American Road Trip
I have tried many soft pretzels, and none compare to the Mart Pretzel Bakery in Cinnaminson NJ, a former staple of the long-departed Pennsauken Mart. I interviewed the founder’s son for a JerseyMan blog post, but it’s now published here…
Soft Pretzel Excellence
If you’re as old as I am and you grew up within a 20-mile radius of Pennsauken, you remember the Pennsauken Mart. And the soft pretzels.
It wasn’t a bad place to get inexpensive clothes, stereo equipment, gifts that you’d never want for yourself, etc. The prices could be pretty nice and I did a lot of Christmas shopping there. Oh, and there was that head shop, too…but I don’t remember much about that…
It wasn’t exactly a pleasant or unique place. It was dingy, overly crowded, and you had to root through a lot of stuff to find anything decent. It was kind of like what an eBay store might look like, if such a thing exists.
The place had one monster thing going for it, though. Soft pretzels.
Whenever I visited the Mart, I had two things in mind…finding something cheap and having a soft pretzel. And definitely not in that order. The pretzels were always worth the trip, the crowds and the depressing atmosphere.
There was always a line for them. While you waited you’d look at the pricing board or the newspaper stories proclaiming their greatness, decided how many you were going to get, and whether you’d deal with the salt or not.
Or you could just watch the pretzels being made…dough rolling out of the machine, experienced fingers flipping the dough into pretzel shape in mere nanoseconds, lightly browned pretzels coming out of the oven.
Once you bought your pretzels (no one ever just got one), there were two choices of mustard, one so super-hot it could sear the back of your brain. (That one was always my choice.) For some reason they never had napkins. Many times I wiped mustard off my face with the wax paper the pretzel came in.
One day, inexplicably, the soft pretzel shop closed. It seemed temporary…there was writing on the glass window that said “Closed due to illness”. But when the pretzel shop didn’t return for several months (I don’t remember the exact length of time, but I know I made many disappointing trips), soon there weren’t enough compelling reasons to visit the Mart anymore.
And not much later, the Pennsauken Mart, that staple of my youth, would be gone.
In the years since I have always believed that it was the closing of the pretzel bakery that caused the Mart’s demise. It was a brutally easy connection to make for anyone who was familiar with the place. It turns out I wasn’t quite right about that.
In a visit to the Mart Pretzel Bakery, I learned the whole story from Shaughn, the son of the owner. The Mart’s fate was already sealed before his father’s illness…it had been bought out through eminent domain. The illness was actually Shaughn’s father having a heart attack; a malady Shaughn believed resulted at least partly from the possibility of his longtime, popular business being shut down.
Indeed, it was a bummer for everyone—until the Mart Pretzel Bakery re-opened in a strip mall in Cinnaminson, and longtime patrons breathed a sigh of relief. No one misses the Mart too much now. (Well, I don’t, anyway. I can’t speak for fans of the head shop.)
Not much has changed…except for a better selection of pretzels, including pretzel dogs, those “everything” pretzels that seem healthy, and the truly off the hook cinnamon sugar pretzels. You can still get a spicy or a very hot mustard. The hot mustard isn’t as blazing as the old one was, but that’s probably not a bad thing. And okay, they’re a tad more expensive. It’s not 1990 anymore after all.
The old sign with the pricing is still there, as is the sign that hung up outside the store in the Mart, which is a nostalgic thing for former Mart patrons. But the lines aren’t long anymore…the Mart Pretzel Bakery is built to handle the demand.
Mart pretzels are still always worth the trip, even if I’m no longer looking for a pair of pants that I can afford. And if you think I’m just waxing nostalgic, check out the Yelp reviews.
In the midst of the pandemic, I took a trip to Wildwood to check on the health of Curley’s Fries for the Summer 2020 issue of JerseyMan Magazine. You can read this article on their website, or click here to see the PDF of the magazine itself.
The Indomitable Boardwalk Fry
As the nation and the state wake up again, Curley’s Fries continues to serve its iconic, crinkle cut fries, from its two locations on the Wildwood boardwalk. It’s a sorely needed sign of Jersey Shore life beginning again.
It takes considerable strength of will, even for hardened Jersey folks, to find positives in a harsh weather day at the shore.
