Snapshots of New Jersey: Wildwood — Sun, Sand, and Soup

Mark M. Murphy | August 17, 2012 | Opinion
On a winding road outside of Wildwood, a biker encounters an unexpected gustatory pleasure

While NJ Spotlight is on summer hiatus, we’ve made sure you won’t lack for intriguing reading. We’ve put together a series of Snapshots of New Jersey, a close look at some of the varied and vibrant places that make up the Garden State — from Wildwood to Montague and Barnegat Bay to Teaneck. Enjoy. We’ll be back August 28.

By early May I’m geared to feel wind, to polish up the bike and make a run down the Jersey shore. Half a dozen years ago motorcycle organizers figured a spring fest in Wildwood would help the local economy lumber out of winter a little early and make some needed cash. And that’s where I was headed as I downshifted off the Garden State.

Wildwood’s situated at a long lonely expanse of fine white sand. In California they know how to use their beaches: swim and surf, Frisbee, barbecue, making out and making sand castles. But when Wildwood gives it up to the low thunder emanating from plated exhaust pipes on two wheels, no one bothers to clamber out toward the gentle breakers. All the action is two blocks inland.

Like all American motorcycle gatherings, today pays homage to all things Harley. 1903, the year of Harley-Davidson Motorcycle’s founding, might as well be the true beginning of the Current Era. Harley riders are Pan’s Lost Boys, unable to grow up. And they’re all American in their habits: the decked-out hog is a living room on two (or sometimes three) wheels, featuring a sofa for you and your gal, sound system, cup holders, and every convenience at your fingertips.

With names like Road King and Dyna Glide, the Harley is proudly termed the Caddy of motorcycles — and indeed it is. On a straight highway it rides steady and soft like your grandfather’s vintage Detroit make. You can even add white sidewalls to round off the comparison. The average Harley rider is over 60, and as comfortable behind his windshield as he is in the Barcalounger fiddling the remote.

This, of course, is not what the Harley rider thinks of himself. He flourishes flames and skulls, all imaginable combinations, in which he suits himself and adorns his bike. In vendor stalls the young vixens languidly set out the shirts, leather, patches, pins, and bags. What’s not on fire and skull-encrusted in these offerings is almost completely given to themes of remembering our war dead. The shirts alone give a pretty good picture of our failed foreign policies of the last 40 years, from Vietnam to Afghanistan. You could raise a child on the various insignia patched to a leather riding vest and they’d pass an eighth grade history test.

But the war veteran image isn’t all nostalgia. I sank arms into one leather jacket and felt a curiously large zippered pocket down the front with several pouches inside. The helpful Tennessee boy demonstrated for me how it’s designed for my “piece,” with room for cartridges. Just what I need on the Garden State.

After lemonade and a lone wade in the wide slack surf, I itched to get back on the bike. One final scan of the iron lined along the street and I lingered to take in two exceptional beauties hunched and poised to pounce. A pair of Triumph Rocket III’s, deep custom paint, gleaming exhaust, seats of some tanned and nubbled exotic animal hide. My admiration is not envy, more like the contained reaction you have when a dog of a breed you don’t know wins Best in Class. You appreciate the effort to exemplify those particular standards.

Riding away from the shore always makes you a little regretful like you’ve turned your back on youth. I hadn’t eaten yet, had no quarters for tolls, and it was too early to head north anyway, so the Stone Harbor road was coming up and I took it. I know an awfully lot of New Jersey, once even tracked down a cadaver to the Newark morgue to learn what becomes of unidentified corpses, but I’d never cut out across the shallow marshlands of Jenkins Sound to this lower spit of bar.

Slowing to a bicyclist’s pace I came in to Stone Harbor’s prissy main street of homes and the unnatural tidiness of its streets swept of drifted sand. “Know this,” the whole town was broadcasting that afternoon, “you are no longer in AC, or Wildwood, thank you very much. Do your gawking at what you can’t obtain then get along back to where you belong.”
A short walk along the sand in my Chippewa engineer’s boots wasn’t impressing any of the local sunners, so I obliged and revved up to cross back over that expanse of brackish marsh. But a streak went up my back that I hadn’t yet undertaken my errands. And just about then I smelled wild lilac and saw a brief turnout ahead with a long-blanched sign in front of a squat weathered take-out place.

Behind the Counter, A Voice of Experience and Master Soup Maker

I pulled in around the side to a copse of tall shore bushes that cling to the only soil sturdy enough to hold them at the water’s edge. Helmet off and I can apprise that the area around the place is alive with birds chirping and tweeting in the warm spring sun. Like this lonely oasis in the uninterrupted wetlands is theirs, too. I gingerly poked around front, where signs painted in another generation read “soup” and “cheesesteaks.” I vaguely considered Calvin Trillin’s enthusiasm for street food in unlikely places, and fingered the doorknob.

