Please Pass the Dip

As New Jersey prepares to host the Super Bowl, I share some pointers on hospitality

The NFL is publicizing that the Super Bowl is in New York–even though it’s really in New Jersey–because the people of New Jersey are not known for their hospitality. This is largely due to The Sopranos, Jersey Shore and the people of New Jersey. There are no Springsteen songs in which the highway is jammed with motorists politely waving vehicles into their lanes.

We suck at hosting because we are so good at guesting. When I was growing up in New Jersey, the first thing I did when going to someone’s house was to open the refrigerator. I’ve since learned that in other parts of the world, you don’t even show up at someone’s house unless you’re invited.

Having now lived in other states, I was nervous that New Jersey wouldn’t make a good impression on visitors. To find out what we’re doing to prevent Jerseyans from acting like Jerseyans, I contacted Michele Rankin, the Super Bowl Host Committee vice president in charge of hospitality and volunteers. She never called me back. This was not a good sign for hospitality.

I was going to have to help Jersey myself, which is the Jersey way. For advice, I went to co-chairs of last year’s Super Bowl Host Committee, Mary Matalin and James Carville. Unlike Rankin, they got back to me right away, despite the fact that they were traveling to promote their new book, Love & War. “Your best competitive asset is low expectations,” said Matalin. “You’re going to get people walking away saying, ‘It was better than I thought,'” said Carville. Making fun of New Jersey is the one thing that brings people of different parties together, other than sex and book contracts.

Still, they had a point about this being an opportunity to improve the state’s public relations. So I reached out to a group of great New Jersey hosts to brainstorm. Martha Stewart, who is from Nutley, N.J., not only is the most famous host in our nation but also hosted me for my first year out of college as my boss. Yes, she once called me Chevy at a staff meeting, but at least she cared enough to take a guess at my name, even if it was a pretty low-odds guess, given that only one human being on the planet calls himself Chevy.

Martha’s suggestions were thoughtful if not practical. “Ralph Lauren could make snowsuits for all the attendees. He could design arctic wear for the sports fans with built-in toe and hand warmers,” she said. She also suggested that people make her Luscious Love Dip, which is basically cream cheese mixed with scallions and relish. I’m guessing that for regular-season games, she doesn’t bother with the scallions.

Caroline Manzo, matriarch of Bravo’s Real Housewives of New Jersey and star of the upcoming Manzo’d With Children, told me that New Jersey hospitality is treating guests like they’re members of your family. She said her policy is “Don’t ask for it. Just get it yourself.” It was going to be hard to explain to my fellow Jerseyans that in other places, “Get it yourself” is less a way of expressing affection and more a way of telling people to get something themselves. Likewise, Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino, from Jersey Shore, said of his hosting rule, “I try to mimic what my mom would do if she was here, except I’m not going to be making plates.” “Making plates” is Jersey for “getting you food.” New Jersey hospitality seems to involve not much more than opening the front door.

I did not know how to explain to New Jersey that this week, they’ve got to do a little more. Be a little nicer, a little more formal. But my sister Lisa, who has never lived–and will never live–outside New Jersey, told me she has a philosophic issue with that request. Hospitality, at its heart, is about phoniness. “Whenever I have people I don’t know that well come by, I’m put off by it. I have to make sure I don’t offend anybody or show my true personality,” Lisa explained. There’s a trade-off between hospitality and truly getting to know someone, and New Jersey has made its choice. When I stay at my sister’s house, do I get the most comfortable bed? No, but in exchange I get my sister telling me off.

Unlike New England, with its cold distrust of outsiders, New Jersey is off-puttingly welcoming. It’s just that authenticity is valued more than pleasantness. You either accept us for who we are, or we do a traffic study of your town. There are 49 states that understand that you act differently around different people–and one state that was somehow given the Super Bowl. But I believe people secretly long for the authentic experience Jersey will give them. At least the kind of idiots who are willing to sit through a football game in the snow.

This appears in the February 10, 2014 issue of TIME.
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