New Jersey episode.
When I saw the map, I was surprised to see that eight of the ten stops along the food trail were in my neck of the woods of South Jersey (with one being up north, and another in the highly debated “Central Jersey” region). Stops included the City of Camden where I was born, the Pine Barrens where I spent weekends with my father’s Piney family, the shore where I spent my summer days, and Atlantic City where my grandparents on my mom’s side first met. I was delighted that these stops, aside from the ones in Atlantic City, aren’t one’s you’d normally see on a tourist map. Each place has roots deeply embedded in the nuanced aspects of New Jersey tradition, they have histories dating back to the Garden State’s glory days, and the hyper local followings they’ve built up over the years have been extremely loyal throughout the generations.
NEW JERSEY’S SHORE TOWNS
The trail tugs on the nostalgic heart strings of both Bourdain’s personal life and the collective consciousness of New Jersey. The first stop is one of Bourdain’s childhood favorites, Hiram’s Roadstand in Fort Lee, for a fried feast that hasn’t changed since the 1950’s when Bourdain’s father started taking him there.
The trail moves south where a bulk of the stops wind through New Jersey’s shore towns. They’re offbeat spots that, during the episode, were filmed during the off seasons, which to some might look like poor scheduling on the producer’s part, but really, it gives you an idea of what these towns are like when all the shoobies go home. Scenes of snow-covered beaches and empty boardwalks remind us that regardless of what time of year it is, there are people who still live there.
The trail takes visitors to Asbury Park’s Frank’s Deli & Restaurant where Bourdain touches on the town’s influence on musical legends like Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi. Live music, bars, and entertainment were antithetical to the morals on which Asbury Park was originally founded on. But rebellious artists brought the rock and roll lifestyle to this shore town and made it a classic rock capital.
During the episode, Bourdain and his brother drive under a gray sky through the snowy Pine Barrens to get to their childhood vacation spot, Long Beach Island. At Kubel’s in Barnegat Light, they slide into a wooden booth and chow down on clams plucked right out of the nearby waters. Their meal was accompanied by fond memories of their summers spent on the island – days swimming in the ocean and nights spent hanging out around bonfires.
At one point, the trail makes a short detour a few miles inland to the Pine Barrens, the most misunderstood place in America’s most misunderstood state. Lucille’s Country Cooking is a glimpse not only inside of New Jersey’s obsession with classic diners, but also into the lives of Pineys, the people who live among the pines. Scattered throughout this 1.2-million-acre pine tree forest, interspersed between marshland, blueberry farms and cranberry bogs, is a rural community that embraces a simpler lifestyle that’s spiced up with a bit of folklore. Lucille’s completely embodies this vibe with New Jersey diner classics like scrapple and eggs or a pork roll egg and cheese served up at an old-fashioned lunch counter adorned with Jersey Devil memorabilia.
A bulk of the episode focuses on two rough patches that are part of New Jersey’s landscape; Atlantic City and Camden. Both cities with rich histories that, for decades now, have endured some challenges.
DOWN THE ATLANTIC CITY EXPRESSWAY
In Atlantic City, The Knife & Fork, established in 1912, has ridden the waves of what Bourdain describes as the “ebbs and flows of America’s hopes and dreams.” Same goes for Dock’s Oyster House which has stayed open during the Great Depression, Prohibition, and both World Wars. Bourdain describes this place as the epitome of “what Atlantic City once was and should be again.”
Atlantic City was once a well-known attraction with a 6-mile boardwalk that was a constant source of action and amusement, bustling with small, locally owned shops, arcades and the infamous Steel Pier. Atlantic City was about elegance, opulence, and pageantry which was fitting considering it was the headquarters of the Miss America pageant. But in recent decades, Atlantic City experienced a decline that not even the shortsighted investments in casino gambling could fix. Even the Miss America pageant, which was one of Atlantic City’s leading events for nearly 100 years, left in 2019 in an attempt to rebrand itself (although there are rumblings that the pageant may return).
One hour west down the Atlantic City Expressway, across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, is Camden, New Jersey. Just like Atlantic City, Camden was once a thriving community, but instead of seaside attractions and resort hospitality, Camden was a working class factory town teeming with manufacturing. But after several factories closed operations and many residents moved away to look for work, what was left behind was a city with a high unemployment rate and a large percentage of people living under the poverty line.
“Cities with serious problems need extraordinary people,” says Bourdain. When it comes to addressing the issues in Atlantic City and in Camden, Bourdain reminds us that it’s the people who contribute most to a city’s character, and they’re the ones helping to rebuild these places from within, using the original ingredients that made these places great to begin with.
