I grew up at the beach. While other kids were making do with garden hoses and sprinklers, I was cooling off in the salty waters of the Atlantic, whose surface shimmied a mere 15 minute drive from my house in suburban Virginia. I had my first swimming lesson when I was 10 months old, and I learned to body surf in the ocean by piggybacking on my dad’s shoulders, tiny hands grasped firmly around his neck. (It’s a wonder we didn’t both drown, but this was in the risk-laden 1970s, an era before seatbelt laws, bicycle helmets, and common sense.)
Come summertime, my parents found that the best entertainment for three young kids was also the cheapest. Every weekend morning, my mom would wake up, slip on her swimsuit and beach coverup, and go downstairs to make lunch. While she spread white bread with peanut butter and jelly, pimiento cheese, or pepperoni, lettuce, and mayonnaise (my sister’s invention), my dad would haul the old red cooler from the garage and fill it with ice. In would go enough sandwiches to keep us happy all day long, cans of coke and sprite, and pieces of just-ripe fruit. She’d grab a bag of Doritos and some napkins, fill up her sandy beach bag with Coppertone suntan lotion and meat tenderizer (in case anyone had a run in with a jellyfish) and bundle us all into the car along with beach chairs, a big umbrella, and enough pails and shovels for an entire elementary school.
We’d arrive at the shore early in the day and set up camp. The first order of business was to anchor the 400-pound beach umbrella in the sand. (It felt that heavy, anyway.) The closer you got to the water, the easier it was to do because of the way the water seeped into the sand and created a firm foundation. But you had to weight that against the danger of the tide, which was bound to come up up up as the day wore on, and wash away your toys and supplies if you weren’t careful.
Once we were ensconced in our little patch of sand, the Most Horrible Part of the Day was upon us: the application of sunscreen. I don’t know which of us sqiurmed the most, but none of us liked it. “Mom!” we’d all wail. “We need to get in the water!” These were days when we were happy to swim and play for eight hours at a stretch. While my dad would dig holes to China, we’d hunt for sand crabs, chasing them out of the sand near the waterline and squealing as their scrambling legs tickled our palms. We’d take turns burying my dad beneath rivers of sand, and fashion stalagmite turrets for our sandcastles by dribbling beach mud a bit at a time onto the ground below.
Our tummies always told us when it was lunchtime, and we’d rush back to the cluster of beach chairs and towels, plop down dripping wet, and reach for sandwiches with wet and sandy fingers. Even when we were older, no matter how much we cleaned up before hand, the sand got into the sandwiches, but we ate them anyway. I hated PB&Js, and ditto slimy cold cuts, so pimiento cheese was the way to go. Cold green grapes, misshapen pears, and bruise-colored plums were the fruits of choice, and we ate them with the sticky juices running down our chins.
When the sun was beginning to falter in the sky, we’d pack up our belongings, usually with several woeful pleas for one last swim in the ocean. Every attempt was made to dry off our feet before stuffing them back into our shoes, but inevitably we walked back to the car squashing all the way. We’d spread out the driest towel on the back seat, and once we were home, hose off before traipsing inside through the garage door. No matter what I did, my swimsuit bottoms were always heavy with beach mud, most of which ended up in the bathtub despite my best efforts. We’d shower off, taking care to avoid any sun-scorched skin, and look forward to doing it all again the very next day.
Catherine’s Pimiento Cheese
Yield: 1 1/4 cups
It was only last year that I realized — with a shock — that many people, namely those who grew up north or west of the Mason-Dixon line, have never heard of pimiento cheese. You’re missing out. This spreadable cheese is made with sharp cheddar that’s been grated, then sweetened and spiced up with sweet red pepper and cayenne. It’s great piled on to whole wheat crackers, inside a grilled cheese, or smooshed into a celery stalk, and it’s especially good for beachfront picnics.
3 tablespoons mayonnaise
2 ounces cream cheese
2 tablespoons chopped roasted red peppers (you can buy them or make them yourself)
1 cup grated extra sharp cheddar cheese
cayenne pepper to taste (I suggest 1/8 tsp for the faint at heart, 1/4 tsp for the moderately experimental and 1/2 tsp or more for the bold)
salt and pepper to taste
1. In a food processor (or a big bowl, with a spoon) blend together mayonnaise, cream cheese, and red peppers until combined.
2. Add cheddar cheese, cayenne pepper, and salt and pepper. Pulse (or mix) again until spreadable but still slightly chunky.