Every summer my mother, siblings and I would fly to New England and spend the summer on the beach. During the school year, we lived in Utah but as soon as the school doors closed for the summer, my mom, who was deeply homesick for New England, would load the four children on an airplane and fly to Connecticut to spend the summer with my grandparents.
One year my Gram and Papa rented a beach house in Rhode Island right on the ocean. We stayed there all summer with a revolving door of aunts, uncles, cousins and family friends dropping in for a few day to visit. I come from an Italian American family which means the back door was always open and when it comes to food, make extra.
Food is essential to the family experience. If we’re not eating, we’re not together. So when we were together, we were always eating. Pastas, Gram’s meatballs, (which she’d test for flavor, while they were still raw!) and marinara she’d make with canned crushed tomatoes, garlic, seasonings and a “whole lotta” time on slow simmer. Papa would barbecue London broil steaks, sausages and steamer clams. And we’d slurp it all down with thick loaves of Italian bread in bowls of “oil and vinegar”. We’d eat out on the deck while we watched the sun set and the tide roll in. I loved those lazy summer days.
Each morning, even before the adults were awake, my sister and I would hop out of bed, throw on our swimming suits, rush downstairs for some PacMan breakfast cereal then run down the back stairs to the beach and play all day in the sand only taking a break in the afternoon for a pimento loaf sandwiches on white bread with a side of Cheetos. By four o’clock we’d be water logged, sun kissed and our suits would be full of sand when we’d hear the tinny bells of the Good Humor man. It didn’t take much to beg a couple quarters away from Papa Joe. He kept a mason jar of them for the occasion on the dresser.
But my favorite part of the week was on Thursday afternoons when Papa and I would walk down to the marina and watch the fisherman bring in the lobster. As the oldest grandchild Pop always told me I was the only one big enough to help carry the bucket we used to bring home our lobsters, though I don’t ever remember carrying it while it was full. Papa always carried it home but on our walk to the marina I’d carry it, letting it droop just enough for it to catch on the boards and bounce up as a reminded I need to lift my arms.
I’d wrap my little hand around Pops thick crooked fingers, rough, callused and deep brown from a lifetime of blue collar work. We’d walk barefoot down to the end of the docks to buy lobsters when they were the “freshest”. All the fishermen knew him and they crowd around little Sony radios, listen Red Socks games and complain about President Reagan (for reasons I still don’t fully understand my Papa Joe HATED Ronald Reagan).
At the end of the inning, Pop would ask in his gravelly Hartford accent, “Which one looks like a winner, Kristi?” I’d study my options then carefully make my selection. Then we’d drop the “winning” lobster in our bucket with six of his “winning” friends and walk home for supper.
Gram would boil those lobsters in a big pot while my mom melted a block of butter on the stove. Pop would roast the steamer clams and potatoes on the grill and then we’d pile those gorgeous red lobsters and steamers into throwaway foil roasting pans and take them out on the back deck to the table covered in newspaper. We’d crack the shells and dredge the flesh through steaming bowls of butter so loaded with garlic it would make your eyes water. There we’d sit in the sinking July sun, eating shellfish in our bathing suits while the tide came in and when we were done we’d run down into the surf for a salty bath before ice cream dessert.
By the time I was a teenager my mom got a full time job and we stopped going to the beach for the summer. Our days changed from playing in the surf to working summer jobs and spending late afternoons exploring the mountains. But those early years stayed with me. I learned early on that food doesn’t need to be fancy to be special. Sometimes the best meals are the kind you eat on newspaper, in a sand filled swimming suit with the Red Sox losing in the background.