At Donkey’s Place, a spot opened by local boxer legend Leon Lucas in 1943, Bourdain poses the thought that perhaps the best cheesesteak isn’t in Philadelphia. Instead of being served on a long Italian roll, the Donkey’s cheesesteak is served on a round Kaiser with poppy seeds. For three generations, this dive bar on Haddon Avenue has been churning out these cheesesteaks with huge chunks of steak smothered in melted cheese for hungry locals.
Overall, Bourdain’s trek through New Jersey intentionally draws people to misunderstood places that many tourists would overlook if they found themselves traveling through New Jersey. In both Atlantic City and Camden, he doesn’t try to smooth out the rough spots, but rather introduces us to the people in these places that, though their hometowns have fallen on hard times, are continuing to celebrate the good that once was and the good that is yet to come.
“Good is good forever,” Bourdain says in this episode. Despite the challenges, there are dedicated locals working hard in their communities to help their cities rise, there are still incredible oceanside views and beautiful buildings in Atlantic City, and there’s still a cheesesteak in Camden that’s so good it rivals the ones in Philadelphia. No matter what is on the menu, the people behind the food are the most important ingredient.
Bourdain says “to know Jersey is to love her,” and if you want to know New Jersey – I mean, really get an idea of what New Jersey and the people here are all about – then these are spots you have to visit, run by people you have to meet.
HIRAM’S ROADSTAND, FORT LEE
Forget your diet. Since 1932, Hiram’s has been cooking up classic “ripper-style” hot dogs, meaning they’re deep-fried. They’ve been doing things relatively the same since the beginning, but that’s a point of pride for this institution. “Some things just shouldn’t change” according Bourdain.
FRANK’S DELI & RESTAURANT, ASBURY PARK
Asbury Park oozes with classic rock vibes and so do the sandwiches at Frank’s Deli & Restaurants. They’re loaded with so much meat the rolls they’re served on can barely contain them, hence why there’s a whole section on the menu referred to as “Frank’s Overstuffed Deli Sandwiches.”
KUBEL’S, BARNEGAT LIGHT
It’s all about the clams at Kubel’s in Barnegat Light on Long Beach Island situated right beside the water. In the episode, Bourdain and his brother feast on fried clam strips, clam chowder, and clams in butter, which are all excellent.
DOCK’S OYSTER HOUSE, ATLANTIC CITY
The Dougherty family has owned and operated this restaurant since 1897. They also now own Knife & Fork Inn as well. This is the spot where you’ll want to try the oysters, but they’re also known for their crab cakes as well as the crab stuffed lobsters.
KNIFE & FORK INN, ATLANTIC CITY
What was once a gentleman’s club and restaurant is now a fashionable restaurant serving up American seafood and steak classics. Bourdain ordered a pretzel coated swordfish over lump crab meat when he visited.
TONY’S BALTIMORE GRILL, ATLANTIC CITY
Italian American classics with a Jersey twist is what’s on the menu at Tony’s Baltimore Grill. This no-frills joint is all about pizza and pasta, both as saucy as the late-night clientele.
JAMES ORIGINAL SALT WATER TAFFY, ATLANTIC CITY
The legend behind New Jersey’s infamous salt water taffy is that a seaside candy shop was flooded during a major storm in 1883 leaving behind taffy that had been submerged in ocean water. Someone asked the shop owner if he had any taffy for sale and he jokingly offered her “salt water taffy.” Whether or not it’s true is unknown, but what is known is how Atlantic City’s James Original Salt Water Taffy became home to this classic confection.
LUCILLE’S COUNTRY COOKING, BARNEGAT
The fog from the marshes and the bogs hang low in the pine trees make for gorgeous mornings in the Pine Barrens early. Rise early and pair those morning vibes with a classic Jersey-style diner breakfast at Lucille’s. This is the only place where it’s okay to have dessert for breakfast. Be sure to leave room for a homemade pie.
DONKEY’S PLACE, CAMDEN
You know when there’s only one dish on the menu, they do it well. At Donkey’s Place the griddle is always full of an assembly line of steak and onions as a steady flow of incredible cheesesteaks gets churned out. You can grab your sandwich to go, or pull up a seat at the bar, order a drink and stay a while.
TONY & RUTH’S STEAKS, CAMDEN
Great cheesesteaks and an even better breakfast all at a fair price. You can get a tasty plate of food as well as a deep sense of the strong community in Camden.