The following post has absolutely nothing to do with Rutgers athletics, and is (quite unnecessarily) long-winded, with many disparate threads interspersed throughout. It is a multi-headed hydra. Cut a head off, and another springs up in its place. Even if individual sections may be ostensibly compelling, it likely has vast stretches that are of absolutely no interest to readers whatsoever.
I can't quite recall the exact moment where I first heard about the Grease Trucks and their Fat Sandwiches. It was at some point in high school, and I specifically remember the conversion occuring in reverential, almost hushed tones, an unbridled paean to their greatness. In fact, before the Rutgers University football team was respectable, whenever the school would come up as a topic of conversation, inevitably the discussion would steer towards the trucks. That is the context that I approach the subject from, and it certainly requires treading lightly.
Among otherwise, largely apathetic members of the Rutgers community, this is the one topic that can liven the spirits of any discussion. Every Rutgers alumnus has a story to tell, soaked (drowned) in nostalgia. Resultingly, it's a task that I'm hesitant to approach, but simultaneously believe is absolutely necessary to confront despite (or precisely owing to) its incendiary nature. That's because I have a blasphemous confession: I don't believe that the Fat Sandwiches are all that and a bag of chips, and am confused by their popularity and reputation.
When saying that the emperor has no clothes, it's generally a good idea to follow up with good evidence and/or reasons. In any case, the best way to stumble towards a conclusion on this matter is to start with a methodical examination, covering relevant adjacent issues, and weighing the evidence, in such a (careful and serious) way that no person unaffiliated with Rutgers University would consider such disproportionate effort appropriate or befitting of the topic.
A road map to hell
Only a blind civil engineer could have decided that it was a good idea to cut through the main Rutgers University campus with a multi-lane road (called College Avenue). The roadway combines with the three desolate nineteen fifties- era dorms overlooking the Raritan River to sully an otherwise pleasant grouping of lawns and building facades. One moment, you're walking through picturesque Voorhees Mall (near the southern end of campus), and everything is downright collegiate looking. Momentarily, you're jarred back into reality by exhaust fumes, tire screeches, and throngs of students and faculty darting each way in the path of commuters.
It's little wonder that current university President Richard McCormick's pet project is a plan to "green" College Avenue; closing it off to motor vehicle traffic. Undergraduates spend many a day at Scott Hall at the southwest end of the mall. Time spent within those walls is not too pleasant for a variety of reasons, but the facility's only redeeming factor is its location, proximated across the street from the Grease Trucks. You can't miss the new(ish) giant yellow one.
The Grease Trucks are located in a faculty parking lot at the corner of College Ave. and Hamilton, but that wasn't always the case. The trucks originally were all parked closer to the Rutgers Student Center, right in the heart of the campus. Their presence as a late night hot spot for drunken revelers pouring out of house parties led to a plethora of, well, stereotypically intoxicated antics including loud noises and fighting. Eventually, under increasing pressure, the trucks made peace with the university, submitting to regulation, relocating to their current location, and agreeing to close at three in the morning.
That's not to say that the past two decades have been total smooth sailing for the likes of RU Hungry, Mr. C's, and Just Delicious. In 2005, controversy erupted when Rutgers University administrators attempted to censor the names of several sandwiches. As is usual in these cases, external pressures angled to retire the "Fat Dyke", unfamiliar of the moniker's rich cultural heritage, and vital role in campus activism and empowerment.
Steven Goldstein, chairman of Garden State Equality, a statewide gay and lesbian political organization, said he finds the sandwich names disgusting, grotesque and offensive.
"What's going on here is not just giving harmless names to sandwiches. This is how hate crimes begin," Goldstein said. "This is serious stuff. I'm alarmed." ("A BIG FAT DISPUTE; Rutgers University bans some sandwich names", Newark Star-Ledger, Feb 16, 2005)
A worthy precursor
Before the Grease Trucks were the Grease Trucks, there was Greasy Tony's. The joint's motto was the apt slogan "No charge for extra grease" (or some variation thereof). Proprietor Tony Giorgianni's specialty was the "Trashcan", an ur-Fat Sandwich containing whichever items that happened to be lying around at that particular moment. As legend would have it, the circumstances regarding the establishment's uprooting and absconding was like a story straight out of the Old Testament.
The restaurants were known for their pizza and hoagies, but Giorgianni's love of cheesecake prompted him to open his first Greasy Tony's in 1978. He was passing through Tucson heading to Las Vegas when a craving for cheesecake caused him to stop at a local eatery. When the cheesecake wasn't up to his standards, he decided to stay in Tucson and open a restaurant.
