“Open or closed?”
The question is something of a secret password for nonnatives, or, conversely, a nod of respect to those who have tread the Ocean City, N.J. boardwalk before.
Johnson’s Popcorn, a Jersey Shore staple more than half a century, is celebrated for its decadently sweet, lightly buttered, pinch-salted caramel corn so saccharine it’ll give your dentist an anxiety disorder.
The sweet and savory ingredients act as an adhesive, creating chunky popcorn balls swimming in a sea of perfectly seasoned kernels.
Needless to say, it’s damned delicious.
The question, posed by the cashiers manning each of the four Johnson’s Popcorn kiosks on the historic boardwalk, is an on-the-spot test of your shore knowledge and acts equally as an identifier if it’s your first time.
And if it is, in fact, your inaugural visit, there’s only one answer:
“Make sure you say open,” Mary Kate, my girlfriend’s cousin and Ocean City citizen told me. We were spending the night at their grandmother’s home, a mere stone’s throw from the Atlantic Ocean.
“Yep. They’ll throw your bucket in a big plastic bag and overfill the shit out of it.”
“So, like, does it come with a lid or something?”
“Definitely take the lid. You’ll need it for later.”
These basic instructions, as you’ll soon find out, are paramount to the achievement of an endorphin throttling death-by-popcorn life experience.
Johnson’s Popcorn has been a landmark on the Ocean City Boardwalk (itself a Garden State institution since the 1880s) since 1940, outlasting fires and super-storms and redevelopment; offering patrons and visitors a variety of kettle cooked flavors from buttered to caramel to chocolate drizzle.
The popcorn comes in different sized tubs, the smallest of which could easily fit a toddler inside. But it quickly becomes apparent that even the small size, a hefty 280z, isn’t enough to satisfy in a single sitting.
On cue, our attendant launches us the question after we hand her our tub — word to the wise: empty tubs can be used for discounted refills and if you happen to stay with a local, they’re sure to have a spare stashed away.
“Open,” I blurt out a little too preemptively and enthusiastically, enough to elicit a raised eyebrow from the woman on the other end of the cash register.
I handed her the money.
She whipped open a sizable and transparent tote, dumped our tub inside and proceeded to shovel scoop after scoop of lusciousness inside, quickly submerging the tub as if it were buried in snow during a flash blizzard, and then handed me what appeared simply to be a trash bag sized helping of caramel corn with just the slightest hint of the tub barely noticeable through the dark-brown confectionery puffs.
Fresh heat emitted from the bag, a complementary feel with the crisp breeze circulating aromas of sea salt and fried foods. It was the ideal snack to be enjoyed over several rotations aboard OCNJ’s imposing, mellow and pleasantly quintessential Ferris Wheel.
Off in the distance, Atlantic City shimmered like a phosphorescent bulb jutting up from the dark horizon otherwise dotted bleakly with lights from scattered communities, the blackness most pronounced where the intercoastal waterways and vast sea are situated.
We had to exercise tremendous restraint to save some for later. By the time we went up, around, sat atop Ocean City, and came back down, we had razed the heaping helping enough to seal the top of the tub. Gone were any traces of outlying pieces.
Ocean City is aesthetically different from New England’s craggy enclaves. Some Yankee streets and sidewalks are made of timeless brick and cobblestone, Federal and Victorian homes or storefronts appear to crumble or perpetually sustain tempestuous weather beatings, and plots of property are encased in grass and greenery.
Arriving on the barrier island upon which Ocean City sits by way of a bridge system that seems to hop around the duney and swampy Cape May County archipelago like a game of infrastructural leapfrog, I found it difficult not to notice the vast use of concrete; the roads and sidewalks, of course, but also nearly every front, side and backyard area, patio and parking space, and fire pit and former garden.
It’s flat and gray, like a dusty desert town, densely populated but with the unique character of a coastal dominion. Houses are large and stylistic, breathing an urban life into the neighborhood, oblong and usually two or three stories tall, commonly duplexes, frequently with deck or porch availability.
Some are elevated, a burdensome consequence and painful reminder of the carnage reaped by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
Adjacent homes are in such close proximity, someone with a sizable wingspan could likely brush each by the fingertips.
The privacy is minimal. The idea of community is palpable.
On a steamy summer night, it’s not uncommon for families to vacate their dwellings in droves and congregate in their outdoor areas to share dinner, drinks, or vibrant conversation substantial enough to pique the senses of any passerby, as it did us.
The next morning we had breakfast in Bridget’s grandmother’s quaint kitchen just a few blocks away from Johnson’s Popcorn. It was typical morning fare consisting of eggs, bacon, toast, juice, and coffee with the exception of one regional mainstay foreign to the New England palate: scrapple.
First described to me as “everything but the oink,” scrapple is a sausage-like blend of pork scraps and fatty trimmings, unsavory in thought but delicious in taste, originating in colonial America when Dutch settlers laid down roots in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware.
I was hardly embarrassed to help myself to seconds.
Patty, the daughter of Bridget’s step-grandfather Jack, descended from her upstairs condo to join us.
“How was the boardwalk?”
“It was fantastic. We walked around a bit, took a spin on the Ferris Wheel, did some people watching. It was a lot of fun.”
I couldn’t help but feel like I could live here myself, like I was fitting in, like I was an honorary member of society, a local by proxy if not in practice, albeit short-lived.
New Jersey gets a bum rap sometimes. The state is extensively beautiful and rich in history, the people welcoming and charming, but it’s come to be overly stereotyped as a haven for gelled-up blowout hairdos, orange-hued fake tans, excessive musculature, and barbed wire tattoos. The MTV-ization of shore goers at the turn of the decade tacked on a certain stigma to Jerseyites. Truth be told, that’s more the Atlantic City crowd and even further northward by Seaside Heights. And no, bordering states don’t dump their trash here; but some are, admittedly, responsible for Chris Christie.
Ocean City, I realized, is more wholesome. It’s a seamless stitching of seaside Americana with deeply-rooted inhabitants and up-and-coming Millennials.
“Did you stop by Johnson’s?”
“Of course we did. It’s nearly gone, actually.”
“Did you get it open?”
A smug smile crept over my face.
“Did you get it with peanuts too?”
I looked up from my leathery-looking but oh so succulent scrapple. Self-satisfaction turned into bewilderment.
“Didn’t anyone tell you? After you ask for it open, you’re supposed to ask for peanuts also…
… All the locals do it.”