Wedged firmly into the back passenger side window of our trusty Isuzu Trooper was a large white arrow cut from foam core and bearing the words “Beach or Bust,” artfully spelled out in my dad’s distinctive block lettering. The vehicle was washed inside and out, gleaming deep blue in the hot July sun, road-ready. But it wasn’t time to leave yet. First, we had to do a little painting . . . of every inch of trim on the entire house. Upon hearing this news, my and my elder sister’s hearts sank. We saw razor blade blisters and hours of scraping minutiae in our future, and our new bathing suits seemed to sink deeper into the drawers where they waited to be fetched and packed. Early mornings. Hard labor. Pure doom.
We were ultimately headed for the Gulf of Mexico — more specifically, a waterside condominium on a sweet little stretch of beach along Highway 30-A, the road that snakes along the edge of the Florida panhandle. This area is now overridden with spit-shined, sherbet-colored resorts; the sidewalks are clogged by clanging, swerving beach cruiser bicycles wielded by unwieldy adolescents; and the atmosphere is thick with the noise of too-rapid growth. Back then though, the quiet, utopian little hamlet of Seaside was brand-spankin’ new, fresh-white and airy as could be. Just down the road a-ways from this new nirvana our prize awaited us: ten sunny, glory-filled days by the water. The only hurdle was the week of sticky sweat and paint chip-flecked skin that lay in between.
We had a plan, though. Dad was very clear about his intentions to "knock it out" before we left town, determined to inject more appreciation into the vacation and to come home to a freshly updated home exterior. The man loves a family project. Meanwhile, Mom was very clear about her intentions to make it a memorable and marginally enjoyable week of work for all four of us, and to that end, she suggested that we carve out an official, sit-down lunch hour each day. We each had our personal list of tasks for the seven-day period, and I knew immediately where my sights were set: lunch. I was on it. I was eleven or twelve, recently magnetized to the colorful writings and photographs in the issues of Gourmet magazine that started showing up on Dad’s bedside table. I knew that I always felt most at home in the kitchen, but that summer I developed a more focused attention on what happens in that magical epicenter of our house.
There were two other pieces of reading I distinctly remember ripping through that week, both of them as vital to the cook I have become as any Julia Child tome or likewise large and verbose bible of cookery. They were (and are): The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook by Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso and California Cooking: Parties, Picnics and Celebrations, a less widely known compilation work released by the Art Museum Council, completely visually entrancing. I flipped the pages endlessly, steno pad and pen at the ready, scanning busily for ingredients I recognized and felt I could handle cobbling into actual edible meals for my family.
Oh, how I wish that I had written down the menus from that week, just as I wish I had done so for countless intimate family gatherings and other larger celebrations that have filled the years in between. I read somewhere that Jacques Pepin has a book where he writes down the dates and menus from his family’s dinners. After the meal, everyone signs the page and voila! History is recorded. This is a habit I have finally gotten around to maintaining later in life, but what I wouldn’t give to get my hands on my own written history as it relates to the kitchen. The hundreds of meals I’ve read about, dreamed up, written, plotted, shopped for, cooked, failed miserably at, and reveled in — what a school there would be in the long string of them!
But as I flip back through memories from that week, all unruly and scattered about in my mind, I’m sure there was a Greek salad of fresh, crisp chunks of Mediterranean vegetables, Kalamata olives, and feta cheese, with a garlic clove inside skewered onto a toothpick for easy retrieval — a little trick my mom and her catering partner, Pam, taught me. And though it’s not as clear, I'd bet that one lunch was centered around something as humble as a big bowl of tuna salad, punctuated with fresh chunks of celery and little zings of sweet pickle relish. I imagine it next to a stack of wheat berry bread, a plate of crisp iceberg lettuce, and the summer's reddest tomatoes suited for sandwich-making, not to mention my dad’s lunch table mainstay, Kraft mayonnaise. Always and only Kraft.
But one simple meal I remember with startling clarity, the one that illustrates my reminiscences with the most vivid colors and bright-as-yesterday flavors, is this one:
Boiled shrimp on ice with lemon wedges and homemade cocktail sauce
Sliced avocado with lemon and salt
Cold cantaloupe and honeydew
I remember feeling like Mom's very able helper. Being with her in the kitchen never felt intimidating; she helped a young cook to understand through demonstration and suggestion. Messes were made and disasters were managed, and there always remained a feeling of freedom and a sense of possibility. On that day as we prepared the noon meal, she taught me the vital importance of Old Bay seasoning and we coughed when its spice and pungency bloomed in the hot water. I also recall her always making certain that there was a large bowl of ice cubes waiting in the sink for the arrival of the tender pink swirls of shrimp — never the other way around. While mom took care of pouring the gazpacho into its pitcher and wiping down the counters, I spent my time practicing the simple tasks, like learning how to taste when the ketchup-to-horseradish ratio had reached perfection while making cocktail sauce. Never do I recall seeing a bottle of the stuff in our fridge door.