May 22 of this year, the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, was one such day. The thick clouds effectively obscured any potential hint of sunshine. The rain, at times both spitting and heavy, became debilitating when mixed in with the stiff ocean breeze.
Despite the lack of seasonal cooperation, a hardy few were determined to get some steps on the Wildwood boards, most likely for the first time in 2020. It’s a need we natives have, especially this year, if only to have some normalcy again in what has been a monumentally difficult spring.
With an ongoing pandemic to go alongside miserable weather, there were precious few shops open on the boards, and little to help visitors feel like summer again.
Mercifully, there was one saving grace in it all…a ubiquitous French fry stand.
In this trying atmosphere, Curley’s Fries…on the otherwise uninhabited Morey’s Surfside Pier…opened its windows, as their employees showed up to serve their iconic fried potatoes to walk-up patrons for takeout. Or “takeaway”, as they called it, as if to suggest that things aren’t fully normal yet.
While the number of Wildwood visitors this day was very small, many of them…arguably most of them…still made their way to the long established fry counter.
Inside the window, save for the employees wearing masks, nothing was different. One person took orders. Another dropped baskets of chopped potatoes into a fryer and then dumped the finished ones into a tray. Another generously salted them and then scooped piles of fries into buckets for hungry patrons. Unremarkable and repetitive skills all, probably, but it’s an admirable bit of teamwork.
Most gratefully, even as Morey’s has temporarily laid off 80% of their staff, there has been zero decline in the quality of the fries.
They’re still piping hot when served, enough that some will tolerate the seared mouth flesh rather than spend an agonizing few minutes waiting to indulge. The fries have just enough of a crispy crunch on the outside and almost mashed potato level softness on the inside. They’re thick and crinkle-cut, with the skin still attached as required by unwritten boardwalk rules.
All with just enough sea salt for distinctive flavor, and available with multiple rotating dipping sauces, from Horseradish Cream to Old Bay Mayo among others. Along with the old constants of cheese sauce, hot sauce, vinegar, and ketchup.
And anytime some annoying health nut gives you grief about your love for deep fried potato perfection, you can inform them that Curley’s fries are vegan and gluten-free. That’ll shut ‘em up.
If you’re waiting with a friend at Curley’s for a bucket or the larger “barrel” of fries, you can have them hold your place in line and go read the story behind the most iconic fry stand on the Jersey Shore. It’s featured on a sign on the side of the building, but here’s a summed up version:
Yes, there was a Curley, so nicknamed for his curly hair. His full name was Joe “Curley” Marchiano, and he was both an army veteran and a linebacker at Miami University. Curley grew up spending his summers in Coney Island, where his father worked at the Surf Avenue Nathan’s. Indeed, Curley’s fries are similar to Nathan’s in size and structure.
After some years as a concessions manager in other resort towns, in 1978 Marchiano joined up with fried chicken vendor Dick Marchant at Morey’s Surfside Pier. Curley’s part of the deal was fried dough, lemonade shake-ups, and his own brand of French fries. (Incidentally, Curley’s lemonade is no slouch either.)
Almost immediately, it became clear that patrons came for the fries, and the stand was soon renamed for Curley, in a rare recognition of genius.
As the board telling the story notes, there isn’t any real secret to the greatness of Curley’s fries…it reveals right there that Curley used potato cutters from Germany, and cooked them in peanut oil. Maybe the potato cutters are really difficult to find or something, but there’s no more to it than that.
Marchiano passed in 2000; twenty years later, his recipe of fried potato greatness lives on…even on a windy and wet day on the Wildwood boards, in the midst of a pandemic and a crippled economy.
Sometimes success is simple. Get a German potato cutter, find a peanut oil supplier, and fry and sell sliced spuds at the beach.
How much of a foodie staple is Curley’s? All you need to know is the reaction to a gag the Morey’s folks pulled a year ago. Most people well know that on April 1, they should have their antenna up for pranks. But Curley’s fans were taking no chances.
On March 31, 2019, Morey’s released a press statement announcing the retirement of Curley’s two locations, to be replaced by vegan stands called “Greenery’s”. Greenery’s would be offering kale chips, roasted chickpeas, and other healthy greens that no one actually likes. In an age where every institution from baseball to politics seems to care only about targeting “millennials”, it was actually a well-crafted April Fool’s joke.
