Two family beach trips, two approaches to cuisine.
I will soon be spending a week in Bethany with my sister, her husband and kids, and our parents. I'll be quartered in the larger of the two bunk-bed rooms, since my husband will have exhausted his vacation days before this trip begins. I don't really mind sleeping in a twin bed, all by myself, in a room all by myself. That alone is a kind of vacation from my real life.
My sister just sent me the master grocery list for our trip. It is based on a meal schedule that emphasizes spaghetti sauce from a jar, burgers and dogs on the grill, and spices no more exotic than garlic salt. My mother believes in a few shakes of this on boneless, skinless chicken breasts that bake in the oven. Never mind brining, or leaving the bird skin-on and bone-in for juiciness and flavor. A little simple baked chicken, a little vinegar-and-oil salad, and that's dinner.
Somehow, it's delicious. My mother's cooking always has been.
Besides, beach cooking ought not be difficult. The steps between sandy feet under the outside spigot and hands in the kitchen sink ought to be few. There's little need for finesse. The ocean air makes everything taste better.
Still, I try to instruct my mother in making onion jam, a concoction of sweet onions, sauteed very slowly in olive oil and finished with splashes of white wine and broth. This recipe is how I start almost everything, from sauces for pasta or protein, to sauted veggies. It's even good, smeared on crostini, with a little shaved Asiago cheese on top.
"Very nice," my mother says.
I suggest perhaps a nice sourdough boule in addition to the squishy sandwich bread on the master shopping list.
"If you want," says mom.
I offer to do kitchen duty, take a night's cooking for myself.
"No bother," mom says.
So, there I'll be, in a twin bed in a kids' room, eating the meals my mom makes. It will be fantastic.
Meanwhile, there's another beach trip booked for me, with my husband's side of the family. This trip features stacks of Bon Appetit magazines on the coffee table, with tabs stuck to pages of recipes that will be perfected. One of the members of our group is a chef and culinary instructor, whose hands are the surest and knife skills the most precise. Just for an amuse bouche, she will convert fresh fish, olive oil, lime and jalapeno into ceviche, served in stemmed martini glasses on the oceanfront deck.
"Don't overdo," she'll say. "Dinner's coming."
We take turns producing meals. My culinary skills fall somewhere between our housemate, the chef, and our now-adult children, who were added to the cooking schedule as teens. They have never failed to surprise us with thoughtfully planned and deliciously executed meals.
Among the rest of us, I am probably the least doctrinaire in my cooking. I consult recipes for guidance, mostly, then do what I think tastes good. I have never been one to follow rules. I usually let the farm market and fresh-fish counter direct me toward what I'll be cooking.
My husband's mother usually makes a dish from fresh corn and scallops that is simultaneously deeply savory and as sweet as country air. Another of our group is a fisherman, who will certainly bring us something fresh from the surf to throw on the grill. Perhaps we will get a bushel of blue crabs, some corn, potatoes and kielbasa, spread newspapers on the table and put together a seafood boil.
In the mornings, I take a long walk along the beach. It is the best breathing I do all year, and the most fertile time for thinking. It also expends some calories. But thank goodness it has been years since I gave much worry to the appearance of my girth in a bathing suit.