New Jersey has a certain reputation, and not an altogether fair one. If you only see that part of it that is in the orbit of New York City, you may be tempted to think the motto on their licence plates – “The Garden State” – is some kind of joke. More like swamps, pavement, dirty old towns, and sprawl malls with fine dining on the line of IHOP, Rainforest Café, and the Cheesecake Factory. 

Go a little further, however, and you’ll see that there’s a reason for what’s on those plates. Back in grad school I spent more than a month in Princeton, which is smack dab in the middle of New Jersey, and I can tell you that there is ample garden and greenery in that state. 

But New Jersey has another duality, one you can quickly see with a topographical map. The state, as you may know, is shaped like a thick stylized S. The top half of the S is generally hilly (sorry, “mountainous” – I’m from the Rockies and I find it hard to say a place with a maximum elevation of 1,803 feet is mountainous, but it’s all relative). The bottom half is generally low-lying and fairly flat, with a large swath called the Pine Barrens, which is true to its name. The dividing line is right across the waistband stretching from Philadelphia (well, Trenton), passing through Princeton, and touching the tidewater just near New York City. You could put the dividing line at the mouth of Cheesequake Creek.

Of what creek? You read it right: Cheesequake. It’s in the town of Old Bridge, Middlesex County, and it passes through Cheesequake State Park (perpendicular to the Garden State Parkway, which is not especially true to its name). As the New Jersey State Park Service website says, 

Cheesequake State Park’s uniqueness lies in its geographical location. Not only is it situated in the middle of the urban north and the suburban south, it lies in a transitional zone between two different ecosystems. Open fields, saltwater and freshwater marshes, an Atlantic white cedar swamp, pine barrens habitats and a northeastern hardwood forest await you. . . .

A striking example of vegetation change along a gradient from coastal salt marsh habitat to upland forests can be observed from the various trails running through the natural area. The natural area displays a diversity of plant species and community types characteristic of both northern and southern New Jersey.

So you might say that if there were a fault cutting across New Jersey, it would be right at this creek. And in fact it is: it’s the location of the New Jersey cheesequake of 1783 (it would have been an earthquake, but it’s New Jersey). 

No, I’m lying, that’s completely made up. New Jersey has its faults – the biggest one is in the north – and it has had occasional earthquakes (see New Jersey’s Division of Water Supply and Geoscience for more info), including a noticeable one in 1783. But that has nothing to do with Cheesequake, which is faultless.

So how did Cheesequake get the name? Is it something like that big molasses tank explosion they had in Boston in 1919? No, it’s due to more of a classical tectonic shift… lexically speaking. It’s an English rendition of a local (probably Lenni-Lenape) word. The June 8, 1889, issue of American Notes and Queries gives this nice run-down quoting the Newark Sunday Call:

Some of the local pronunciations of the names of New Jersey places are puzzling. For instance, Hibernia is called Highbarney, Charlotteburgh is spoken of by old-timers as Slottenburgh, Sparta is called Sparty, Newfoundland is called New fun land, with the accent on the land. Wequahick is Wake Cake, Chesquahick is Cheesequake, Acquackanonck is Quack-nack, and Wanaque is Why-nockie, with the accent on the why; Caldwell is Call-well, and Parsippany is Persipny, Plaquemin (French) has become Pluckamin, even in spelling, while our city is Noork or Newick.

Well, yes, that’s a thing that tends to happen. All Canadians know that the province of Newfoundland is “New fun land” (usually with the stress on New, though), and everyone who has ever flown through EWR knows about “Noork.” England is famous for doing this kind of thing – visit Cirencester in Gloucestershire, for instance – but Americans also do it a lot; in Massachusetts they make much of Worcester, and Kurt Vonnegut made light of handling of names taken from local languages with the fictional town of Pisquontuit, Rhode Island, in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater:

About Pisquontuit: It was pronounced “Pawn-it” by those who loved it, and “Piss-on-it” by those who didn’t. There had once been an Indian chief named Pisquontuit.

OK, so Cheesquake is from Chesquahick, right? And what is Chesquahick?

Heck if anyone knows. That one citation is literally the only place the word turns up on Google, spelled that way or even close to it – and Google keeps wanting to show me Chiswick instead. If we look for Wequahick (which appears morphologically related), we find that it’s spelled Weequahic these days, pronounced “Wee-kway-ik” or “Week-wake,” and comes from Lenni-Lenape for ‘head of the cove’.

So therefore Cheesequake would come from something else to do with a head or with a cove, right (I’m not sure which, and online resources on Lenni-Lenape are limited)? You might think. But if you go to Wikipedia, the etymologies it offers are entirely different (and, I gotta say, not as engaging): Cheseh-oh-ke (‘upland’), Chichequaas (‘upland village’), or Chiskhakink (‘at the land that has been cleared’).

Or, ya know what, maybe it really was from a cheese quake. Specifically it could be a parmigiana quake. Here’s my evidence for that: 300 to 400 pounds of pasta were found recently alongside a creek in Old Bridge, the same town as Cheesequake State Park. Admittedly, it wasn’t dumped along Cheesequake Creek, it was dumped along Iresick Brook (and I’d say “I’re sick” if I had that much pasta too, especially off the ground), but the two are a mere 8 miles apart (less as the crow flies). The point is if you can have pasta coming out of the ground (Did anyone see anyone dump it? No) you can also have a cheese quake. Go to the garden and grab a plate!

But what would make someone hungry enough to have all that pasta and cheese in the first place? Well, if you Google Cheesequake, along with the New Jersey geography you get plentiful results for Cheese Quake, also named Cheesequake, which is a strain of marijuana. I’m not going to say that smoking some would give you the requisite appetite, but I’m not not going to say it either. (What do I know? I’ve never tried it.)

And for dessert, if you don’t mind the drive up to Menlo Park or all the way down to Freehold, you can go to the Cheesequake Factory. I mean Cheesecake.

2 responses to “Cheesequake

  1. Being a word guy from New Jersey, my go-to resource for such toponyms is Robert Grumet’s “From Manhattan to Minisink: American Indian Place Names in Greater New York and Vicinity,” U of Oklahoma Press, 2013. He quotes Nora Thompson Dean (d. 1984), one of the last fluent speakers of Unami (one of the two major dialects of the Lenape language), as likening Cheesequake to the Southern Unami “chiskhake” (land that has been cleared). It could be from this word or perhaps from its Munsee (the other major Lenape dialect) equivalent, which was probably similar. (Munsee is better attested than Unami overall, with more speakers today, but there are major gaps in both lexicons.) In any case, Cheesequake is first attested in a deed from 1686.

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