South Jersey Life
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.
It’s never easy, especially when one is on vacation, to get out of bed early enough to see a sunrise on the beach. But some things are worth fighting sleep to witness.
I try to make a point to see at least one sunrise each time we go to Wildwood. It’s a special thing to me to walk on the white sand in near darkness to see the day begin, as difficult as it can be to pull myself from under the covers after an evening of boardwalking and ice cream.
Generally the sun emerges from the horizon somewhere between 5:30 and 6:30 AM, depending on the time of year. Before the sun comes up, the beach is quiet and often cool, possibly requiring a jacket or long pants. Gulls are plentiful in search of bird sustenance, making tiny claw prints along the wet surface near the water, occasionally speeding up their pace away from cold waves that no doubt surprise them.
The Wildwood beach is uncharacteristically almost devoid of humans at this time of day, but it’s not quite deserted. Every square quarter mile or so of beach has one or two folks there to see the sunrise too. Joggers looking for the runner’s high without the sunburn eschew their mattresses to stomp on the walkways near the beach. It’s a good time to take a four-legged friend for a walk on nearby paths, as some do.
Often there will be a hardy fisherman, pants rolled up and feet in what must be extremely cold water. I’ve often wondered what sort of marine life they manage to hook when there aren’t legs everywhere scaring fish away. Or if maybe the fisherman doesn’t care what he catches, and that the important thing to him is just to channel his inner Hemingway.
Because of the shape of the island, the sun doesn’t appear directly in front of the beach. The island curves to the south and west, so facing the water, the sun appears on the left. Coming from the boardwalk, the farther north on the beach one goes, the better the view.
Just before God’s lamp shows itself on the horizon, you can see the day becoming gradually brighter. Even better, if there are a few clouds just above the horizon where the sun is, the bottom edges of them will be brilliantly lit, as if they were a warm-up act for the incredible show. The cloud edges become increasingly brighter, and then suddenly, the center of our solar system pops up.
For the bright round fireball to be completely above the horizon and in its full glory reflecting on the water takes just seconds, in stark contrast to the sun’s apparent stillness any other time we grab a look to gauge its location.
It’s awe-inspiring and humbling at the same time, and gives one a saddening sense of how quickly this day will be a memory. But somehow, its regularity and orderliness is comforting, too, as if to say that there will always be a new day, a new opportunity, a chance to make the future better.
Wildwood is known for crowded beaches, crowded boardwalks, noisy amusements and a recorded voice repeatedly clearing the way for the iconic tram car.
Yet in the midst all of that, it provides some of its most memorable, spectacular moments in the quiet solitude of a sunrise on the beach.
One of the nicer things about a vacation in Wildwood is the potential for exercise that is actually enjoyable…walking or running on the boardwalk or beach, swimming or boogie boarding in the ocean, or riding bicycles on the lengthy Wildwood boardwalk in the morning. Not that stupid exercise that we force ourselves through at the gym full of people that seem to live there.
Throughout the Wildwood boardwalk, but mostly at the northern and southern ends, there are small shops that rent bicycles to vacationing riders in the morning. Riding a bike on the boardwalk is permitted until 11:00 AM most mornings, and most bike rental shops open at 6:00 AM. Bicycles cost in the range of $6-7 per hour, with surrey bikes going for quite a bit more, usually around $25 per hour.
Usually the family takes an hour. Especially with four of us now, since the surrey bicycles are much more expensive. An hour is usually plenty, so try that first before you go for more.
I’ve found that I can start at the north end of the boardwalk, ride all the way to the southern end, and then ride on the bicycle path in front of the motels in Wildwood Crest to the Admiral Motel—a beautiful part of town to be in early in the morning—and make it back with a few minutes to spare. Or I can head in the opposite direction, through North Wildwood where most folks are walking their dogs. If I hustle, I can do both.
Early in the morning, the earlier the better, the Wildwood boardwalk has a whole different air about it. Most of the arcades, piers, prize booths and pizza joints are closed, and the entertainment area that just hours before was relentlessly assaulting your senses is peaceful and inviting, with the sound of the waves not far away. People are riding, walking or jogging, and there’s actually room to get around without the crowds and the tram car constantly making their presence known. The most prominent sound of all is the echo of loose boards rattling from the weight of bicycles.
You get a nice overview of all of the stores and eateries on the boardwalk without wearing yourself out walking. There are a few places with coffee and breakfast sandwiches too (although not premium coffee so much). The boardwalk does start to get busier and tougher to navigate around 9:30 or so, so it’s good to get out there earlier if you can.
And of course, you can stop at Fractured Prune for the most amazing donuts in the Wildwoods. Go ahead, you’ll be bicycling it off.
You don’t have to stay on the boardwalk of course. Wildwood Crest in particular is a perfectly nice and quiet atmosphere to two-wheel around, and there are plenty of bicycle lanes along the beach front to make things safer. As you get further from the boardwalk, it gets morning quiet and beautifully peaceful, and you can explore the other side of the island, which has a nice little bay of its own.
The only caution I would mention is to be aware of the breeze and which direction it’s flowing.
I remember renting a bicycle in Long Beach Island many years ago. We were staying in Barnegat Light, in the northern part of the large island, and I was listening to a Beatles compilation cassette I had made.
I figured I would ride as far as I could while one side played, and then turn back for the second side. I made it as far as Beach Haven, the southernmost part of the island, and then learned that the wind had been blowing at my back the whole time. Oops. The ride back took twice as long, and I was sick of the Beatles by the middle of it.
So if you’re intent on only paying for an hour, be certain you can move in the other direction just as fast.
Riding a bicycle on the boardwalk early in the morning is one of my favorite pastimes in the Wildwoods, and it’s great exercise too, building up the appetite for breakfast at Adam’s, Pompeo’s or Uncle Bill’s. If there’s a better way to start a day at the Jersey Shore I can’t think of it.
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