Moorestown

Lecture Review – Christopher Andrew Maier: “Just for the Record: The Life of Eldridge Reeves Johnson”

What better way to commemorate the anniversary of someone’s death than through a celebration of that person’s life? As part of the “History Speaks” series sponsored by the Historical Society of Moorestown, Mr. Maier did just that. He delivered a first person lecture on one of the town’s most famous residents, Eldridge Reeves Johnson. The event occurred at the Moorestown Library on November 14th: the 73rd anniversary of the entertainment industry pioneer’s passing.

Perhaps inspired by Mr. Johnson’s life, the Historical Society of Moorestown pioneered a trend of its own. Several months ago I attended a lecture they sponsored that included an “opening act.” This came about due to the lateness of the featured speaker. At this event the speaker fulfilled these dual roles himself. Mr. Maier began the evening by displaying some stellar musicianship on the grand piano.

Then the speaker transitioned from tickling the ivories to massaging the audience’s intellectual curiosity. Mr. Maier segued into his lecture on the life of the Victor Talking Machine Company’s founder, Eldridge Reeves Johnson.

The speaker’s passion for his subject came through in his remarks. He chose to deliver them in the first person; in essence, becoming his subject. Mr. Maier described the development of the gramophone, “as important as the Guttenberg Press.” This innovation led to the company employing such cultural luminaries as Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. It even hired an unknown artist named Andy Warhol to design their artwork.

It seems odd that someone who founded such a remarkable organization had such inauspicious beginnings. A high school instructor told Johnson to “learn a trade” as he wasn’t “college material.” That’s the polite description of the conversation. Mr. Maier even said this person referred to Mr. Johnson as “dumb.” Mr. Johnson opted to become a machinist. Circumstances showed he made a good choice. The skills he developed served him well upon meeting his future business partners Emile Berliner and Alfred Clark.

Johnson’s career proved the business adage about the importance of surrounding one’s self with “good people.” While working with Alexander Graham Bell, Mr. Berliner developed a microphone used on the first telephone. Mr. Johnson’s future rival, Thomas Edison, employed Mr. Clark. The latter invented a governor that regulated a gramophone’s speed. The one he produced served a key function in Victor’s record player.

When the Victor Talking Machine Company opened for business in 1901, it earned $500 in sales. When adjusted for inflation that equates to approximately $15K in 2017 currency. Just when that instructor who called Johnson “dumb” may have felt vindicated, both the company’s popularity and its revenue grew exponentially. Just five years after starting up, the organization generated $12 million in sales. In 2017 figures, that would come to over $332 million. (Source: westegg.com inflation calculator.)

Mr. Maier described the gramophone’s technical details. He even provided an authentic one as a visual aide. The device lacked a volume control. Shoving something into the horn served as the only means of deadening the sound. The lecturer demonstrated by literally “putting a sock in it.”

In 1906, the company developed a more practical way to address the issue. During that year, the Victor Talking Machine Company produced the Victrola. The speaker’s position beneath the turntable helped to lower the volume.

A Victrola could best be described as a multi-purpose cabinet. The lower portion contained a section where consumers could store their records. It also included a pull-out shelf where consumers could place the records they wanted to play.

Unlike many business barons, such as Mr. Edison, Eldridge Johnson possessed a humble disposition. Decades before management guru Jim Collins advocated this trait, Mr. Johnson recognized that it made good business sense. He understood that Victor’s performers were the company’s real stars. As Mr. Maier speculated that he said: “All is vanity. That’s why no one knows my name.”

In addition to his revolutionary contributions to the entertainment industry, Mr. Johnson contributed his substantial means to philanthropic causes. As Moorestown residents know, he generously provided funds for the Community House. Mr. Maier added that Johnson tore down one of his own mansions to provide a site for the Merion Tribute House (formerly the Merion War Tribute House) located in Merion Station, Pennsylvania. He intended the building as a memorial for local residents who served in the armed forces during the First World War.

After covering the serious side of Mr. Johnson’s life, Mr. Maier added wit to his presentation. He shared a few YouTube videos he produced. One showed his discovery of where Mr. Johnson’s original machine shop stood. (https://youtu.be/cfR9QlL1oUg) In the most amusing segment, the speaker swapped his piano for a beat box. He kicked it old school with his tribute to Victor’s mascot in the form of “Nipper’s Yap Rap.” (https://youtu.be/IFUK4TULQYU)

It seemed fitting that Mr. Johnson’s company rivaled Mr. Edison’s. As Mr. Maier explained, “Edison was an inventor. Johnson was an artist.” With the speaker’s proficiency at music, performance art and knowledge of the gramophone it’s understandable why he developed such an interest in the latter. After attending his lecture, one can also understand why his audiences experience that same enthusiasm.

