Peepers And Pizza: Spring Comes To New Jersey
Spring in South Jersey is heralded by two significant events, the emergence of Spring Peepers, our resident tree frog, and the opening of Boardwalk Pizza parlors, our regional delicacy.
by David Todd McCarty | Thursday, February 25, 2021
In my mind, spring is the least of the seasons because it is defined less by what it is, than by what it promises. It’s a phantom, a mirage of what we hope it will be, but it often delivers a cold, rainy few months that we suffer through until one day we wake up to discover it’s over.
Summer is yellow and hot, a cacophony of color like a five-year-old’s birthday party. Fall is a harvest of orange, a proper end to the whirlwind of activity and a shortening of days, the excitement of back to school and football. Winter is cold and white, a long, indoor nap where we rest by a fire and live off the fat we are simultaneously accumulating. Spring is green and wet, but not yet warm, a cruel trick of nature that pretends to be a season but is more like the death throes of winter, broken up by wayward birds and random blooms.
“It is spring again. The earth is like a child that knows poems by heart.”Rainer Maria Rilke
We like spring because it is the harbinger of the long days of summer, but it is often more an idea than a reality. Too often we go from winter to summer, seemingly overnight, with little to no warning. One day you’re watching daffodils poke their way up through the snow and the next you’re hauling the air conditioner out of the attic while cursing the bloody heat.
Anne Bradstreet once said, “If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant: if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome.”
Here in Southern New Jersey, we enjoy a fairly temperate climate, getting all four seasons in their measure, taking each one as a phase to move through. Summer is for ballparks and beaches. Fall is for back to school and woodsmoke. Winter is a time to rest up before the onslaught of tourists. But spring is strange. We don’t always know what to do with spring. It feels more like a period of waiting than anything we’re ever waiting for. You don’t anticipate spring, rather spring is a time to anticipate summer.
It’s not always easy to know, other than being told to change your clocks or that it is officially spring, no matter what the weather. But in this part of the world, there are two things that alert us to the fact that summer won’t be far behind. The emergence of Spring Peepers, our very own tree frogs, and Boardwalk Pizza, the unofficial state food.
The Northern Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer crucifer) is widespread throughout much of the eastern United States and Canada. Our peepers here in New Jersey are tan or brown with a dark cross that roughly forms an X on their backs (hence the Latin name crucifer, meaning cross-bearer), though sometimes the marking may be indistinct. They have a body length between just less than an inch to up to 1.5 in and weigh between 3 and 5 grams (0.11 and 0.18 oz). Just a bit smaller than a Matchbox car.
Although they are good climbers, Peepers spend most of their time on the ground, often hiding under leaf litter during the day. While rarely seen, during mating season in the spring, they are often heard. Spring peepers are known for the males’ mating call—a high-pitched whistling or peeping sound repeated about 20 times a minute. However, the faster and louder they sing, the greater the chances of attracting a mate. Spring Peepers tend to congregate where trees and shrubs are standing in water, and sing in trios, with the deepest-voiced frog starting the call. Only males can chirp, which they do often during mating season which runs from March until May, but even when mating season ends, you may still hear them on warm, rainy nights.
Females may lay anywhere from 750 to 1,200 eggs, which attach to submerged aquatic vegetation. Males fertilize the eggs as they are laid. Depending on the temperature, eggs can hatch within two days to two weeks. The tadpoles have gills to breathe underwater and tails to help them swim. Tadpoles transform into frogs over the course of 6 to 12 weeks. Spring peepers are said to have short lives, living three to four years at most.
Their distinct voice, peep, peep, peep, is a call that sounds like a high-pitched, chirpy whistle. The single note repeated in well-defined intervals can be almost overwhelming when there is a full chorus of hundreds of individuals. They are known as Spring Peepers because it is their mating song that alerts us that spring is not far away.
While it’s true that we have plenty of pizza parlors that are not on a boardwalk, and many that are open year-round, there is something about a slice that you eat outdoors while standing on a wooden deck, with the sun shining on your face, that makes it taste special.
Like a hot dog in a ballpark, there is no scientific reason for boiled or grilled, cased meat on a soft, warm roll, to taste any different in a stadium than in your backyard, but they do.
The Boardwalk, a summer institution in itself, is an actor in a seasonal performance that is not available year-round. It is special because it is limited. So it goes with the pizza we associate with it.
The two most famous boardwalk pizza shrines in South Jersey are Manco & Manco (formerly Mack & Manco) in Ocean City, and Sam’s Pizza Palace in Wildwood. You can argue about which one is better, but really it comes down to heritage. It’s like deciding which sports team to support. It’s largely decided for you by geography and hereditary chance, not by choice. It’s based more on where you went as a kid with your family than any inherent quality of the product. Your loyalty is a familial loyalty and says as much about you as the brand itself.
Anthony Bourdain once said, “My favorite restaurants are ones where they only do two or three things. A place that does three things and it looks like they’ve been doing those same three things for a very long time—that’s a really healthy sign.”
The thing about Manco’s and Sam’s is that with a few exceptions like a cheesesteak or Ann order of wings, they basically serve pizza. Just pizza. More often than not, they are dealing in slices as opposed to whole pies. This is the commerce of the boardwalk pizza joint, the slice.
The thing about a slice, for all your newbies, shoobies, and Chicagoans (that ain’t pizza), is that it’s cooked twice. You first cook the pizza in a proper oven at somewhere around 900º, then take it out and let it cool. When you order a slice, the slices are thrown back into the oven to be reheated, causing the crust to crisp up even more. This is pizza on-demand, but it’s the reheating that makes all the difference.
There was a place I used to go to years ago, near my house, that I would call and order the pizza, then wait a bit before picking it up. When I went to pick it up, I would have them throw it back in the oven before giving it to me. I like my pizza a little well-done to boot.
The proper Boardwalk Pizza experience is a hot slice on a paper plate, the grease dripping down your hand, burning the roof of your mouth, and as you attempt to inhale a massive triangle of crispy dough and melted cheese. Music plays, the staff yells out orders and the seagulls cry out—fighting for scraps of crust, no doubt left behind by children, tourists, or amateurs. No serious pizza aficionado would toss a perfectly good bit of pizza crust, as it’s half the point.
Spring At The Shore
In a few weeks, we will change the clocks ahead one hour and everything will start to change. That one hour of daylight begins to feel like a downpour after a drought, and we start to think about waking up.
It’s early yet, just the tail end of February and we are definitely not out of the winter woods just yet, but word has it that slices are already being served on the Boardwalk, and any day now, probably after a good rain, the Peepers will begin to sing.
It won’t be long then.