What does it mean to you?

By Patsy Dill Rankin  |  Photograph by Kevin Fleming
From the July 2014 issue

crabs1What are your memories of the foods that remind you of the beach? What are the things you eat when you go to the beach? We all have different ideas of what would be described as “beach food.” I can remember my first thoughts that food was different when we went to the beach. I was just a toddler when my parents rented a house in Leonardtown, Md., on the Chesapeake Bay. Looking at old pictures, I would now describe it more like a shack with a pier. This is where my brothers Chris and John and my sisters Nancy, Kathy and Debbie and I all learned the fine art of catching and eating the blue crab. We were all patient enough to sit very still and lure them into our nets with chicken necks on a string and brave enough to pick up the crabs and put them in the basket. When the basket was full, Mom would steam them up with lots of spicy Old Bay and we would all help each other pick them clean. She would also put a basket of potato chips and a bowl of sliced dill pickles on the table. The scent of crabs and Old Bay is one of the most incredible smells you will ever experience. We ate crabs until our lips were stinging and puckered from the spices. We would have platters of locally grown sliced tomatoes flavored with just salt and pepper and as many ears of corn as we could eat. We thought this was the best dinner ever! It was beach food, a little bit of heaven, our family tradition.

As I got older, the family would travel to Cape May, N.J., and that’s when I found out there were other choices of beach food. Of course we ate a lot of seafood, especially fish, shrimp and crabs, but then I found the foods of the boardwalk. The first thing you notice are the smells. Isn’t it amazing how powerful the smells can be? There are so many things going on at once. This food is different. Pizza, french fries, fried chicken, and of course, the candy stores. Wow! What an overload of smells and tastes. This was boardwalk beach food. That’s where I first found out people put vinegar on french fries. Yikes! I thought ketchup was the only thing that belonged on them. And the pizza was stacked in glass cases so you could buy one piece at a time. This was fun, because you could try different flavors without having to buy the whole pie. Then there are the candy stores that have such a sweet, sugary smell. I remember seeing the saltwater taffy and thinking they used ocean water to make it. The boardwalk smells haven’t changed at all. I can walk down the boardwalk now and still smell the different foods mixed with the salt air and feel like a kid again. It just doesn’t change. And the taffy still sticks to my teeth.

Even though we didn’t go to the beach every summer we would eat like we were there. We had crab feasts, spiced shrimp feasts and incredible fish dinners all summer long. My father would go fishing with friends on the Chesapeake Bay and bring home fish for everyone. I don’t even know what kind it was, but it was always a white fish. Mom would fry fish, bake fish and broil fish, flavored simply with a squeeze of lemon. And we loved it. Beach food was summer food, simply prepared.

When I married my husband, Kirk, in the early ’70s, not only did I get a great husband, but along with him came a beach house in Bethany Beach.

 * * *

To Read This Full Story:

Buy this issue online

Buy on a newsstand