To this day, the way a person breaks down a cantaloupe sparks unholy judgment in me. We all know that the way our mothers teach us is the best way, right? I was taught to cut the whole globe laterally through the stem spot, then to scoop out just enough of the center, as the soft strands of connective goo that remain are where so much of the sweetness lies. Then those halves get quartered, the flesh separated from the rind, then cut deftly — in the hand — into lush, luminous, sunset-hued chunks. And a delicate sprinkling of salt is key. Salt? Yes, salt. From an early age, my sister and I have known how to judge an avocado’s ripeness just from a glance and a slight pressure to the knobby, dark skin. We do, however, admit to having different methods of extracting and slicing the ripe flesh, but that might require a diagram.
Once every morning’s hours of sweaty work were complete, we took turns scrubbing all the way up to the elbows in the kitchen sink with cold water and dish soap. The speakers were then dialed high and the record player spun. We had favorites that got us through that week: Stéphane Grappelli’s Satin Doll, Sting’s Nothing Like the Sun, Nat King Cole and George Shearing’s Let There Be Love. A few cassettes like James Taylor’s Never Die Young and Paul Simon’s Graceland even snuck into the rotation.
The metal table and its matching chairs from Sears sat out in the freshly shorn grass in the backyard. Both the tall trees on the bluff behind the house and a white canvas umbrella shaded us from the midday sun. Fiestaware dishes in deep ultramarine were set atop the striped cotton dishtowels we used for napkins. Our hand-blown Mexican drinking glasses, rimmed with an echoing blue, were filled with ice water followed by fresh mint tea, steeped by the heat and light of the sun, setting the cubes of ice to raucous crackling. A Mason jar held wild magenta roses and branches of the garden mint that threatened to overtake the entire corner bed. From early on, I was shown that a fresh and pretty table was almost as delightful as the fare. This concept, this brand of lifestyle design, was built into my understanding as a child, and now naturally tumbles out of me. When friends wonder at how I compose a tabletop or an unusual salad, all I can answer, smiling, is, “It’s just what I do.”
Even still, when I taste that particular gazpacho, I am rushed back to that day and that table. The cool, cucumbery freshness, the grassy bite of bell pepper, the distinct edge given by Tabasco and Worcestershire all combine to become a distinct place-marker in my mind. In fact, I recently made this picnic lunch for my sister and myself. As we each took our first bites of this cool and refreshing soup, I asked her what the taste made her think of, giving no hints or winks. The leaves on the trees rustled and shadows played on our quilt as she gave it some thought. “Painting the house that summer,” she said. Eyes wide, we laughed in amazement at how our sisterly memories run alongside one another. A childhood witness is a fine gift. In some far reach of memory I can smell the metallic scent of the water hose and even hear James Taylor echoing, "We were ring around the rosy children, they were circles around the sun." That week was the pinpoint in time where I began to understand the importance of the table as a resting place and a time to slow down, hold hands, enjoy life’s most simple and lush offerings and, above all, to mark the days and years of our lives by repeatedly pulling up our chairs next to the people we love.
Once our seven days of industry were over, we arrived at our beachside home and reveled in the joy of blueberry pancakes paired with dolphin-watching. We feasted on Dad's fresh, tongue-searing salsa and made-from-scratch chile rellenos set against opalescent orange sunsets. Mom's poached salmon and strawberry shortcake made the pain of fresh sunburn fade to a cooled silence.
There is a happy parallel now when we go to that very same spot on that very same beach, with a similar bird's song floating up through the open glass doors from the boardwalk's arbor vines below. In the late afternoons, when the sunscreen and salt have washed down the drain, the sun is on her way down, the moon is making herself clear, and the music is cued, the place where I need to be with my tools and my glass of wine is that little galley kitchen. It's where I chop contentedly and weave flavors, where I am a student of the process time and again. It is where I delight in the flurry of production and presentation and where I display my love through plates of honest food. Thanks to two parents who invested their resources in providing their daughters with good food and simple beauty in our home, and thanks to a mother who taught me how to taste and a father who taught me how to relish, it really is just what I do.
Evie Coates is a visual artist, art teacher, writer, gourmand, and junk-diver, though her latest focus is most definitely all things culinary. Happily nestled in a dear neighborhood called Sylvan Park in Nashville, Tennessee, Evie delights in her red 1972 pickup truck named Rosie and her 1960 Airstream trailer named Silvergirl. She wears Fryes on her feet and turquoise in her ears. She is a lover of words, colors, travel, bourbon, raspberries, sharp knives, and steel guitar, some of which she writes about periodically at www.eviecoates.blogspot.com.