After eminent domain forced the original off Easton Avenue, the Arizona restaurants remained somewhat of a novelty out west, oases of authentic east coast greasy spoon cuisine in a desert of chain restaurants and Tex-Mex. When the Rutgers football team ventured out to Phoenix following the 2005 season to match up with Arizona State in the Insight Bowl, the travelling fan contingent paid homage as pilgrims to Greasy Tony's in Tempe. The matchup turned out to have fortuitous timing, as that location closed in 2007, and Mr. Giorgianni unfortunately passed on last June at the age of 78.
The joint dictatorship of the proletariat of oppressed nourishment
In any discussion about the city of New Brunswick, gentrification will surely come up sooner or later. Hopping off NJ Transit at the train station, the first thing that you usually key in on is the jarring disparity between new luxury apartments and banks and the two large campuses that sandwich large, ugly swathes of urban poverty. New Brunswick is an old town, as evidenced by its narrow streets, general lack of parking, and low-capacity sewers. The two largest actors in local economy are Rutgers University and the Johnson & Johnson Corporation. Back in the mid-seventies, they joined forces with the municipal government, with the stated goal of significantly reshaping the local landscape.
"We’ve been laying the groundwork for 30 years," said Christopher J. Paladino, the president of a nonprofit corporation called Devco, founded in the mid-’70s to initiate redevelopment projects in what was then a desolate commercial district flanking the Rutgers University campus.
This process is slowly taking over the city, but available space has been at such a premium that Rutgers ended up crossing the Raritan in search of real estate with a portion of the former Camp Kilmer in Piscataway. I'm less concerned with debating the merits of gentrification, than with chronicling its effects. There is a close tie between the city's commercial and cultural life and these redevelopment efforts, and one of the most salient examples of both is the array of local cuisine.
It's intuitive to see the various culinary options through the lens of gentrification. Ground zero is the downtown area centered around the train station, the State Theatre, and Robert Wood Johnson hospital. In the immediate vicinity sits a number of banks, offices, shops, and mid-to-upscale restaurants. Parallel to College Ave is Easton Avenue, home to countless pizza joints, dive bars, and every variant of ethnic cuisine under the sun. (You can probably group in any of the other small-scale countercultural offerings and activities like coops and dumpster diving in here.) The Grease Trucks are several blocks away, but they surely fall in with the rest of the city's plaintive offerings. Roughly, these two areas (which converge right near the station) represent the two extremes of the dichotomy.
I am familiar with the broader arguments and concerns involved (and am completely unwilling to engage them here, which is no comment on their validity or lack thereof), but don't really comprehend why anyone would completely dismiss either option out of hand. Workers congregating downtown miss out on what Easton has to offer. Conversely, willingly closing your mind to whatever DEVCO has cooked up lately is an equal mistake. If you're not convinced on this point, humor me at least with the following tangent.
Suppose food can be considered an art; that's where the romantic terminology comes into play. It can also be science and leisure. If you're not familiar with elBulli, and have some time to kill, you should be. Go ahead. I'll wait. It has a mad ingenuity and experimental playfulness that can at least, in those respects, approximate the inclinations of a drunkard standing outside a truck in the cold at some time after midnight. Certainly, your results from paying two hundred dollars for a meal at a fusion bistro may vary, and fail to live up to these lofty ideals.
When living in on-campus housing at Rutgers, students are forced to purchase a meal plan that typically includes far more meals (purveyed by Aramark, otherwise known from Giants Stadium and East Jersey State Prison, among other fine establishments. It's big business.) than they can possibly comprehend using (dining services makes a fair profit playing on the fears of overzealous worried parents), unless one has designs on turning the freshman fifteen into the freshman fifty.
Half the appeal of going to a Brower Commons (the facilities on Busch and Cook are much better) comes from the limited supervision of their buffets and other facilities. They're overcharging, so screw it. I'm entitled to palm an orange on the way out the door. A Work-Study placement stacking trays in the corner isn't going to care. It becomes a game to see how much food can you sneak off the premises before your pockets are overflowing. What bizarre concoction can you spawn with five bowls, three spoons, and five minutes with the microwave, the waffle iron, or dare I mention, the mythical Panini grill? There isn't a supermarket within walking distance, so you're inevitably driven into the arms of the Student Center, and yes, the Grease Trucks.
Spark of the divine
Structurally, a Fat Sandwich itself is merely the combination of a roll, and the menu's predetermined combinations of ingredients. Each component undoubtedly complements the others, augmenting their cumulative effect, but there's no purpose in mythologizing on this point. These disparate components are literally thrown together into the roll, haphazardly, yet deliberate. They're the same old items that can be purchased separately at the trucks, or at any diner or hole in the wall located somewhere on the long stretch of road between the G-Dub and the DMB.
