How the Jersey Shore Shaped My Diet

I was 18 years old when I stopped eating meat. It was a traumatic affair, involving a bite into some deceptively cooked chicken. One bite of the stuff and I was completely turned off. When I came home after my first semester, I adamantly sat down to dinner with my family. “I’m going to cook some eggs. I don’t eat meat anymore,” I said. My mom looked at me quizzically, “Not even chicken?” she asked, handing me a dish of chicken parmesan.

It reminded me of My Big Fat Greek Wedding

My sudden and fervent announcement about my new lifestyle was met with bewilderment from my mom and annoyance from my father. Some perspective: I grew up in New Jersey, but it is not the New Jersey you know. I think individuals living on the coasts have a stigma of what New Jersey is. We’re talking the weird, dirty, and distinctly loud cousin New York across the river.

But the Jersey I grew up in was far different.

Growing up, I had always enjoyed the three piled “diner” plate. My mom would always serve some sort of carbohydrate (noodles/rice), a vegetable, and a hefty portion of chicken or beef. I remember her asking me some nights, “Sarah, protein, veg, carb?” And I would rattle off my favorites. But now with that gone, my family and I felt lost. If meat was not the protein, then what could be?

The first few years of my vegetarianism were a struggle for my parents and me. Living in my small New Jersey town, I did not know what quinoa, Chipotle, or a Frappuccino were. Currently my hometown in South Jersey, does not have a Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. The nearest one is more than an hour away. Kombucha is still a word that people ask if it is a Native American tribe (true story). The first couple of months, I lived mostly on pasta, baby carrots, and the occasional homemade Indian food nights, mostly because I was not sure what else to feed myself. My mother turned to her friends for advice on how to handle raising a child with a dietary request and was met with, “She’ll grow out of it,” “She’ll get bored with pasta eventually,” and “Oh so-and-so’s daughter lasted about a month.” My poor mother. Little did she know that my pasta and baby carrot binge was only just the beginning.

I went to college in New York. At the time, the city was having a renaissance in creating new and interesting vegetarian options. It was here that I was exposed to incredibly innovative ways to cook vegetables. Tofu did not have to be bland cubes in the salad bar. It could be smoked, like meat, or pressed and marinated. I tried the veggie-heavy renditions of almost every cuisine imaginable. And coconut milk ice cream? Who knew? I took all of these ideas back home with me and ran experiments in my kitchen. Trial and error helped expand my pallate and imagination to what vegetarian cooking could be.

Take it from a  6-year South Jersey vegetarian, a lot has changed since I bit into raw chicken years ago. Despite still struggling to find meat-free options in some small heartland towns, the vegetarian scene here in my small shore town is alive and thriving. The best way I can describe it is cozy comfort food. Things like diner classics, Italian favorites, and fried “goodies” thrive here. Minestrone is definitely my dish of choice when it comes to eating out, and I cannot resist potato pierogies.  The food caters to simpler times, as many people who visit the shore are looking for that nostalgia.The vintage diners and seafood shacks that remain for 75 years keep the fancy restaurants to a minimum outside major cities. Unfortunately, this humble heritage does not lend itself well to fancy juice stores or matcha lattes. You can’t find any of those here. Am I deprived? Absolutely not! And that sense of community has shaped my diet towards its strengths. I eat a lot of what is available here, which means a lot of beans, grains, farm fresh eggs, and dairy. And believe me, there is nothing like driving to the farm stand 5 minutes away from you for some Jersey tomatoes.  You can enjoy a well-balanced, plant based diet in your community’s style. It does not have to conform to the LA or NYC standard.

Which, let us be honest, means more Jersey produce, Wawa coffee, (and maybe some funnel cake) for me!

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