The reaction was swift and severe. NJ.com, which had listed Curley’s fries among their “64 Most Iconic Jersey Foods” just two weeks earlier, reported that the accompanying Facebook post had 4,000 comments the next day:
“I go to the boardwalk just to eat Kale chips!! Said no one ever….”
“Kale chips? Who the F$&k wants kale chips? The one thing U looked forward to is now gone! New Jersey becoming the East Coast California!”
“I legit cried. Stupidest decision ever. This place is a Wildwood trademark…. Huge mistake.”
Even Curley’s subsequent “April Fools!” reveal on Facebook provoked an agitated response:
“Glad to hear that it was all a joke BUT…that was not nice to do, especially the day before April Fool’s day!”
“Threatening to take away my Curley’s Fries is no laughing matter!!”
“Not funny at all.”
You can still find the original “Greenery’s” press release on Morey’s website, (www.moreyspiers.com). Its politically correct tone is priceless. Here’s this writer’s favorite pull quote: “For the last fifty years Morey’s Piers has been growing and re-inventing itself to keep up with an ever-changing marketplace.”
Most businesses take themselves too seriously. Thankfully Morey’s isn’t one of them. But yes, that was a tense moment. Forsaking Curley’s Fries for kale chips probably would have caused a justifiable outrage.
Much has been said and written about heroes on the front lines in recent months. First responders, doctors and nurses in hospitals, nursing home attendants…even supermarket employees, who had suddenly found themselves in a high risk occupation.
All of the accolades and appreciation, and accompanying hazard pay, is well-deserved. Yet when a flu virus not only causes double the death count as a typical flu season, but also devastates an economy, sometimes what we need more than anything else is to see something normal again.
As ruffled as South Jersey became at a mere joke suggesting Curley’s fries would be replaced in 2019, in 2020 we’re grateful for anything we love sticking around. When there isn’t even any baseball, things can seem especially bleak. Suddenly, the availability of world class French fries at the beach is appreciably more meaningful.
The celebrated Jersey Shore fixture that is Curley’s is still alive. The two-story fry-shaped signs still standing on the boardwalk, an iconic food stand remaining open on the most miserable of May days, is one anchor of hope that on the other side of all of this, our favorite institutions will still be here.
Curley’s 1, Covid 0.
Martinsville Speedway features some of the best racing on the NASCAR circuit, because there’s no place to hide. I contributed this piece for the Spring 2014 issue of the excellent Stadium Journey magazine. Click here to see the XPS file of the article, as it appeared in the magazine.
Stock car racing was built on lack of space for cars to race.
Possibly more so than in any other sport, NASCAR fans lament the good old days. The sport has changed enormously, especially in the last 20 years, and not for the better in many fans’ opinions. The “Chase” playoff remains unpopular (and with good reason…it’s the most idiotic way of determining a champion in sports), and the cars have become so spec that it’s hard to tell whether driver skill is a factor in success anymore.
Perhaps most of all, the excitement of racing cars with fenders has suffered from the sport holding events at larger, faster tracks…where drivers can spread out, run three- or four-wide, and build up a big lead on the rest of the field…and truly ride around in circles, as non-racing fans frequently complain.
In 1994 there were just six such speedway races (not counting restrictor plate races at Daytona and Talladega, which are a different animal) on the Cup schedule; on the 2014 schedule there will be 14.
In the longtime NASCAR fan’s mind, that is taking the sport in a seriously wrong direction. It’s even worse than the concrete donut artificial turf baseball stadiums…at least the game on the field wasn’t made dramatically different by them.
So if you want to see what those grizzled racing fan geezers are talking about when they speak of how great a sport NASCAR once was, take a trip down to southwestern Virginia and witness a stock car race at Martinsville.
Martinsville Speedway is older than NASCAR itself. A visionary named H. Clay Earles built the racetrack in 1947…and must have immediately sensed he was onto something, because the 750-capacity racetrack attracted 6,000 fans to its first event.
In 1949 NASCAR held its first event there, a race that was won by Red Byron, and Martinsville is now the only racetrack left from NASCAR’s original schedule that stills hosts events.
