I took a trip recently, northward to New Jersey, where my family and I spent a little time vacationing and visiting with my wife’s relatives.
One of the things that struck me while there was how some restaurants, and even individuals, talked of their supposed regional dishes as if those foods were really something out-of-this-world and weren’t available anywhere else on the planet.
One of the best examples of this is a little place on the boardwalk in Ocean City, New Jersey, which sells what it calls its “famous pork roll.”
Being a fan of most pork dishes, I have to confess that grabbed my interest. My oldest son is always up for trying new dishes, so he ordered one and I waited anxiously to see what he had gotten. Turns out it was a slab of something that looked like Canadian bacon, which is hardly special or regional to New Jersey.
Another example is the myriad of local Italian restaurants there that tout their special “white pizza.” We had pizza one night while there and among those we ordered was a white pizza. Turns out it’s simply a pizza with Alfredo sauce instead of tomato sauce — a dish we’ve been making in my family for more years than I care to count.
Another night we made dinner that included a couple dozen ears of “Jersey corn,” and those relatives eating with us spoke in hushed tones, giving special reverence to the wonderful flavor bursting from every bite of the “Jersey corn.”
I have to admit, it was really good — exceptionally sweet and tasty — just like most any corn you can buy at local farmer’s markets or roadside stand around here in Mount Airy. Seems the only thing special about “Jersey corn” was it was grown in New Jersey, as opposed to across the board in Delaware. Otherwise, it was just corn — but to the folks from that area of the country, apparently Jersey corn is unlike any other.
I don’t mean to be ragging on New Jersey dishes and recipes. Some of the sausage we got up there at a few specialty marts for use in spaghetti and pizza really is special, and seasoned in a way I haven’t found anywhere else. And my wife and kids tell me the Italian Ice being sold on the boardwalk was the real thing (though for all the world to me it tasted like any other slushie or flavored ice).
We do the same thing around here, to a degree. When I first moved to the area nearly eight years ago, I heard about the famous sonkers, so I went to the Sonker Festival that fall at the Franklin-Edwards House. It was a pleasant fall day, and I recall being fascinated by the history of the house and grounds. I also remember the sonkers of various flavors were quite good.
Another thing I remember — and I suppose I’m about to commit culinary blasphemy here — was my realization a sonker was, at its heart, a cobbler, and I’d been eating cobblers all my life.
The difference locally is that we do have some truly unique dishes that I’m not sure exist anywhere else, at least not in the form you’ll find around Mount Airy.
The ground steak sandwich comes to mind. I’ve tried making this at home, but I can tell you I’ve never been able to recreate the taste a couple of local restaurants bring to the table with their versions of this dish, and I don’t know that I’ve heard of a ground steak sandwich anywhere else in the world.
And while I have seen pork chop sandwiches in various communities, I believe anyone would be hard-pressed to find one with all the special touches and trimmings that make the ones at Snappy Lunch such a regional specialty.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the famous collard green sandwiches available at the annual Autumn Leaves Festival in Mount Airy. I’m not a big fan of collared greens so I’ve never eaten one, but so many people rave about these I know for collared green fans, this must be a true delicacy, and it’s definitely not a dish I’ve seen anywhere else.
While a lot of communities tout supposed regional food a person can’t get anywhere else, it seems to me that Mount Airy and the greater Surry County community delivers on that promise, at least more than most places I’ve seen.
John Peters is editor of The Mount Airy News. He can be reached at 336-719-1931.