A white Formica counter with six or seven bar stools announces you can eat in, behind which is an old industrial oven and stove top. And between them is a man dressed in white collared shirt, black pants, white cook’s apron, and white paper lieutenant’s hat, who gives off an air that he’s been patiently waiting for me. He’s old, quite old, not leaning on anything, not reading or listening to the radio, but standing there in a sort of attentive expectancy.
I took the center stool and removed my riding jacket. He doesn’t speak until I ask about the soup.

“Today I’ve got two kinds, the lobster bisque and the she crab. I make my own soup here. I can give you a taste.” Matter of fact, clearly confidant in what he’s got.

“I’ll have the bisque.” Trying to put us both at ease by showing my trust in the untasted soup.

“I don’t sell soup until you’ve tried it. I’ll give you a taste of each and if you don’t like it you don’t pay for it. You want soup somewhere else you can just drive on down the road. But I’m telling you, you can’t get my soup anywhere else. I make it here myself.”

Well, lines like that make you want to study the speaker, get a better sense of what it is you’re working with. He carefully cradles to the counter two plastic spoons brimming with my choices and sets them in front of me, like an old west barkeep lining up whiskeys. So now I’ve got him up close and can better survey the man. White hair close and combed, blue eyes, clouded and hooded now but a real intelligence and vigor blazing back of them. Just a slight stoop keeps him from a former erectness that even now would look his natural posture. Plenty of deep ravines along his face and throat but these don’t define him. He’s eyeing me pretty closely, too. Waiting. So I heft the bisque.

It’s the best frickin’ soup ever touched my tongue. It’s one of the finest mouth sensations I’ll ever encounter. Warm and sweet, ocean-salty and cream, real lumps of lobster coaxed and pulled from the carapace and claws. You taste the animal and the milk and the natural order of things all cauldroned with artist’s seasoning to make this blending that fills your mouth. Before I can register it all his eyes widen in recognition. I slowly chew the bits and let the whole melt down my throat. A delayed savory pepper chases down the back of the tongue to awaken the dreamy senses for the next bite.

“Now, try my she crab,” spoken conspiratorially like he’s leading me, step by step, through some initiation. It, too, is splendor in a plastic spoon. I’m now all-in and ready to up my order. Nodding to the hand lettering on the side wall, I tell him I’ll take a bowl of bisque and the she crab sandwich roll. Then in an expansive mood I tell him I’d like a coke please, too.

Now I’ve passed his test, I’m a full-blown customer. And he gets right to it.

“My she-crab roll is like nobody else’s. It’s piled this thick, you watch. I make my own soup here for 37 years. I had a restaurant in town for 24 years before that. I know my business.” Nests plate and bowl on the counter and refreshes my plastic spoon.

“I’m 91 years old, and I’ve been making soup here for 37 years. Now I take it a day at a time. No help. I don’t need help. I get in at 5 a.m. to start making the soup and preparing for the day. Sixty-seven years ago I was with Patton in North Africa, then continued on to Sicily. Wounded landing at Normandy, I should have seen my last. But it wasn’t over; I was at the Bulge, too. Came home and found the right woman. Married 64 years now, her health not so good any more, but we had our days. Now it’s a day at a time.”

I try dividing my concentration equally between his penetrating message of this history and the rapture in my mouth at the demure crabmeat. I tell him my father fought in the South Pacific, hoping he knows I get it. He doesn’t notice, and still stands back of the counter as if at full dress, hat on, apron tied, hands at the ready, all accounted for. Unbidden he continues.

“Couple weeks, after Memorial Day, I’ll have the clam chowder. Clams fresh. My soup’s always fresh here. Someone tastes it and says he doesn’t want it, I tell him that’s fine, there’s soup down the road in town. But you’re not going to get my soup anywhere else. I have customers come miles for a quart take-out. Families returning home after a week’s rental stop in to take two quarts back home with them. I came home and found the right woman. I started my restaurant and I know my business. At 91, I make soup a day at a time, and see who comes in that door.”

Getting back on the bike the broad plain of water, its weed clumps, birds darting from the shelter of these bushes to the openness of it all then back for solace against its immensity, became a little clearer. I asked his name before paying. He called himself Pat. When I told him my name the exchange seemed indifferent, a mere custom to observe, but for men like us, who make and eat good soup, what need is there for names?