 

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“The Salem Witch Trials: Strangely Accused” by Mickey DiCamillo at the Historical Society of Moorestown

The Historical Society of Moorestown bewitched local historians with another enchanting evening this October 17th. The organization’s President, Mickey DiCamillo, delivered the second part of his lecture series on the Salem Witch Trials.  This installment subtitled “Strangely Accused” further described Salem Village’s decent from normalcy—at least by Puritan standards—into an environment of paranoia and zealotry. The crux of the lecture focused on the reasons for this change.

The Society selected an excellent environment for such a discussion. The cobwebs, pumpkins and eerie lighting served as an excellent backdrop. The Halloween décor along with the howling winds on this brisk autumn evening further established the mood.

The group decided to move the lecture indoors due to the cold…or so they said. I wonder if the real chill everyone longed to escape was the one the darkness and the cool breeze sent up everyone’s spine. The audience moved into a cozier atmosphere in the kitchen at Smith-Cadbury Mansion.

During the early months of 1692, accusations of witchcraft only fell on societal outcasts. As the year progressed this changed. Upstanding members of the community such as 72 year old Rebecca Nurse and church goer Martha Corey found themselves under investigation.

As expected, Mr. DiCamillo included witty observations in his lecture. “Maury Povich would want to meet the people of Salem,” he noted. Martha Corey’s life illustrated one reason why. Mrs. Corey moved to Salem Village to begin a new life for herself. While living in her previous community she’d engaged in an extramarital affair. To make things worse, she became pregnant as the result of this illicit relationship. The fact that her child bore the features and skin tone of a Native American didn’t do much to ameliorate her situation. Hence, she relocated to the community and “repented” for her sins. She remarried and became an ardent Christian woman.

Mr. DiCamillo added other interesting details regarding the witch investigations to his lecture. He emphasized the common themes that developed in the course of them. Those allegedly bewitched often reported seeing animals. Most often they witnessed dogs and yellow birds. In Puritan lore, these figures represented the Devil.

Interrogators often asked those accused if they had written in the Devil’s book. Every witch seemed to carry around a tome in which fellow sorcerers and sorceresses would sign their names. Mr. DiCamillo’s imagery made me think of the tradition of signing high school yearbooks.

While accusations of witchcraft could cost someone his/her life, those acquitted endured financial hardships. During the era prisoners paid for their own food, room and board. An accused person could accumulate large debts while waiting for trial.

Coming from this draconian environment, it seems odd that the Puritans began a benign tradition that persists into the modern era. They established the practice of attending church on Christmas.

As with just about anything the Puritans did, this one comes with an interesting story. In seventeenth century England, people celebrated Christmas much differently than those of us living today. Think mardi gras meets New Year’s Eve meets a frat party.

In the 1680s Anglicans began moving into the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Puritans objected to these raucous celebrations. They declared that if a person wanted to commemorate the birth of Christ, one should do so in a church. Revelers swapped their whiskey for communion wine and a great American tradition began.

The “Strangely Accused” lecture showed that anyone could be accused of witchcraft. Neither age, nor gender nor amount of religious devotion immunized a person from these allegations. Mr. DiCamillo piqued everyone’s interest on how this bizarre and tragic situation would resolve. I eagerly anticipate hearing it. The final segment of this tenebrous trilogy of terror takes place this October 24th at the Historical Society of Moorestown.

 

The Ghost Tour Presented by the Historical Society of Moorestown

Even the best place to live in America* has its scary side. I heard tales of Quaker apparitions, mysterious shadows and a visit from the Jersey Devil when I took part in the Moorestown Ghost Tour the evening of October 13, 2018.

Like Prince, Fabio and Bono our tour guide opted to forgo a surname. A man referring to himself by the enigmatic one-word Joe led our group through the journey. We explored Moorestown’s macabre memories surrounding Main Street. An entertaining evening ensued.

The weather accommodated the chilling atmosphere. The unseasonable warm temperatures South Jersey’s experienced gave way to the cool caress of an autumn breeze. A crescent moon bathed the area with a haunting glow on this starless night.

Our tour guide didn’t waste time in getting everyone’s attention. After sharing tales of alleged hauntings at Smith-Cadbury Mansion, we embarked.

Joe discussed the horrific occurrences in the area where the TD Bank now stands. Two local celebrities lived in a home near its grounds. Edgar Sanford served as the first rector of the Episcopal Church on Main Street. His wife, Agnes Sanford, founded the Inner Healing movement. Historians cannot identify the precise location where their house stood.

