I got this site up in late June, but have been sidetracked by summer activity and my other blog, Notes From The Ironbound. That hasn’t been such a bad thing, since Lori and I have had a chance to spend many days exploring Essex County this summer. We’re both teachers with two toddlers to entertain, so that’s meant exploring a lot of the nooks and crannies of northern New Jersey with the kids.
You might be wondering a bit why I’ve chosen Essex County in particular as a site to explore. After all, New Jersey as a whole has been the butt of jokes for years, supposedly full of either toxic sludge, mall hair, the GTL crowd, or mobsters. I’m a child of the Midwest and absorbed all of these stereotypes over the years. Until I met my Jersey girl wife, I never once would have thought I’d end up in the Garden State, but here I am. I have learned to love it with a love that can confuse and astound my friends and family. I might be blinded by the fact that in the words of Tom Waits, “Nothing matters in this whole wide world, when you’re in love with a Jersey girl.” I don’t think it’s just that though. If I drive an hour from my house I can be in the mountains, on the beach, or in America’s greatest metropolis. Not too many people in America can say that.
Okay, what about Essex County then? It happens to be where I’ve settled, first in the Ironbound section of Newark, then in our current home in Maplewood. While I have been known to cross the border into Paterson to get Texas weiners and down to Asbury Park to enjoy the shore, I find Essex County to be a small universe unto itself, including New Jersey’s biggest city along with mountains, suburban subdivisions, and several towns in between. There are almost 800,000 people who live here. A quarter of the residents were born abroad, contributing to the county’s cultural diversity and amazing array of food. Having grown up in Nebraska, where corn is a vegetable and cheese is a spice, I am overjoyed to have Brazilian barbecue, amazing pizza, Italian pastries, and tasty bagels a stone’s throw away wherever I go. (Trust me, we’ll be talking a LOT about food on this blog.) Essex County is a place that has quietly given the world a great deal while flying under the radar. Thomas Edison had his workshop in West Orange, Philip Roth (perhaps America’s greatest living author) grew up in the Weequahic neighborhood in Newark, Amiri Baraka hailed from Brick City too, as have singers from Sarah Vaughn to Whitney Houston to Frankie Valli.
There doesn’t seem to be a week that goes by that doesn’t contain a new discovery here, from restaurants to historic sites. We have made a fetish out of traveling to far flung lands to do our explorations, but there’s plenty to discover close by if you take the time to look. I think Essex County’s bounty is greater than most locales, even the most exotic. I can’t wait to start sharing the fruits of our explorations.