As smaller, classic tracks in North Wilkesboro and Rockingham have given way to large cookie-cutter speedways in Chicago and Vegas, more and more NASCAR fans speak highly of the remaining tracks that stretch less than a mile. The half mile Bristol Motor Speedway, where NASCAR holds two races each year, is the heart of racing simply because of the venue itself, always bringing fans a decent race often complete with post-race fights among drivers.
Martinsville Speedway is not as revered as Bristol, but it too always features events that are stock car racing at its best.
Ridgeway, Virginia, population 775, is the actual home of the track. It’s not easy to get to. It’s in a rural locale close to the Tennessee border with Roanoke as its nearest metropolis. Roads leading into town aren’t built to handle the tens of thousands of cars that will be arriving on race day. In my first trip, I spent the night before in Roanoke some 50 miles away. My companion and I left at 6:00 in the morning for a noon race; we were finding our seats during driver introductions.
You’ll probably park on grass, and you’ll pay a nice chunk of change for the privilege. This town subsists on events at its racetrack.
Once you endure all of the hardships getting to the venue and finding your seats (hopefully after buying one or more of the legendary hot dogs) the sheer tininess of Martinsville Speedway grabs you, especially if you’ve attended events at Charlotte or Atlanta. Before the race there is literally no place to put the racecars…they are parked right there on the track.
On television Martinsville looks like two long straightaways with very sharp and low-banked turns…hence the “paper clip” appellation that is often applied by commentators. Given the speed that cars run…close to 100 MPH on the straightaways…a TV viewer might suspect that the straightaways must be close to a half mile long. In fact the entire speedway is just .526 of a mile…the shortest track on NASCAR’s Cup schedule. The straightaways are just 800 feet.
The track is so small that when a race starts, the drivers at the tail end of the field are already half a lap down. And it isn’t long before the leader will start putting cars a lap down, and the track turns into a conveyor belt of cars.
There is no place to hide. Drivers push and shove, slide and spin. Crashes take out four or five cars as a dozen drivers behind them stand on their brakes for lack of a route to pass through. As the race progresses, many of the cars take pretty good beatings…and many will be missing fenders and bumpers by the end of the event.
No other track tests a driver’s mettle and skill. Racing around a banked speedway at 180 MPH may present its own challenges, but a racer better bring everything he’s got to Martinsville Speedway. This place requires taking a racecar from 35 to 105 and then back again 1,000 times, and doing it inches away from other racecars throughout. All the while keeping one’s cool in check and periodically navigating a treacherously tiny pit road. Drivers must save their energy, save their temper, and save their brakes, too, because they better have something left at the end.
Wherever you attend a NASCAR event, the excitement will sweep you up. There is no sound in spectator sports like the firing up of stock car engines. There aren’t many thrills in spectator sports like two racecar drivers battling for a win. You can see that almost anywhere…Kansas, Dover, Charlotte.
But if you want to truly experience the meat and guts and heart of stock car racing as nature intended, if you want to see great on track battles taking place all day; if you want to see pushing and shoving and blood on the floor, you have to see a NASCAR race at Martinsville.
Did this post make your day a little bit?
I hope so. If it did, I would really appreciate your support.
When you use this link to shop on Amazon, you’ll help subsidize this great website…at no extra charge to you.
Thanks very much…come back soon!
Photo credit: raniel diaz on Best Running / CC BY
Photo credit: wjarrettc on Best Running / CC BY
Photo credit: Ted Van Pelt on Best Running / CC BY
Photo credit: wjarrettc on Best Running / CC BY
Photo credit: wjarrettc on Best Running / CC BY
When I covered NASCAR for the Frontstretch in the late 2000s, there were quite a few motorsports writers that had nothing good to say about the racing at Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, PA. I came to the speedway’s defense in this incisive and thoughtful column, which first appeared here on the Frontstretch website. Pocono is still today one of my favorite NASCAR venues.
Where’s The Love For Pocono Raceway?
In the world of motorsports commentary, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of affection for Pocono Raceway. The complaints are numerous. Boring, single-file racing and not enough passing. No gear shifting. Too big of a track. 500 miles is too long. Can’t see what’s going on near the tunnel turn from the seats. Too long to get out of the parking lot. Waaah, waaah, waaah. Even the Wikipedia entry on the track bitches about it, citing “several drivers” (while naming only Denny Hamlin) and their antipathy for the place.
