They’re trying something new down in Bridgeton. And we are intrigued.
We recently made the trip down to Bridgeton for the inaugural Food Film Fest event at the Ashley McCormick Center on Commerce Street right in the heart of downtown. The film portion of the evening was “Big Night”, a film that is loved by food geeks (like us). As for the food, it would be a dinner inspired by the movie itself. This event was the brainchild of Bridgeton Main Street, and like other Main Street organizations, the idea of having such events is to generate some buzz to get people wanting to come to the downtown area for shopping as well as for dining.
It was a big night in a number of ways: not only was it the first of a new series of events based on food-centric films and meals based on the films, but it was big in terms of those attending the event. The mayor of the city, Albert Kelly, was there. Poor Lisa didn’t arrive until the movie had already started, and while under the cover of darkness I texted her that she was sitting right next to the mayor. Celeste M. Riley, the assemblywoman from the Third District and supporter of farmland issues and the state’s wine industry, was there. And to top the list, none other than the Secretary of Agriculture Douglas Fisher, who is from Bridgeton, was in attendance as well. It was an honor to be able to chat with them all while enjoying a little wine, some olives and cheese before the start of the movie.
It had been some time since we had seen “Big Night”, so it was a treat to be able to enjoy it with a large group of people – many of which had not seen the film before. A few things I hadn’t noticed before jumped out at me, like the fact that Campbell Scott not only co-directed the film but played the slick Cadillac salesman. Also, one of the workers at Pascal’s (the other restaurant) was Liev Schreiber. And even though we might have been one of the few in the audience that had seen “Big Night” before, everyone oohed and aahed over each course as they came out of the kitchen.
It was finally time for our dinner, and after watching that film we (and most everyone else) were ravenous. But we were in the capable hands of Chef Jay Dozier and members of Marino family (Everett Jr, Bessie and Shirley). The Marino family, who ran Dill’s Seafood for almost sixty years, are pretty much food royalty in Bridgeton.
So, I know the question you’re dying to ask: was the spread just like the movie? Well, no. Let’s face it: you could do that for maybe a dozen or so people, but not for the bigger crowd in attendance that night. But they did present a meal that was quite enjoyable: a soul-satisfying four-cheese lasagna, slow-roasted pork loin done in a Tuscan style with herbs and garlic, baked fish filets alla Marino (a family recipe), sweet and tender Jersey asparagus in a garlic and lemon dressing, and finished with a nice, rich slice of cheesecake. Overall, it was a meal that was more home cooking than high-end cuisine, but that did not take away from the fact that it was darn tasty.
But there was one more treat to be had this night: a cooking demonstration from Chef Giovanna Bellia LaMarca. She has written two cookbooks on Italian cooking, Sicilian Feasts and The Cooking of Emilia Romagna – the latter of which had just been released and we were the first to be privy to seeing it. Chef Giovanna is a grandma cook in the best sense of the word,one that sees cooking as a joyful and happy endeavor. Then again, I don’t think I could imagine an Italian-American grandma not liking to cook. And for the demonstration, she prepared zeppole for the group (with help from the folks in the kitchen). But unlike the kind you get at the county fairs and Italian feasts, they were not too greasy and there was not a bit of powdered sugar on them. They were lighter with a pleasant flavoring of cinnamon.
Overall, it was an enjoyable evening. There were some kinks that need to be worked out, like things running late and maybe some help with the sound system, but we left with a positive feeling. In talking to Carola Hartley, Executive Director of Bridgeton Main Street, this was just the first of a number of food events coming down the pike: they’re bringing back a BBQ cookoff (the King Pig BBQ competition ran for three years before stopping after 2009), the Cohansey RiverFest will be back at the end of August, and then the next installment of Food Film Fest (a Mexican feast inspired by “Like Water for Chocolate”) will be happening in October. Like Vineland, they are embracing the fact that they are surrounded by farmland and food production as well as the diversity of the people that live in their community. For someone like me who grew up with Bridgeton as a second hometown and watched as Owens-Illinois moved out and left the town for dead, it’s great to see the effort being made in trying to pump some life back into the place. We wish them lots of luck, and plan on coming back for more.