Mrs. Sanford described the Inner Healing Movement as a process of “the healing of memories,” according to Wikipedia. It’s somewhat ironic that she could have used that practice upon herself. She reported her “senses deadened” and witnessing “shadows moving without light” in her Moorestown home.

A later portion of the tour entailed a visit to Trinity Episcopal Churchyard. Joe forewarned my group that some tour goers have experienced discomfort visiting that graveyard at night. In fact, a few reported the appearance of shadows in the absence of light; an intriguing observation regarding the ground next to the church where Reverend Sanford preached.

I encountered a potential run-in with the occult while in the cemetery. The young lady next to me reported seeing “beady eyes” staring at her from off in the darkness. “It must’ve been a cat. At least, I hope it was a cat,” she said. As I prepared to investigate, I thought it would’ve been impolite if I proved her wrong. I figured it more honorable to go along with her suggestion.

The Trinity Episcopal Churchyard serves as the resting place of Edward Harris. Before Iron Maiden fans “run to the hills” and become “invaders” to Moorestown they should be aware: this is a different Edward Harris than the band’s mascot. The Moorestown Edward Harris befriended John J. Audubon and owned Smith-Cadbury Mansion; the Historical Society’s current headquarters.

Joe told multiple tales of spectral figures attired in Quaker garb haunting the community. During the early twentieth century a farm worker encountered one. While at the site where Hooton’s Hall once stood, he witnessed a ghostly figure in a dark suit and hat walking across the hay and through the wall of a barn.

A customer at the real estate company occupying the Hopkins home on Main Street reported a comparable experience. Upon entering the building he witnessed a man dressed like a nineteenth century Quaker sitting on a chair and staring at him. The figure bore an uncanny likeness to the home’s original owner John Clement Hopkins.

Not all supernatural occurrences in Moorestown are of the spectral variety. January 19, 1909 proved a memorable day in the town’s history. Not only did a snowstorm affect the area, but a series of unexplained phenomena occurred. One resident reported hoof-like tracks in the snow near Stokes Hill. They began in his front yard and trailed around to the back of the house. There they stopped abruptly. That seemed rather odd as the snow had just fallen.

Other residents witnessed a UFO over the site of the current Community House. They described it as a small creature about three feet in length with a two foot wingspan. Its head bore that of a collie’s and the face resembled a horse’s. While on his legendary tour of the Mid-Atlantic region in January of 1909, the Jersey Devil apparently decided add Moorestown to his itinerary.

Joe discussed a variety of other stories that do not appear in this article. I didn’t want to spoil the fun for those who haven’t taken the tour, yet.

On a very serious note he asked for assistance on a local cold case. He requested that anyone with information about the August 22, 1975 disappearance of Carolyn Majane please contact the authorities. More information regarding the case can be found on his website.

I later found out that Joe does, in fact, have a last name. More information regarding Mr. Wetterling’s research can be found at moorestownghosts.blogspot.com. As he mentioned during the tour, the newspaper articles posted there are very graphic. Parents should review before allowing their children to read.

You know it’s a popular community when even those who’ve passed on don’t want to leave. After taking the Moorestown Ghost Tour, it’s hard to blame them. The program included a stroll through the downtown area. Tour goers got a close-up view of the historic homes, churches and businesses that flank Main Street. Even those interested in the more earthly aspects of Moorestown’s history would enjoy the program. The town’s beauty may haunt them long after Halloween, however.

 

*Money Magazine declared Moorestown, NJ the “Best Place to Live in America” in 2005.

An Evening with Joe DiBlasio at the Moorestown Library

What better way to commemorate one’s birthday than by reliving one’s life to a rapt audience? Moorestown resident Joe DiBlasio did just that. The Moorestown Library presented an evening with him on August 29th.

Reference Librarian Maria Esche served as the event moderator. She opened her remarks by observing that “Joe has a big fan club.” Mr. DiBlasio added a comical quip that, “Half of you in the audience know me. The half that knows me doesn’t want to know me.” Over the next two hours Mr. DiBlasio showed why everyone in the audience would be honored to know him.

Mr. DiBlasio described the process that led to his taking up residence in Moorestown. His father came to the United States from Italy at the age of 17. He brought his family over six years later. Shortly afterwards Joe was born in Camden. The family moved to Moorestown while Joe attended third grade.

The DiBlasio family had already established roots in town. His grandparents lived in the community. His grandfather worked as a stone mason who commuted to Moorestown from Camden. In the early twentieth century this journey took 2-1/2 hours each way. Some of the Quakers in town helped his grandfather find a home to spare him the traveling.

Mr. DiBlasio shared his observations on his 80 plus years living in Moorestown. He experienced the most momentous events of the twentieth century in the community. Regarding life during the Great Depression, “I never went to bed hungry,” he said. His family still struggled.

