Tuesday, Swedesboro, New Jersey
(an homage to Peter Baroth)
So, it's Tuesday and I'm in Swedesboro, NJ. Swedesboro. Not the last place on earth, but you can see it from there.
I've spent the morning at a nightmare called U.S. Drop Forge. You know the kind of place I'm talkin' about: like walking into a painting by Hieronymous Bosch, only with less ambiance.
They've got problems with their air compressor. That's what I do now, sell air compressors. I had a chance to be a triple agent, posing as a double agent, for a rogue branch of the CIA, but I wanted glamour and excitement. Glamour and excitement— yeah, that's it.
So, I'm with the Operations Manager, looking over this compressor—a big one, 350 horse power—and it's loud, real loud—the whole place is loud because they take big hunks of iron and mold them into bigger hunks of iron—Loud, so I can't hear what the guy's saying to me, only it doesn't matter because I'm new on the job and I wouldn't know what the hell the guy was talking about anyway. So, I do what I do best: nod knowingly— the key is to do it knowingly—I nod knowingly, and punctuate the nods with an occasional "Oh- KAY" and "uh-HUH".
I luck out, 'cause just when I sense there's a question coming, he's called away on some unimaginable emergency, and I shout to him, "I see what you're saying...I'll get back to you!" Only it'll be the service rep that gets back to him; me getting back to him would be like Paris Hilton getting back to someone who has a question about virginity.
So anyway, I'm out, and it's a beautiful day but I'm getting hungry and I'm still in Swedesboro. I can't ask one of the locals for a good place to eat in town because there's nothing worse than looking like a rube to a rube, so I cruise.
I pass a little place called MOM'S KITCHEN, but I've found that eating at places called "Mom's" is usually a bad idea, like playing poker with a guy whose first name is the same as a major city. "Go ahead, Cincinnati, deal the cards¾I'm in!"
No, you never eat at Mom's, unless, of course, it's your Mom.
So, I keep driving 'til I'm almost out of town, not hard to do, since there's no such place as suburban Swedesboro. I'm getting pretty hungry, and about to hit a long stretch of empty road, miles and miles of nothing, between nowhere and somewhere else, and I'm seriously thinking about turning around, going back and taking my chances with MOM. I'm checking the glove-box for Pepcid AC, when I see it.
The sign says THE FIRESIDE INN. It's back off the road a bit, kinda leering at you, with a rustic wood exterior, a dirt parking lot, two cars parked outside. Just like a hundred other little salmonella traps that dot the backwaters of New Jersey, where the land stretches out flat and brown in two dimensions, under a blank and staring sky.
Ah, hell, I say to myself, at least it ain't MOM'S OTHER KITCHEN. I pull in.
The first thing I see is a big banner that says "Voted Best Lunch in South Jersey, 2006—Thank You—exclamation point." Yeah, sure, I say to myself: one of those put-up jobs, where everyone in town, as well as everyone in the town cemetery, stuffs the ballot box. You're not foolin' me. But I'm used to operating where the fix is in. I keep my shades on and my expectations low, and go inside.
The waitress seems surprised to see another human being¾I figure the 1977 Datsun B 210 in the parking lot is hers¾but she rallies and says, "Smoking or non-smoking?" There's about 20 tables, all of them empty. Smoking, I say, and she walks me past 18 of 'em to a table by the window and hands mea card that says SPECIALS. I order a drink¾ my usual: Coke, ice, no lemon, no swizzle stick¾and light up a cigarette. And there it is, right on top of thecard. "Try Our Famous Seafood Bisque!"
This is too much; who are they kidding? Bisque? BISQUE? Just because you throw some muddy river muscles and a de-frosted slab of Mrs Paul's fish sticks into a bucket of milk and boil it with butter, well, it don't make it BISQUE.
The waitress comes back with my libation and I order the prime-rib-on-a- pita. She says, in a smoky, Julie-London-voice, " That's served cold. Do you want me to warm it up a little?" Sure, I say, forgetting what a micro-wave does to pita bread, and before she leaves she asks me, " Would you like to try a cup of our bisque? It's really good."
I smile, and think, I'll BET it's good, sister, and ya know something else? You're good, too. Oh, you're VERY good. Do you get a commission for every time you get some naive sap from out of town to say bisque? Well sorry, honey, not this time.
I say, yeah, let me try . . . the soup. She leaves, looking disappointed.
So, I'm waiting for this self-proclaimed culinary miracle to crawl out of the kitchen, when an elderly foursome comes in, two and two, and they must have asked for smoking because they're led past the same eighteen empty tables and seated right behind me.
Great, I figure; now I'll have to listen to all the red hot Swedesboro gossip: who's sleeping with whom, who went broke, who beats their dog and who showed up drunk at the last school board meeting. Good stuff; nice town ya got here, Mister. But the grub comes out fast¾ it's not like they're swamped with customers¾and I'm saved.
"Careful," she says in a voice that steams up my shades," The bisque is really HOT." I'll save it for dessert, I say, annoyed that I forget to call it soup again, before she leaves.
I go for the pita like a three-legged wolf on mescaline...and then, something happens. The meat is tender and juicy. The pita is soft and fluffy and, yes, warm. It's got a mild horseradish sauce and shredded lettuce . . . no, CRISP shredded lettuce. I try to hold back, but I can't...I bite and swallow, bite and swallow, like a St. Bernard with a half-a-can of Alpo, and suddenly, it's gone, and there's nothing left.but me and the soup.
I open a pack of saltines, but decide against it¾this has got to be one-on-one, mano- a-mano--or at least, mano-a-soup-o. I thrust the spoon into the center of the cup, like King Arthur trying to stuff Excaliber back into the stone. I lift. I taste. It's bisque.
And not just bisque, but the best seafood bisque I've ever tasted. Rich and creamy, with a light, delicate aroma that would call a sailor home from the sea; maybe even back to Swedesboro.
It's all over in a few minutes. With what little self-control I have left, I refrain from licking the bowl.
There's not much else to say. I over-tip severely and head for the door. The waitress thanks me, and I can't help myself from saying it, " Tell the Chef "--yeah, that's right, I called him CHEF--"tell the Chef everything was great. And the BISQUE--I say the word slowly, reverently ¾”the bisque was the best I've ever had." She smiles, and I'm out the door.
I walk through the parking lot and get in my car. "You win, Swedesboro," I say out loud. But I don't mind. In fact, my only regret is that I'm alone. I wish I'd had someone with me, to share the experience. Someone who would have appreciated the irony. Someone like Peter Baroth.
Yeah, Pete; he'd have told the story better than me, and he'd have loved the bisque.