When I graduated from Bridgewater-Raritan High School in 2009, I couldn’t get out of New Jersey fast enough. I set off for college in Philadelphia, vowing never to return again. But seven years later, after finishing grad school and accepting my first-ever full-time job at this very magazine, I moved back to the Garden State—half excited, half reluctant.
I was not born in New Jersey, but spent much of my youth here. Growing up in Central Jersey, a part of the state whose existence people still argue over, I never felt like a true Jersey girl. Shortly after moving here during the summer of 2001, and just before 9/11, my family went on a vacation to New Hampshire. There, we met a man who was also from New Jersey. He asked the age-old question: “What exit?”
Ten years old, I confidently jumped in and started listing the highway exits we lived off: Exit 26 off 78, Exit 14 coming off 287. The man looked at me blankly, and my poor mother nervously laughed and said to me, “No, no, he’s talking about exits off the Parkway.” I had never even been on the Garden State Parkway and had not yet gone down the Shore. Like many residents of western New Jersey, I couldn’t answer the question.
My embarrassment over this harmless interaction still eats at me. Maybe I don’t have a good response to “What exit?” even today, but surprisingly, I do have pride in where I come from. As the years have passed and I’ve lived elsewhere, my fondness for Central Jersey has only grown. When I moved back to the state in 2017, I found an apartment in a crowded area of North Jersey and began missing the landscape of my youth. My affection for the region—which very much exists—has reared its head even more so recently, as my partner, Hayden, and I search for our first house.
We’re ready to leave our tiny city apartment for greener pastures. For job reasons, we’re not looking in New Jersey, but my ideal home has many traits in common with my Central Jersey upbringing. I want to live near farmland, if not on it, a desire shaped by the Hunterdon County landscape I once explored. Yet I also want the convenience of malls and airports. I would like to be within an hour’s drive of both mountains and the beach. And let’s not forget about the bounty of diverse cuisines I want access to.
Hayden, who grew up in Pennsylvania, teases me about being a Jersey girl. But it’s a badge I wear with honor. Even if it’s not one our future children will wear, I hope to carry ideals from my upbringing with me wherever we land.
Shelby Vittek is the editor of Modern Farmer and a former associate editor at New Jersey Monthly, where she still authors the monthly Libations column.Click here to leave a comment