His mother baked bread three times a week. He traveled about town selling loaves for $0.10 each. “That’s the only reason I had a bicycle,” he explained.

His father worked for RCA as a cabinet maker. During the Depression, he lost his job and became unable to pay his mortgage. Mr. DiBlasio described two gentlemen from the Burlington County Trust Company approaching his father at home. The men had come to foreclose. The elder Mr. DiBlasio wouldn’t allow them. “I don’t have the money now,” he said, “but I’m going to pay you.” The men left the premises. His father did eventually pay the bank the money he owed.

The speaker described life in town during the Second World War. When hostilities began in Europe, people didn’t worry. The conflict took place too far away to cause concern. When the United States began supplying the Allies, then people became anxious.

Upon America’s entry into the war rationing began immediately. The draft began in 1940, but the government still allowed high school students to graduate before becoming eligible. Young men could drop out of school and enlist, however. Moorestown also enforced blackouts. Regarding the latter, Mr. DiBlasio noted, “We never worried about being bombed.”

The war didn’t alter some aspects of life in town. Mr. DiBlasio described himself as a “big star” on both the high school baseball diamond and the gridiron during the early 1940s. He added a comical observation to his own assessment of his abilities. “Who can object to that now?”

Mr. DiBlasio discussed some of the other local events he experienced. He recalled watching as they tore up the old trolley tracks from the center of Main Street. Gravel covered the roads prior to asphalt. Once or twice a year they would oil the streets in order to keep the dust low. He even remembered the original paving of Route 38. Mr. DiBlasio described learning how to swim in the artesian wells that border what is now Strawbridge Lake. He even picked apples at the orchard where the Moorestown Mall now stands.

The guest concluded his reminiscence by discussing the various service clubs started in Moorestown following the war. He belonged to the Lions Club that incorporated in 1948. He even brought a visual aid from the era to show the audience: a wreath the organization crafted in 1952. It was the first Christmas ornament ever displayed in town.

Mr. DiBlasio served in the Marine Corps for three years, worked for the family business (Perla Block) and married in 1950. He turned 95 this August 12th. One suspects that after this evening, he’s going to have an even bigger fan club.

Lecture Review – Joseph Grabas: Land Deeds and the Illumination of History

What genealogist wouldn’t want to know how contemporaries viewed his/her ancestors? Even better, what family researcher wouldn’t crave a source that described his forebears as either a “lunatic” or a “spinster”? How about a primary document in which a forefather bequeathed to a relative: “a good stout rope to hang his Irish wife”? These historical sleuths owe Joseph Grabas some serious gratitude. As part of the New Jersey History Speaks Lecture Series, presented by the Historical Society of Moorestown and hosted by the Moorestown Library on March 15, 2017, Mr. Grabas revealed a veritable “Holy Grail” of source material for such scholars.

It seemed fitting that such an unusual nature of information would come from an atypical type of historian. Mr. Grabas described himself as, “your premier forensic title expert.” Based on his extensive background in the subject, his self-designation seemed rather modest. For the last forty years he’s researched property records in the Garden State. He served as the president of the New Jersey Land Title Association. In addition, he founded the Grabas Institute for Continuing Education and instructs realtors, lawyers and insurance professionals on the nuances of land records. Somehow he found time to write Owning New Jersey: Historic Tales of War, Property Disputes and the Pursuit of Happiness which The History Press published in 2014, as well.

Mr. Grabas explained that historically American society placed more importance on land ownership than home ownership. His book opened with a witty observation from Mark Twain that explained why: “Buy land. They’re not making it anymore.” In fact, possession of land held such prominence that statutes require many records regarding it to be retained forever.

Historians and genealogists should rejoice. Mr. Gabas explained that a county surrogate’s documents are “land records.” A diverse array of sources qualifies as such. They include, but are not limited to: financing statements, deeds, mortgages, leases, inventories, liens and even manumission records. This source provides researchers the data needed to trace a chain of title, which details the ownership history for tracts of land. It allows investigators to determine how owners obtained the real estate in the form of deed recitals. Some documents also provide witty anecdotes for those exploring family histories. For example, a deed he displayed referred to a man named Zaccheus Dunn as a “lunatic” in five separate places. With this wealth of information among so called “land records,” it’s surprising, as Mr. Grabas commented, that genealogists tend not to consult them.

Many professional researchers tend to focus on theory when explaining their craft. Mr. Grabas got into the practical aspect of his work. Using how he would investigate when a particular building was erected as an example, he showed the group his process. In the eighteenth century insurance companies began using Sanborn Maps to evaluate the insurability of properties. The speaker used a series of these documents to confirm the old Masonic Hall on Main Street in Moorestown’s date of construction. The edifice’s cornerstone read 1914. The Sanborn Maps from the years prior to and after that date were consistent with the keystone.

