Why is New Jersey the Garden State?
Introducing How we Eat
Noma is arguably the most influential restaurant in the world today. Run by Chef Rene Redzepi in Copenhagen, it has earned two Michelin stars, and won Restaurant Magazine’s award for Best Restaurant three years in a row.
The idea behind Noma is simple: Chef Redzepi has tethered Nordic cuisine, whose history dates back 1,300 years to the Viking age, with today’s gastronomy. The result is food true to Copenhagen’s history, culture & agricultural output.
If we opened a Noma-esque restaurant in New Jersey, what would it look like – or in other words, what is New Jersey’s cuisine? Our food doesn’t represent one specific nationality, our cooking does not represent one tradition, and our ingredients don’t represent one output.
Since we cannot tether New Jerseys’ cuisine to one group of people, a single ingredient, or tradition – the answer isn’t so simple. In fact, that question is just the tip of the iceberg.
Why do we have so many diners? Why are our tomatoes so damn good? Do our high real estate prices contribute to producing good food? What would a cookbook from 1920’s Atlantic City look like? Let’s explore how we eat in New Jersey, one question at a time. To start this off, we’ll begin with the fundamentals: Why are we the Garden State?
Why is New Jersey Garden State?
We have been labeled the Garden State since 1876, when Abraham Browning, owner of Cherry Hill Farm, coined the name. He compared New Jersey, which was then two-thirds farmland, to a big barrel open on both ends. On one end New York City, with Philadelphia on the other. This was a century before New Jersey was the most densely populated state in the country. In the late 19th century, agriculture was our largest industry, with New Yorkers and Philadelphians buying most of New Jersey’s food production.
Today, New Jersey is the nation’s most densely populated state. According to the most recent agricultural surveys, 17% of our state is farmland. Agriculture is now our third largest industry, behind pharmaceuticals and tourism.
Modern food systems allow food buyers in New York City and Philadelphia to have access to food from anywhere in the world. On the same token, it allows buyers in Los Angeles and San Francisco to purchase Jersey tomatoes and cranberries. While Jersey farms produce $1.1 billion worth of food every year, it’s not clear how much of it stays within this region. Despite the growth of complicated food systems over the past half-century, at our roots, we remain the Garden State, because New Yorkers and Philadelphians have demanded our food production for 400 years.
From an economic point of view, the driving force of good food production in NJ is demand and free markets. Today we have farmers who compete to produce the best tomatoes, the best corn, and the best spinach – all because we have buyers in close proximity paying for the best ingredients. Demand from New York and Philadelphia has given us food production, but it’s also given us one other important ingredient: good farmers.
What does a good farmer have in common with a good chef? They care about the food. Numerous farmers in rural areas of New York have even left professional big city careers in accounting, law, banking, and engineering, motivated by a drive to produce good food. In every case, these budding farmers take the risk of making significantly less money in the pursuit of producing exceptional food. In other words, they choose to produce food because they really care.
Good food is what makes New Jersey the Garden State today. Local ingredients will not always mean better ingredients, however in our case, we are fortunate to have an amazing variety of good food, right in our own backyard.