“Respect a Good Breakfast”: An Invitation from the Executive Director

By Vonda Givens, Executive Director

I’ll be honest. A diner breakfast is one of my favorite things about New Jersey. This is a surprising truth, given that, as a native Tennessean, I am a stalwart champion of the Southern breakfast: country ham, grits, sawmill gravy, and best of all, biscuits. The biscuits should ideally be made by my mother (Happy Mother’s Day, Mom! You’re still my #1!), although the group who attended last year’s Farms Afield in Nashville know that I will accept a biscuit from The Loveless Café (for the record, I am not formally promoting The Loveless Café. I am stating a fact. As they make up to 10,000 biscuits per day, they do not need my promotional assistance anyway).

Back to New Jersey diner breakfasts: what I meant to express with the above detour is that, as a little girl in rural Tennessee, I was taught to respect a good breakfast. And breakfast is something New Jersey gets right, particularly New Jersey diners. Diners get it so right that, perhaps counterintuitively, I often avoid going out for breakfast. The wait at the best places is too long (I am generally a late riser and an early complainer), but I do have a standing Sunday morning meet up with a dear friend up at nearby diner. We catch up over a breakfast sandwich—bacon, egg, and cheese on a roll. At least that’s my usual order. Sometimes she mixes it up. (I recently had Silver Dollar Pancakes with bananas and napped the rest of the morning, so I won’t be doing that again soon anytime soon.) 

When we planned the New Jersey Skylands Farms Afield, which was one of my last tasks before going on sabbatical at the end of March (yes, I’m back in the saddle! More to come on that in another blog), we settled quickly on the activities. Aside from the obvious: an extended, one-of-a-kind day at Craftsman Farms (that’s the Log House in autumn at right), including special tours, lunch, and shopping on the fully re-opened and newly transformed campus, we added exclusive visits to private homes. We will see two enchanting local Stickley houses and an incredible private Stickley collection—three visits with hosts as lovely as their homes. We also contacted our longtime friends at Rago Arts and Auctions in Lambertville, and they welcomed our group to stop by (and offered some Lambertville recommendations). 

For years, I’d had Lambertville in mind as the “home base” of a New Jersey Farms Afield, but we considered other possibilities. Despite New Jersey’s often maligned reputation, it is teeming with charming, walkable towns with equally charming hotels that are an easy drive to Craftsman Farms. Everyone has their favorite towns, but I’m always happy to spend the day in Princeton, Clinton, or Chester. Cranbury is near Princeton and feels like a delightful historic village stage set. Silver Lake, if it’s a shore day, or Cape May with its lovely Victorian houses by the sea (try to stay overnight. It’s a drive but definitely worth it). Morristown, much closer to the museum, is a town that feels like a small city with great dining, shopping, and so much American history to explore (shout out to our colleagues at Macculloch HallAcorn HallFosterfields, and of course, the Morristown National Park, the site of General Washington’s winter encampment during the Revolutionary War).

Even with these ample options, in the end, our Farms Afield headquarters had to be Lambertville. I was reminded of why when we visited our hotel, the historic Lambertville House (at left), on a cold, rainy winter day. Whatever the weather, Lambertville is a picturesque small city that is great fun to explore on foot and has an abundance of excellent dining options. Every time I visit, I think: I’d like to spend a couple of days here, and I suspected that Farms Afield travelers would want to do the same. 

Membership Manager Parker Sanchez worked on planning for the New Jersey Farms Afield with me. When it came to dining, for some reason, we—and most likely I—had a mental lapse. At some point, as we finalized our scheduled stops, I realized I had become too fixated on efficient food, the kind of dining focused less on good food and more on getting everyone from point A to point B. I forgot about the importance of taking in the scenery along the way. This led to the realization that we hadn’t included one of the most important aspects of New Jersey culture in our New Jersey trip: breakfast at a diner.

Diners are so ingrained in New Jersey culture that it can feel like they are New Jersey culture. New Jersey is widely known as the diner capital of the world (just Google it). Diners are in every corner of the state, and diners are one of the few things that unite New Jersey’s very diverse population. Everyone eats at diners. (New Jerseyans also enjoy a scuffle over the proper name of their favorite processed ham—a diner food, by the way. For the record, here in North Jersey it’s Taylor Ham; pork roll in South Jersey, and don’t even ask about central Jersey. Seriously, don’t.). 

If you want to know New Jersey, go to a diner. It’s why the Sopranos series finale was shot at a real New Jersey diner, not a sound stage (specifically, Holstens in Bloomfield, which recently sold the Sopranos’ booth for more than $80,000). You could turn a sightseeing visit to New Jersey, which I highly recommend, into a very satisfying diner tour. In fact, you could start in Tom’s River at JBJ Soul Kitchen (Jon Bon Jovi’s ingenious nonprofit community restaurant) and from there, hopscotch from diner to diner across the state, taking in sites along the way.

During Farms Afield in New Jersey, we will have two diner breakfasts. Both will be at the traditional morning hour, but at a diner, breakfast is served all day. So, any time you have a hankering for a waffle, you’re in luck. You can get one at a diner. This reminds me of the time I took my visiting friend’s family to dinner at a diner, and her young son was delighted to be able to order a waffle, which turned out to be as big as his head (yes, he had a wagon-wheel-sized dessert for dinner. I had to apologize to my friend, but New Jersey diners aim to please!). 

Unlike a Southern breakfast, a diner breakfast’s main components can vary widely, and this is one of its most endearing features. Order a plate of eggs any way you want them, with home fries, which despite their name are not fries but (usually) diced potatoes, and toast. Order an omelet from a long list of options or plan your own. And then there are pancakes, French toast, and waffles and my favorite: breakfast sandwiches (as noted, I like them on a Kaiser roll, but I also love an Everything Bagel, and yes, NJ bagels are the equal of NY bagels. When I asserted this point to Jonathan Clancy, a native New Jerseyan, he agreed, but declared that most important of all was a chewy bagel that does not seem like “a fluffy doughnut.” I cannot argue with that.). Almost all of the menu items above can be combined however you want on a plate (or two). Diner coffee (or “cawfee” as North Jerseyans say it) is usually nothing special, but that kind of makes it great too. And you can have as much as you want.

If you think I’m saying all of this to lure you to New Jersey to have breakfast at a diner with me, you’re right. You’re invited this November to meet me in Lambertville for Farms Afield: New Jersey Skylands. Enjoy the beautiful rolling hills, lakes, and rivers of Gustav Stickley’s New Jersey (that’s the Skylands part. NJ’s section of the Appalachian Trail is here).

Come for the VIP Arts-and-Crafts experience, planned by locals especially for Members, and stay for the breakfast. You won’t regret it. 

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