Mr. Grabas described his goal to “educate and entertain” the audience upon beginning his lecture. He did indeed. (Forgive the pun.) With all the unusual things uncovered from the documents he discussed, I’ve decided to try something original. I’m adding a clause to my will instructing my executor to shred all my land records upon my death. Let future historians, genealogists and title researchers wrap their minds around what that means.

Lecture Review – “New Jersey’s Multiple Municipal Madness” by Michael DiCamillo

The preeminent of all American ideological conflicts found a fertile battle ground in the Garden State. The debate over a Hamiltonian approach to big government versus the Jeffersonian preference for more localized administration ended in favor of the latter. It resulted in New Jersey spawning 566 municipalities: even more than California. Just what caused this northern state to adopt the political philosophy of the gentleman planter from Virginia?

Historian Michael DiCamillo set out to elucidate this phenomenon as part of the History Speaks series on January 18, 2017. The Elizabeth Tuttle Fund, the Historical Society of Moorestown and the Moorestown Library sponsored the event which the latter hosted. Professor DiCamillo teaches American History at LaSalle. He’s also on the Historical Society of Moorestown’s board of trustees where currently serves as Vice President.

Mr. DiCamillo utilized the work of former Garden State politician Alan Karcher’s 1989 work New Jersey’s Municipal Madness illustrate this phenomena. The former Assembly Speaker explored the reasons why myriad towns and boroughs incorporated in the state. He discovered five key reasons: street fights, railroad towns, school district boroughs, dry versus wet towns, and exclusive enclaves. Mr. DiCamillo took the audience through each one.

The portion on “street fights” intrigued me the most. With the advent of the automobile road maintenance became a major political issue. Residents of a community elected “road superintendents” to represent their interests at the municipal level. They argued to secure the most funding for their streets. When these officials couldn’t acquire the municipal money they wanted, they’d return to their constituents with an interesting proposition. They’d encourage the “street” to form its own town. Of course, these road superintendents would play prominent roles in the new polis; even serving as their mayors.

I found this outcome rather interesting. A road superintendent would fail in his duties to his constituency. The populace would proceed to elect them to govern the new town; a much more complex challenge than fundraising. In essence, these officials would receive a promotion from the same people they disappointed. As historian Richard Hofstadter observed, “Politics has a logic of its own.”

I also enjoyed Mr. DiCamillo’s discussion of the conflicts leading to dry and wet towns. He described how the “camp meeting movement” inspired people to exit the cities in favor of country life. These new communities would serve as places of worship where residents could avoid the excesses of modern life. A number of these municipalities such as Ocean Grove, Bradley Beach and Avon-by-the-Sea developed along the coast. More locally, the towns of Bellmawr and Delanco began as part of this phenomenon.

The disparity between pro and anti-prohibition forces masked more nefarious motives, as well. One of the rationales for the “camp meeting movement” germinated from a desire to control rowdy youths and immigrants. Latent and, at times, overt racism even led to the development of some municipalities.

While the pursuit of a moral life free of vice caused many communities to form, the rejection of these principles inspired others. Centre Township prohibited playing golf on Sundays. It also rigorously enforced prohibition. Some individuals rejected these mores to such a degree they decided to form their own town. Thus, Tavistock incorporated in 1921.

In a fitting move, Mr. DiCamillo made his discussion of local history hyperlocal. Founded in 1688, Chester Township experienced numerous splits before the name disappeared from South Jersey in 1945. Cinnaminson left in 1860. Delran broke off from the latter in 1885. Riverside separated from Delran in the same year. Riverton left Cinnaminson in 1893 then Palmyra did the same a year later. In 1922 Moorestown parted from Chester Township. The remaining community changed its name to Maple Shade in 1945. Interestingly, with the exceptions of Moorestown and Riverside (which incorporated over street fights) all the others were “railroad towns.”

Mr. DiCamillo focused his talk on the political aspects of the subject; which he delivered exceptionally well. Throughout the lecture he presented balanced analyses of the Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian visions. With respect to the latter he explained as one positive: the smaller the community, the easier for citizens to become part of government. While correct, not everyone has an interest in being an active member of the political process. In addition many individuals who live in the same area share the same political views. I’d encourage another historian to follow-up on this lecture with a discussion of the social implications of so many municipalities.

Mr. Camillo presented a solid case that the Jeffersonian vision of government entrenched itself in the Garden State. While no new municipalities have incorporated in New Jersey since 1957, to his knowledge, only Princeton Township and Princeton Boro chose to consolidate over the last two decades.