Our own Danny Peters, who is a first class motorsports writer in every other sense of the word, ranked Pocono just above Fontana in his evaluation of tracks on the NASCAR schedule.
The racing press has such a low opinion of Long Pond that when Bruton Smith purchased Kentucky Speedway and promised a Cup date there, it was immediately news that he might buy Pocono and move one of its Cup dates. Why suggest Pocono for a loss of a Cup date? Why not Dover, or Indianapolis? Why not an ISC track, like the favorite asphalted whipping boy for 95% of race fans – Fontana?
For all the moaning about Speedway Motorsports Inc. and International Speedway Corp. owning almost all of the tracks on the circuit, does Pocono Raceway get any points at all for being independently owned? When one thinks about the antitrust lawsuit that was brought by Kentucky Speedway against NASCAR some time ago, and how some who were tired of races being removed from classic tracks identified with Kentucky’s position, why would like thinkers be so eager to lose a date at Pocono to yet another SMI or ISC “D” speedway (“D” as in the shape of the track, not a letter grade for the general quality of racing at such venues, although it could apply), which Kentucky Speedway officially is now?
There wasn’t any discussion at all between Smith and Pocono Raceway owner Joseph Mattioli about a possible sale. Smith never gave any hint of desire to buy it. But Mattioli’s wife actually had to tell the press that Pocono was never nor ever will be available for sale. The possible move of a Cup date from Pocono to Kentucky wasn’t even a story… it was just a by-product of some reporters’ unquenchable desire for Pocono Raceway to lose a race.
So in contrast to the echo chamber denigrating Pocono Raceway, the Official Columnist of NASCAR speaks out here, in his ubiquitous Happy Hour forum, for the greatness of a speedway that gets an undeserved bad rap. I don’t care what anyone else thinks… Pocono rocks for a bunch of reasons.
Let’s start with the obvious. Pocono Raceway is a refreshing departure from those “D” tracks, the 1.5-2 mile speedways that now dominate way too much of the current NASCAR circuit. “Intermediates,” they are usually called. Among race fans, “cookie-cutters” is a more common euphemism.
Chicagoland, Texas, Michigan, etc., there’s no need to list them all, are the motorsports equivalent of the soulless, concrete doughnut, artificial turf, multipurpose baseball stadiums of the 1970s. Maybe someday racing will have its own Camden Yards to inspire a revival of taxpayer-subsidized old-style racetrack building, but for now we have few and shrinking alternatives. In a NASCAR schedule that features far too little variation among venues, Pocono stands out like a sore thumb, in a good way.
It isn’t even close to any other speedway. Look at decent tracks like Phoenix or Richmond even; yes, they’re different from the cookie-cutters and have some character, but they’re still D-shaped; they’re just smaller. It really doesn’t make for much difference to those in attendance.
Pocono, on the other hand, has three completely distinct turns instead of four equal ones. Each straightaway being a different length in the track’s scalene layout means that all of the turns are at different angles. How is the coolness of that missed? Pythagoras would have loved racing a chariot in this joint. For those of you who are weary of the constant lament from the unenlightened that “they just go around in circles”, at least Pocono offers a response to that. A circle, or even an oval, it is not.
The three turns themselves pay tribute to three classic tracks: turn 1 is modeled after the late Trenton Speedway, the tunnel turn (so named because of its location above the entry tunnel) is inspired by Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and turn 3 is similar to the Milwaukee Mile (another track that should have a Cup date).
Not only do the three turns give Pocono a nod to history, the different angles and banking of them gives crew chiefs fits. Before every Pocono race, teams can all be heard talking about “compromise” in their setups. You can be good in turn 1 and the tunnel turn, but you’ll pay for it in turn 3; and vice versa. Teams all attempt to be adequate on each turn because no one will be great on all of them. And the tunnel turn, with its sharp cornering and low banking, is often described as the most difficult in NASCAR for drivers.
It’s not just the turns that make Pocono Raceway so special and challenging. The track also features the circuit’s longest straightaway at 3,740 feet, almost three-quarters of a mile in length. The extra-long frontstretch makes for great drag races, especially on restarts, with cars racing three- and four-wide for that extra anxiety going into turn 1. But drivers had better break that side-by-side habit going into turn 2 or they aren’t going to finish the race.
