Epiphany: South Jersey is not a soulless wasteland

Dish 52: Shrimp & Grits at Mélange, 18 Tanner St. Haddonfield, http://www.melangerestaurants.com/ (FYI, the Cherry Hill location has been closed)

If it wasn’t for Linsey, I would have procrastinated tripping to South Jersey again until the last possible moment. South Jersey is alien to me—the roads are confusing, potholed, and straight for miles, towns weave big box centers and shabby rowhomes with charming old-fashioned downtowns and Victorians, and the people don’t sound like or behave like anyone I know.

North Jersey where I live, on the New York state line and the Hudson, is beautiful. Even our highways are beautiful! The Palisades Parkway winds through acres of forest, broken only by cut-stone overpasses and views of stucco mansions. Towns are little, maybe a mile square, and some don’t even have downtowns. And you are only minutes from walks beside the river—if you’re lucky, you might even see it from your house.

Not much has changed since the days of Lord Carteret—North and South really are two different provinces with different cultures; and if you want to know which is better, just check an old-school map that compares the present North/South divide to the former East/West divide: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Wpdms_east_west_new_jersey.png

Who got the Hudson and the Shore? And who ended up with the Pinies? I rest my case.

All disrespect and silliness aside, recent exploration reveals that South Jersey is not as desolate or soulless as previously believed by Northerners. In fact, Haddonfield and Cherry Hill have rolling hills and smooth streets lined with trees that arch grandly over the roadway, shading regal Victorian homes and idyllic shops alike. Mélange is one of these shops, tucked away on Tanner St. in Haddonfield’s sleepy downtown. It was quiet and mostly empty—such are Tuesday nights—and a group of women nearby sung Happy Birthday in hushed voices to one of their party.

Linsey was raised in Maryland and her family currently lives outside Roanoke, VA, so she leapt at the opportunity for shrimp & grits—and I’m glad she was so enthusiastic, because I was really scared! Seafood and cheese? That sounds unholy!

We heaped into the Demon Bunny, Linsey, Hess, and I; we crossed the Ben Franklin and found ourselves a nice little parking spot outside the mahogany dining room lined with paintings so vibrant and lively I thought they might dance off the walls. We cracked open a bottle of wine—white zinfandel, upon the suggestion of the Hudson Valley Wine Goddess (http://hvwinegoddess.blogspot.com/2007/09/wine-and-cajun-food.html), and took a look at the menu.

Hess chose the jambalaya, loaded with giant shrimp, colossal mussels, and scallops the diameter of a fifty-cent piece, and Linsey opted for the crown jewel, a mountain of creamy, spicy, warm, all-encompassing grits blanketed with shrimp large enough to take a bite out of Indy, melt-in-your-mouth tomatoes, and onions cooked until they were nothing but a scent.

I can’t describe—I can’t do it justice—but there was no longer any fear. Of cheese and seafood, or of South Jersey. There is no reason to fear what we do not know or understand. Sometimes, we must simply accept that South Jersey is a foreign nation; that grits are nourishing and tasty, albeit bewildering; that seafood and dairy can be combined to create something holy, like a tuna melt. And though we do not understand these foreign places or things, when they welcome expats with open arms, it doesn’t hurt to hug back.

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