The monument on Mr. Jefferson’s grave describes him as the author of the Declaration of American Independence, author of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom and Father of the University of Virginia. Had the third President lived long enough, he just may have added: “instrumental inspiration for the municipal system of government in New Jersey” to his legacy.

Restaurant Review – Firebirds Wood Fired Grill in Moorestown, NJ

I thought very hard about how to spend my birthday this past April 19th. After much contemplation I decided to commemorate it the same way I pass most evenings these days. I opted for dinner at a fine dining establishment. Afterwards, I’d conclude my evening by blogging about how the restaurant failed to meet my expectations. (Before anyone asks: the answer is no. John Belushi did not pattern his ‘party animal’ character in the movie Animal House after me. I understand that is a common misconception.) On this occasion I learned the meaning of irony. I was disappointed by not being disappointed.

Firebirds Wood Fired Grill delivered an outstanding dining experience. The place made a great first impression. The ambiance impressed me. They arranged the glasses in the racks behind the bar by color. The bartender placed the reds together, the blues in the same spot, then the golden ones, and so on. While I’m color blind, I still enjoyed the visual effect.

The hostess seated my party between the bar and the kitchen. Talk about the perfect location! I always applaud a restaurant that allows patrons a clear view into the kitchen. A recent issue of Columbia University’s Journal of International Affairs focused on global food security. It’s a clear indication the staff earned the management’s confidence to let the public watch them prepare meals. That’s a good thing.

My dining companions and I commenced our dining experience with an appetizer. We ordered the Lobster Spinach Queso. The menu described it as, “lobster, baby spinach, tomatoes, pepper jack cheese, tortilla chips. For $12.25 all three of the people in my party ate good portions of it. We all found the dip and the chips savory. The latter came in three varieties: a red one, a black one and a traditional style. There are only so many ways to flavor tortilla chips, but I did detect subtle differences in the variety.

Then came the main course. As this evening marked my reaching the quarter century mark (again), I thought about my mortality. What better time to leave my comfort zone and try something I’d never had before? While not exactly on my ‘bucket list’ I opted for the Braised Tenderloin Pasta. The menu described it as, “cavatappi, fresh spinach, red peppers, and sic green chile cheese sauce.” The menu also included a “limited availability” disclaimer next to the name. On the evening I dined at Firebirds, they had it.

I’m not a big meat eater, but I really liked this dish. The combination of the steak and the pasta created a very distinct taste. I’ve never feasted on anything like it before. While pricey at $17.95, I received a great portion. I even took some home with me. I can’t remember dining out and not finishing a meal in recent months. I give Firebirds a lot of credit: they give customers their money’s worth.

On this dining excursion I did something else I don’t usually do. I ordered desert. As I’m health conscious–not because I’m getting old, mind you—I settled on the Flourless Chocolate Cake. I’ve had flourless pastries before and liked them. This cake was no exception. It didn’t taste as sweet as traditional fare, but it suits my tastes. I thought it a bit pricey at $7.75, but since it was my birthday, they gave it to me for free. I liked the personal customer service touch.  I’ll have to find out when my next birthday is so I can get more free stuff.

I didn’t like the lack of complimentary bread with dinner. I’ve noticed this at other places I’ve dined recently, also. I understand that to conserve water, servers only provide it upon request. Is there some kind of wheat crisis I’m unaware of? It seems odd to me that suddenly few places give customers bread with dinner.

I’d also point out to readers that Firebirds meals are rather pricey. I’d recommend reviewing the menu on-line prior to dining there. As I wrote above, I felt the quality and the portions I received justified the cost. In the interest of full disclosure I should point out that my Dad and stepmom treated me for my birthday. If I had paid out of my own pocket, I’m sure my comments would be the same. I did want to let readers know, though.

My dining experience at Firebirds made for the best 25th birthday I’ve had in years. I enjoyed their delicious offerings. I’ve attended some infamous dinner outings over the last several months. I’m very thankful to Firebird’s Wood Fired Grill for providing an excellent one on my birthday. That wish I made when I blew out the candle last year finally came true.

Restaurant Review – Blue Fig Café – Moorestown, NJ

Nestled away in the Moorestown Commons off of Young Avenue, The Blue Fig Café offers a host of delicacies from the Eastern Mediterranean. This afternoon, they treated me to the pleasure of dining on the best lunch I’ve ever had.

As the tag line “the Essence of Mediterranean Cuisine” intrigued me, I decided to partake of the full experience. I started off with a Lebanese Tea with Mint. The small glass it came in added to the cultural ambiance. What an outstanding beverage. I discovered that it tasted just as good with or without sweetener. I’ve never written that about tea before. For tea-totallers interested in something with more of a punch than regular tea without the harsh, spicy aftertaste of Indian tea, my recommendation would be as strong as this tea itself. Just don’t drink it less than two hours before bed time.

