It only took me over a year to have a second diner thought.
It’s 1990. Late summer. Yours truly, having just had his wisdom teeth pulled, is driving across New Jersey to have his first date with Lisa. The drive is going swimmingly – until a detour at the 70/72 circle sends me way way WAY off course. Remember that this was back in the day when cell phones were not readily available, and you couldn’t really find a pay phone in the middle of the Pine Barrens. I finally make it to Lisa’s house – two hours late. She thought for sure that she was getting stood up, by the way.
Because of my gaping holes in the back of my gums, our first meal together would need to be simple – and for me, liquidy. Being the young Jerseyites that we were, a diner seemed to fit the bill, so off we went to the Toms River Diner (affectionately known as the TR Diner). Of course, soup would be an obvious choice. And so, I thought ‘Ah – a nice bowl of snapper soup would just hit the spot.’ I scanned the menu, and to my surprise, there would be no snapper soup listed.
How could this be? By this time, I was a well-versed diner aficionado, having exercised new found freedoms as a teenager by spending many an hour with friends along ‘The 130’ (Route 130) eating late night meals. And on many of those occasions, I would get myself a nice bowl of snapper soup, a rich gumbo-like soup that indeed had chewy bits of snapper turtle. It’s a soup I began to love as a kid, and was a regular item that my dad and I would order whenever the family went out for seafood.
Snapper soup was not a special ‘Soup of the Day’ item in the diners along Route 130; it was there all the time, at any time. And yet, no matter where we went around Lisa’s neck of the woods in Ocean County – be it the TR Diner, the Ocean Queen Diner in Brick, the (heh heh) O.B. Diner in Point Pleasant or the Crystal Diner in Toms River – snapper soup would never be on the menu.
Over the years, and several different diners later, my empirical data has brought me to this conclusion: it is clear that snapper soup still holds fast to being a Philadelphia / Delaware Valley regional food and does not carry all the way through the entire South Jersey region. In his film ‘New Jersey: The Movie’, Steve Chernsoki shows different lines that can be defined in our state: the hoagie/sub line, the shoobie/benny line, the sprinkles/jimmies line. I submit to you that within South Jersey itself, there is another line: the Snapper Soup Line.
Based on what I have experienced and researched, the Snapper Soup Line would basically follow Route 130 from Bordentown (Mastori’s has snapper soup) all the way down to Delran pretty solidly. Chances are that if you go to a diner along this stretch, be it Mastori’s, or the Dolphin Diner in Burlington, the Golden Dawn Diner in Willingboro, or Nick’s in Delran, you’ll find snapper soup on the menu. After that, the waters get a bit murky.
Snapper soup is one of those dishes that is slowly starting to disappear from menus altogether. The main reason, I believe, is due to the fact that turtle meat is not as available as it once was. Go to your local fish market and see if they carry turtle meat regularly; my guess is probably not.
The further down on ‘The 130’ you go, finding snapper soup may not be as likely. The Harvest Diner in Cinnaminson used to have it regularly; now I’m not so sure of that. And any diner that I have checked out that is anywhere east of 130 doesn’t seem to have it one the menu, such as the Red Lion Diner and the Vincentown Diner in Vincentown, the Delsea Diner in Millville, or the Whitman Diner in Turnersville. The one exception? Harrison House in Mullica Hill does have snapper soup. So as you can see, the line gets blurry.
Now I’d like to hear what you guys have discovered on your culinary journeys. What diners have you had snapper soup or have seen it on the menu? Is there a diner further east that has it on the menu? Let me know.