Because of Pocono’s layout, teams need the whole package: horsepower, downforce, chassis setup, and a danged good wheelman driving the car. If they’re off on one corner, they’ll be in the back of the pack before very long. If the driver can’t negotiate the tunnel turn, they’ll be loading the car into the hauler before the race is over. Not enough horsepower for the drag race on the frontstretch and the team might as well stay home. And they had better not neglect to bring a super strong engine and a super durable set of brakes for 500 miles of this pounding. Many an engine has heartbreakingly expired at Pocono just 5-10 laps short of the checkered flag.
That’s my kind of grind. 500 miles on a 2.5-mile track without restrictor plates. Only at Pocono.
Occasionally, you’ll see just one driver’s team… it’s been Hamlin or Kurt Busch in recent years… totally nail the setup and dust the entire field. Pocono seems to be more conducive to such dominance, perhaps because of the difficulty of the setup. Having missed the Loudon race where Jeff Burton led every single lap, I have yet to see that feat accomplished, but I’m betting it will happen at Pocono before anywhere else. Some people will say one driver dominating is boring. I think it’s about as boring as a ballgame where one team doesn’t get any hits.
There aren’t many tracks on the circuit where drivers can safely go 55 mph in the pits. Crew members probably prefer Pocono to Bristol or Martinsville. That should count for something. It’s not that fans want to see Martinsville leave the circuit…ever…but that is sometimes cited as a reason to axe the famed paper clip from the schedule. Most newer speedways feature safer, wider pit roads. Pocono already has one.
Pocono Raceway is wide open, unsaturated with extra seats with low-quality views everywhere as so many tracks are these days. On television, most of the camera views contain greenery in the background rather that greed-inspired grandstands. That and its location in a truly rural area of Pennsylvania makes Pocono a throwback to a traditional era of NASCAR.
Since all of the seats at Pocono are on the frontstretch, fans are treated to the gradually rising volume of the engines as the cars work towards turn 3, before they scream down the frontstretch in an earsplitting roar. That, in this writer’s opinion, actually makes the distance of the tunnel turn from the grandstand a feature, not an impediment, of the fan experience. From quiet to deafening. It’s an oddity. Oddities are good.
There isn’t any shortage of spectacular wrecks either, if you’re into the more morbid side of racing. Remember Jeff Gordon’s brake failure and subsequent full-speed pounding into the wall in 2006? Or Steve Park’s scary flip in 2002?
So the complaints about Pocono are unreasonable. Not enough passing, you say? Daytona can have 30 passes in a lap. Two freight trains don’t make for better racing. The cars are too far from view going into the tunnel turn? If limited view for spectators is an issue, what the h is Indianapolis still doing on the schedule? No shifting gears? Gear shifting is for road courses. 500 miles is too long for a race? Don’t be such a candy ass, as The Intimidator would say. It’s racing for crying out loud. Too big of a track? Talladega is the same length and receives no such derision; and unlike ’Dega, Pocono doesn’t restrict horsepower, the practice of which remains the perfect antithesis of racing. Too long of a wait to get out of the parking lot? Where isn’t that a problem? At least at Pocono, loyal fans aren’t charged a double sawbuck to park in a field.
It’s baffling how many NASCAR fans and even writers, who call themselves traditionalists with no love for the France or Smith empires, never seem to lay off bashing one of the few unique, rural, throwback, independently owned racetracks left on the schedule.
Count the Official Columnist of NASCAR proudly in what appears to be the minority opinion: Pocono Raceway deserves every one of its 1,000 miles of racing.
Photo credit: CBGB_Hoser on Best Running / CC BY-ND
Photo credit: likeaduck on Best Running / CC BY
Photo credit: DOCHKAS on Best Running / CC BY
Photo credit: likeaduck on Best Running / CC BY
Photo credit: likeaduck on Best Running / CC BY
Photo credit: Mike Traverse on Best Running / CC BY-SA
Photo credit: On Pit Row on Best Running / CC BY-ND
Photo credit: DOCHKAS on Best Running / CC BY