My server brought over some flat bread with an olive spread. The later had the texture of ground meat, so the olive taste did surprise me. I’ve had them on many occasions, but I give the chef credit: he included just the right amount of olive oil. My server offered to bring more bread. I took advantage just so I could have more of the spread. With the greatest of respect to the folks who make olive loaf: that’s the first time I recall making a provision so I could eat more olives.

For my main entrée I ordered the Shish Tawook. The menu described it as, “Tender marinated char-grilled chicken cubes with a touch of our house spice blend. Served over rice or couscous and grilled vegetable.” In essence, think Shish Kebob while substituting chicken for meat. I had mine with the couscous. It tasted excellent, but I wouldn’t call it spicy. However, the meal included a creamy dipping sauce. That may explain why I didn’t find it very zesty; either that or I’m mentally comparing it to Indian food. Let’s face it: after eating Indian, not even jalapenos taste spicy.

I didn’t see it listed on the menu, but the lunch even came with a salad: a real salad. The later contained very fresh cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuce. The unexpected addition to my lunch pleasantly surprised me. The café didn’t just deliver what it promised: it over-delivered. I can’t think of a previous time I’ve encountered that.

I liked the authentic Eastern music adding to the ambiance. The three large pictures on the wall of the sea and some Grecian rock formations enhanced the overall decor. My one criticism involved the size of the interior. I went at an odd time and was the only patron in the building for most of my visit. It still seemed cramped. I thought a lot of the tables very close together. If I’d eaten at a peak time, I would’ve been concerned about elbowing the person sitting next to me.

To be fair, the Blue Fig Café offered outdoor seating. I noticed plenty of space outside. In fact, one of the reasons I was the sole diner in the building was because the other patrons chose to eat there. The next few months will be a great time to do so, especially in the evenings. The establishment also provides take out, and, much to their credit, delivers.

Without doubt, the Blue Fig Café served the finest meal I’ve ever had for $12. While I did have the chicken, they serve a number of meat-based lunches for only a dollar more. They also provide kid’s meals. Zagat’s rated them, as well. For those looking for quality, value and a taste of the East, I’d strongly recommend the Blue Fig Café in Moorestown, NJ.

Restaurant Review – Al Dente – Moorestown, NJ

I should’ve known I’d have issues with this place when I arrived. The menu listed the names of all the dishes in a language I didn’t understand. I discovered this after spending a good ten minutes figuring out how to unfold the menu. To be fair, a detailed explanation of the different dishes did appear in English, but still: I would’ve liked to see the list of options written with clarity.

Spaghetti happened to be one of the few names I recognized. (The official name was Spaghetti ai Carbonara.) As this was my first visit to Al Dente, I thought I’d try a traditional Italian standard. I ordered it with both sausage and meatballs. This meal sadly disappointed me. The menu described it as, “Made with pancetta, egg, parmigiano Reggiano, shallot, fresh basil and cracked three pepper served with spaghetti.” Perhaps, the words three pepper should’ve clued me in as to what I’d get. Let me be clear: I like Italian food and I enjoy condiments with a bit of a “kick” to them. I’ve often added peppers to spaghetti to spice it up, but this dish was so hot I couldn’t finish it. I don’t think I’ve ever had spaghetti either at home or while dining out and left some on the plate.  I’ve tried jalapenos and Thai peppers to name a few, but I’ve never sampled anything so searing.

The meal came with a choice of either soup or salad. While I normally choose the latter, I decided to try something different. I requested the Tuscan Bean Soup with Spicy Sausage. The sausage made Indian food taste as spicy as ice water. Unfortunately, it served as a harbinger of more to come.  I found the sausage uncomfortably hot. At one point I wondered if my teeth would melt. One of the gentlemen I dined with mentioned that bean soup usually has a thicker broth. I concurred. The soup was very light. I think a thicker one may have helped to ameliorate some of the temperature from the sausage.

Before the meal the servers brought bread and olive oil to the table. One of the diners in my group observed that the olive oil lacked flavor. Here’s where I turn into the Jebidiah Atkinson of WordPress. This diner showed much more tact than I can muster. I thought the olive oil as tasteless as the décor. Why use wine racks as a decoration at an establishment that doesn’t serve alcohol? It seemed very odd to me.

In the interest of balance, the other members of my group provided mostly positive feedback. The gnocchi, which I sampled as well, did have a tasty flavor to it. The appetizer portion could’ve been enough for an entire meal. Other diners raved over the freshness of the fish. One found the veal outstanding. He also expressed great satisfaction over the portion, as well.