When ordering, you can't go wrong with the classic Fat Cat - two cheeseburgers, fries, and veggies. If red meat is a hangup, then the upstart Fat Darrell (the Hansel to the Fat Cat's Derek Zoolander) may be more to your liking. Composed of mozzarella sticks, marinara sauce, chicken fingers, and fries, the Darrell was created in 1997 by Rutgers student Darrell Butler.
The Fat Darrell is said to be 1,718 calories - that's 85 percent of your recommended daily allowance - and 78 fat grams, but it's tame compared to other Fats. The Fat Philly, once known as the Fat Phillipino (sic) before a recent name change for political correctness, has chicken fingers, cheesesteak, gyro meat, mozzarella sticks, white and red sauces and, if you have room, lettuce and tomato.
At a time when national obesity is a concern, the sandwiches remain a hit with people who know they can't possibly be good for them. Last year, the Home News Tribune, a newspaper serving central New Jersey, interviewed Marcus Garand, a dietitian at a local hospital who had "weighed and analyzed" the sandwiches with predictable disapproval.
"This sandwich is like a nutritionist's worst nightmare," he told the newspaper. "I couldn't figure out a way to make it any unhealthier. ... This is probably the unhealthiest sandwich you could ever devise."
Garand estimated that the Fat Darrell contained 143 grams of carbohydrates, or roughly a full week's allowance under the Atkins Diet. Working off such a meal, he said, would require one to "walk briskly for six to seven hours."
Is that a banana? In 2004, lad mag Maxim Magazine named the Fat Darrell as its best sandwich in America, thereby bringing the legend of the trucks to a broader audience across the country.
The nomenclature ("Fat Bitch", "Fat Koko", etc...) is appealing enough in its own right, doubly enhanced by the enticing procedure for creating a new item on a truck's menu. If you are inventive enough to think of the right name and ingredients, and have the iron stomach to eat five consecutively; theoretically, those are the only criteria required for ascending into the sacred menu pantheon.
Do Grease Truck patrons evaluate their experiences objectively? This case is comparable to the similar levels of devotion displayed towards South Jersey favorite Wawa (it's a convenience store, not a lifestyle choice), the burger joint Five Guys, and many other targets of cult brand loyalty. Complaints that each fail to measure up, relative to expectations, should not be confused with the claim that they have no value whatsoever.
It's a prime example of that phenomenon wherein some thing is declared underrated so frequently that it, in time, becomes perversely overrated. Generally, it's an age old argument, one that persists to this day due to the inherent difficulty in making any distinction of this sort without at best sounding like a hopeless pedant. That is despite all manner of protestations that one's intentions are pure and lacking ulterior motive. Being lukewarm isn't synonymous with hostility. My claim goes somewhat beyond the subtleties of every day hair splitting though.
Is this a case of blindly jumping on a third rail? I'm trying to consider what's missing from my analysis. Is it that specific methods of preparation grant an additional level of authenticity and credibility? You know that phrase about necessity being the mother of invention; any dishes were originally cured for preservation. In time, people grew accustomed to the practice (and its resulting flavor), and eventually volunteered to continue the step once it was no longer absolutely necessary for preservation. It's sort of like what's happened with Coach Schiano's defensive lines over the past half decade, where it eventually looked like he preferred to line up a DL averaging 250 pounds. Ingenuity can ultimately be a driver of sentimental preference.
What about the notion of thinking about the Fat Sandwiches as down payments on a future double bypass? No one is usually stopping by just to try the falafel. Perhaps the sandwiches are our own New Jersey variant on Fugu, the Japanese delicacy containing neurotoxin that is fatal if prepared incorrectly. Some of the appeal directly stems from the inherent danger.
"I ate at the Grease Trucks today," said Branson, who works in public relations for the New Brunswick, N.J., school. "It was a good steak sandwich. But I've never had a Fat Sandwich. I'm 55, and I want to be 56 someday."
Surprisingly, any sanitation concerns may be overplayed.
The fat-free day was the culmination of years of uneasy give-and-take between the grease trucks and the Middlesex County Department of Public Health. They're usually plenty clean, chief inspector Douglas Sheehan said of the trucks, but they fall into a regulatory netherworld between mobile vendors and fixed establishments.
