If you ever run into my husband at a party, there are a few topics of conversation that are sure to get him talking. The collapse of the American auto industry. The ridiculously high cost of cell phone plans. The latest episode of The Walking Dead. But nothing will get him more animated (or more opinionated) than if you bring up two little words: New Jersey.
I hope Jason loves our kids the way he loves New Jersey. That they will inspire the same endearing gleam in his eyes that Wawa, hoagies, and Tastykakes do. I hope he relishes their sweet baby smells the way he does the salty funk of the marsh, that he speaks about their bullies and bad bosses with the same indignant scoff he gives those other states that force you to pump your own gas or swim without lifeguards. That regardless of what everyone else may say about them, he will never be convinced they are anything but perfect.
[This is where Jason—and every member of his family—would interject that this affection is felt solely for South Jersey, not that godless cesspool of New York commuters they hold responsible for nicknames like “The Armpit of the Nation” and “America’s Dump.” If the top half of the state collapsed into the ocean, you get the impression that the residents of South Jersey would shrug and go buy some taffy.]
It’s hard not to love Jason’s New Jersey—the one that snakes south from Philadelphia through peach orchards, pine trees, and roadside tomato stands. The drive along Route 9 may exist solely to vindicate New Jersey’s title of “Garden State.” The loamy, acidic soil is responsible for some of the nation’s best produce, from jammy blueberries to fragrant cantaloupes to tomatoes so satisfying, you’ll want to eat them like apples. It doesn’t hurt that our summertime accommodations happen to overlook the work of one of the region’s best gardeners: none other than Jason’s grandfather, Papa Jack.
Jack and his lovely wife Emily bought their property in 1957, raising four boys in the two-bedroom home built in 1706. (Not a typo; their house, built by a whaler, indeed predates the American Revolution by seventy years.) The family spent the next two decades creating the country’s largest annual garden within their densely forested backyard, naming the finished work after the family who first settled their homestead: Leaming’s Run.
The gardens are a perfect marriage of the cultivated and the wild. A dirt path meanders through sun-dappled forest, surprising visitors with carefully manicured clearings overflowing with annuals—gardens with such names as “The Sweetheart Garden” and “The English Cottage Garden.” It was here, among the zinnias and salvia, that Jason asked me to be his wife. And where I decided I loved New Jersey (almost) as much as he did.
We might never tear ourselves away from this Eden were it not for the state’s other claim to fame: the Jersey Shore. Not the one Snooki made famous, mind you, but the one further south, bordered by the exclusive communities of Avalon, Stone Harbor, and Cape May. Here it costs money to sit on the beach (money Grandma Aprill squeezes into your hand like a secret, the bills rolled together with coupons for a free Hugits hoagie). If the weather is iffy, you might explore the surrounding towns instead—perhaps stopping for brunch at one of the region’s historic hotels. This is how we stumbled upon The Mad Batter—and first got a taste of this French toast.
It’s been three summers since we’ve visited the shore, our lives complicated by big moves and new jobs and limited vacation days. But each August when I find myself missing our New Jersey—the soft sand, the fudge shops, and our “wine time” with Jack and Emily—I crack some eggs, grate some orange zest, and fire up the stove.
Orange and Almond French Toast
The version featured at The Mad Batter incorporates the almonds right into the egg mixture, but I prefer them toasted and sprinkled on top—reducing the chance that I’ll burn the nuts while waiting for the toast to cook through. For a tropical change (or to accommodate anyone with nut allergies) you can substitute the almonds with unsweetened coconut flakes.
- 1/2 cup sliced almonds
- 1 loaf of dense, high-quality bread
- 6 eggs
- 1/4 cup heavy cream
- Zest of 1 orange + 2 tablespoons orange juice
- Non-stick cooking spray
- Pure maple syrup, for serving
Preheat large frying pan over medium heat. Add almonds and toast for 3-5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until fragrant and slightly browned. (Watch them closely, because they will burn in an instant!) Remove almonds from pan, wipe the pan clean with a paper towel, and return it to the warm burner.
Divide bread into 1/4-inch slices, discarding heels. In a shallow bowl or pie dish, whisk together the eggs, cream, zest, and orange juice. Working one slice at a time, thoroughly soak slices of bread in the egg mixture, coating both sides. Evenly coat the frying pan with non-stick spray, then add the toast. Cook 2-4 minutes per side, flipping once, until egg is cooked through and toast is golden. (If you’re cooking for a crowd, you can keep slices of the cooked toast in a warmed oven until you’ve finished the loaf.) Sprinkle finished toast with almonds and serve with pure maple syrup.