I spoke to a woman who also ordered the spaghetti. She requested they not use too much sauce. She said her overall meal tasted okay, but the sausage still tasted very hot.

I found the service outstanding. The chef personally delivered one of my party’s dinners. This exceptional display of customer service impressed me. He apologized for taking so long to prepare the meal. I thought that very classy.

A lot of people think very highly of Al Dente. They would argue the dining experience contingent on what one orders. I have to respectfully disagree. I’m at a loss for words to describe an Italian restaurant that can’t prepare spaghetti properly. For that reason alone, I’m reluctant to recommend it.

     

Digging Moorestown

Everyone who’s ever been there “digs” Moorestown, but Dr. Ilene Grossman-Bailey does it literally. At the April 10, 2014 Meeting of the Historical Society of Moorestown, Dr. Grossman-Bailey, who currently serves as the Senior Archaeologist at Richard Grubb & Associates, Inc., shared the details of her 2011 – 2012 archaeological excavation of the area around Oldershaw Avenue. She enlightened the group about the finer details about the craft of archaeological surveying. For the Society’s benefit she emphasized the digs at the Madeira I and II sites; both of which took place in our own back yard, literally.

Dr. Grossman-Bailey commenced her remarks with a brief tutorial on archaeology. She defined the field as “the study of past cultures through material remains.” Three items that they investigate are sites of past human activities, artifacts and features. She defined a feature as an artifact that’s located in the ground. Some examples would include building foundations and outhouses. She explained that many interesting items have been extracted from the latter. (Apparently, ancient societies had their share of politicians and musicians, as well.) The criticality of understanding the context of different artifacts came up during the course of her lecture.

For the benefit of us amateurs, Dr. Grossman-Bailey explicated the nomenclature for archaeological projects. She used the Madiera I Site, number 28BU740, as an example. The “28” means the dig took place in New Jersey. The “BU” indicates the county, in this case, Burlington. The last three characters mean that this is the 740th registered site in the state. To date the New Jersey State Museum has registered over 6,000 of them.

We’ve all heard the tales of Indian sounds coming from the bottom of Stokes Hill on dark nights. Now we’ve got the proof these hunter-gatherers spent time in our present day neighborhood. Dr. Grossman-Bailey displayed some of the artifacts recovered. They included hammer stones, which ancient people used for making stone tools. In addition the team found two ceramic pieces. They dated one at 2000 years old. The other was a relative newcomer at only 500 years. Some of these objects showed signs of being heated in a fire. This proved that early inhabitants of the area used them for cooking.

The objects she spent the most time discussing were the small pipe fragments. Some of the ones she unearthed had the appearance of wood grain. They tend to be popular finds at archaeological digs. Interestingly, historians can’t agree on why ancients used them. Some speculate the pipes served as musical instruments. Others hypothesize archaic societies used them as part of a ritual. There are even some researchers who suspect the pipes might have been even been used for smoking. (Imagine that.)

Someone at the HSM Meeting asked Dr. Grossman-Bailey if anyone knew what the ancients smoked. Regrettably, the current testing method (called FTIR) hasn’t been able to identify the substances. This explained why the artifacts she brought to the meeting hadn’t been cleaned.  With the way that technology advances, the hope is that future scientist will have more advanced testing systems to determine the contents of the pipes.

In terms of actual excavation methods, Dr. Grossman-Bailey explained that archaeologists will perform a Phase I Survey which she defined as a general search over a wide area. From there a Phase II Survey will focus on a precise range where the team discovers artifacts. Afterwards, data recovery, or a Phase III Survey will commence. At the Mariera I and II sites in Moorestown, they recovered 500 artifacts. In terms of digging a team will go two to three feet down. Should they discover artifacts or features, they’ll excavate another foot.

Dr. Grossman-Bailey is the latest in a distinguished line of people interested in Moorestown’s ancient past. She discussed how local resident Dorothy Middleton collected and displayed archaeological finds from the surrounding area. She spent fifty years digging into our history and displayed the items from the 1920’s through the 1970’s. According to Dr. O. Kirk Spurr, Ms. Middleton “compiled the fourth largest collection of its type in North America” at her Thunderbird Museum. (This is from the advertisement for his book Dorothy’s Dream: Dorothy Middleton and Her Indian Artifact Museum. For those interested, it’s for sale on the American Society for Amateur Archaeology’s web site.)  Unfortunately, her collection was sold off following her passing.  

Dr. Grossman-Bailey dug up a lot of interesting pieces of Moorestown’s past. She shared them with the society both literally and figuratively. Interestingly, she suspects that her team didn’t excavate the entire site. Who knows? Some lucky Moorestown residents may soon discover the archaeological find of this century in his or her back yard. We can all dig that.