They're on wheels, but aside from a monthly exchange of positions - so each owner gets a turn in the good spots - they don't move. So a couple of years ago the department required them to maintain a bathroom for employees and a sink for sanitizing utensils, just like any fixed establishment. ("Chewing the fat Grease trucks back in business on Rutgers campus.", Newark Star-Ledger, March 14, 2003)
Prospective thrillseekers, you have been warned, although there are many places on Easton that aren't close to meeting code and remain open.
After eating at Au Bon Pain (an expensive chain deli near the student center), I feel positively sated, although, less so than I did before they removed trans fats. Moresuch, I can't help but think to my wallet being thinner. On one level, visiting the Grease Trucks is an absolute bargain, and satisfying on a level unattainable through use of a Sizzler coupon, even with recent price increases. (It's hard to understate this benefit, although there may be better intersections of price, taste, and effort out there.) This, of course, is what is properly called the "Fat Darrell" theory of decision and attribution.
"Like the typical college student, I was pretty much broke. I had been craving chicken fingers, mozzarella sticks and french fries all week long but I knew that I didn't have enough money to buy all three. I talked the guy behind the counter into putting them all onto a piece of bread for me. I guess it sounded like a good idea because the next 10 or so people all asked for the same thing."
I want to focus on the physiological response, though. After eating a Fat Sandwich, one can feel nothing if positively bloated above all else (alcohol is a useful lubricant for mitigating this effect). It's a gray area, the old thanksgiving or tailgating staple of navigating the spectrum between disgust and contentment. A moderate stretching of the stomach walls is pleasurable, a desired and intentional after effect of gorging. However, there undoubtedly exists a critical threshold at some point. The crossing of which, taken to its furthest end, will end badly for all parties involved, in a thrashing torrent of aches and torment, the kind of which that is only calmed by rest and the passing of time.
Feeding the world
The concept of dispensing food from carts is certainly not unique to New Brunswick, although the locale may have been significantly responsible for popularizing the practice as of late. They're all over the place in West Philadelphia, and the concept has spread in recent years to New York City, Los Angeles, and other metro locales.
More distressing, by far, has been the flurry of imitators specifically seeking to capitalize on the Fat Sandwiches. First Princeton stole our cannon, and now they have stolen our dignity. The authentic Grease Trucks have branched out to the likes of State College (boooooo) and Morgantown, leaving mind-numbing lawsuits in their wake (no doubt the inevitable result of their naked treason), on top of the expected flurry of visits to local cardiologists and coroners. You'd think that any lawsuit citing Wikipedia would not have much of a case, but Mr. C's later skipped town in Happy Valley following Are U Hungry dropping their case. Now I know why the Europeans don't want us making Champagne and parmesan cheese.
Nevermind all that; but what of the (relatively speaking), tried and true originals, right here, at home in New Brunswick? The 2003 proposed campus master plan includes (desperately needed) new academic buildings at the spot of the current Grease Truck and faculty lot. Two years later, university administrators announced an ambitious, long-term plan aimed at fully redesigning the College Avenue campus. Whittling down interested design firms to five finalists, RU ultimately passed on a proposed Grease Trucks Plaza (complete with "stealth bees" planned to replace the campus's ubiquitous travelling accordion buses), in favor of TEN's "A New Vision for the College Avenue Campus".
The design Norten submitted featured a large, cylindrical glass building, surrounded by sprawling lawns. A building would feature a look out onto the Raritan River, via an underground dining hall with a view. The design also featured houses for visiting faculty.
The Grease Trucks are in no immediate danger, although they will soon be shadowed by the new Gateway Building. You can (partially) thank the school's recent fiscal limitations for that. The first phase of campus renovation, including a partial greening, is going forward in the meantime. Land in New Brunswick is scarce; whether that lot ultimately ends up in DEVCO's crosshairs is anyone's guess.
Dividing by zero
I'm still not anywhere closer to understanding these assumptions than when I first started thinking about them in earnest. There are just those core, fundamental issues where everyone has differing base intuitions, learned at mother's knee, about lightning rod topics, and they'll have to agree to disagree. It's improper to talk about politics, or religion, or dead infants in polite conversation. If I have accomplished anything here, I hope that it has been to convince you, the reader, that the Grease Trucks too must be moved off the table, so to speak.
It's contrary to the notion of typing three thousand plus words about the topic, but their continued appeal is not offensive to me in the slightest. They're not hurting any one (well, you shouldn't be eating them after your metabolism goes, but what the hell). Platitudes abound, choice and individual preference and opinion are both good, necessary, and inevitable. For instance, believe it or not, there are an increasingly dwindling group of neanderthals out there who don't believe that Rutgers football totally rocks their socks. And they are wrong.