A Perfect Beach Day for a Chef – Garden & Gun
When the pandemic noticed that my flagship restaurant, Chef and farmer, in the small town of Kinston, North Carolina, was only viable if people traveled, I imagined a life that ran a food and seed store with a focus on houseplants instead. When a biological family member exposed my working family to COVID-19 days before Christmas, I brought up all of my favorite memories of Christmases past and projected them into the present. And when the walls of our collective containment harassed me like a mosquito in my ear, I walked the well-worn mental path until my perfect day at the beach. Daydreaming has long been my particular way of coping and hoping. So in the long low moments of the pandemic, when I just knew I didn’t really travel again; when I practically slapped myself for not trying more versions of the fried prawns this time in Nerano, Italy; when I was certain that all my friendships outside of my pod had faded, I fantasized about a sublime day in the sun and in the sand.
I grew up just over an hour from Crystal Coast, North Carolina. Some people have claimed that you can smell the salty air of Emerald Isle, Atlantic Beach and Pine Knoll Shores from my family’s farm in Deep Run, but because summer was tobacco season and my parents encountered all the forms of recreation with disapproval, we spent our sun-drenched days in a field or barn and our tans began to elbow. In fact, the first time I set foot on any beach I was nine and was visiting Ocracoke with a friend’s family in January. It was cold and hazy, sorry and honestly a little scary – not the day on the shore that I had imagined.
Now in my daydreams I wake up on Bald Head Island in June: Bald Head because an island that doesn’t allow cars feels far away but not that far I have to fly and remember too many trips to across the country carrying food to this festival or fundraiser; June because it’s the start of summer, the pack of weeks when the season promises many more days like this. The windows are open so that I can hear the waves crashing. I can also see them. My room on the second floor overlooks the meeting point of the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic. Freighters as tall as skyscrapers and tiny, blue tugs move through the channel and remind me that some people work, but I am not.
Downstairs, I find my twins twins, usually allergic to any kind of self-priming, smearing sunscreen all over every square inch of their exposed skin. I suggest we ride our bikes for breakfast because I suggest cycling everywhere and they always say no. Now they jump for their helmets without protesting. We are the early risers and the traffic-free road our worm as we glide through the speckled light of the maritime forest.
I decided in my early twenties that breakfast would be the best meal to eat at the beach. My sisters, vacationers like me, had married people who had had normal getaways their entire lives. My dad still wouldn’t dream of spending a night away from the farm, so we started renting a house on Emerald Isle for a week every summer – he could get down in the car for supper and return to Deep Run to sleep. . But without understanding how to properly engage with the shore, we woke up day in and day out, brewed pots of coffee, and talked about what we should do when we were finally motivated. In my mind, having breakfast in a restaurant would get us going, help us get started, and maybe give us some insight into the behavior of bona fide people on the beach.
Alas, the ritual of breakfast at the beach never took hold. We still piddle in half the day. But in my ideal scenario, my kids and I park our bikes right outside Yana’s in Swansboro. (Yes, we jumped from Bald Head to Swansboro. It’s my daydream and I jump if I want.) To the delight of my kids, there is no line. My two kids, who hate to make good choices in front of me, order a side of fruit with their peach fritters, and I settle into what I always want to order in restaurants but never do: two eggs on brown. easy white toast, bacon and hash browns. And it’s good that it’s nothing fancy, because I’m not here to find restaurants, I’m here to escape. Since March 2020, I definitively close the boiler room, the cheers of my city. I revised Chef & the Farmer. I opened a artisanal biscuits and pastry in Charleston, South Carolina; started a PBS series that I cared about like a baby, for three years; and finished writing, photographing and promoting my second cookbook. Phew. Change my order into peach fritters with a side of cheeseburger. Then, over small glasses of OJ and several cups of weak coffee, we discuss the day ahead and how grateful we are to be here at the beach without the iPads and Xboxes, my born again angels. have chosen to leave the house.
From there, I imagine I’m an organized home planner. As a restaurateur and pleasing people in general, I know how to live a special experience. Still, in my family life, I’m lucky if I find a B-plus in something other than skin care. Here, however, I think ahead, make lists, shop ahead. I am able to relate the dots to the next level activities because I have asked the dots in advance. Picnics, for example: there is hardly an event that I prefer to organize. But the packaging, the planning, the schlepping – that’s why I only have picnics in my head. Not today. Today we stop by the Roberts grocery store in Wrightsville Beach for a pint of chicken salad. We pass by the friendly Morehead City Market for some chili and a tomato pie. And back home from the beach, with everyone getting dressed, I cut Bogue Sound’s cold watermelon into perfect cubes. I finally pull out the vintage tiffin box I bought but never used, and stack the chicken I fry last night under the watermelon with flaky salt. On top is the adult watermelon soaked in tequila and lime, then the chicken salad and chili sandwiches on white bread. The tomato pie fits perfectly on top.
Daydreams is no place to drag chairs, games, umbrellas, vintage tiffin boxes, and coolers to the beach. As many times as I have tried, I cannot reinvent this act as anything other than hot and laborious. Instead, we load up our four-wheel drive and find a spot on the shore of Ocracoke, just a few yards from the patch of sand we’ll call our own. It’s at low tide, when shallow puddles provide safe and cool places for children and adults to lie down. I pick up my book, a juicy romance. By the time I reach the best part, my kids are rushing. I wince behind my sunglasses. Usually it takes at least fifteen minutes before they ask to be entertained. But that day, for the very first time, my co-dependent twins made friends in nature. They don’t need me after all.
I read. I swim. I’m taking a nap. We eat fried chicken sandwiches, drink alcohol soaked fruit, and people watch until the lights change and the breeze gives the heat of my tan an edge.
I’m the kind of tired that some might mistake for post-exercise exertion, but those of us familiar with the sun and sand recognize it as joy-fatigue. I shower, hydrate with something lightly coconut, and put on a pretty dress because a good tan deserves it. I serve simple snacks – cheese and crackers, boiled shrimp, crab dip, and fries. I cook something outside. I know it should be fish because I’m Vivian Howard and no one can imagine cooking anything other than fish at the beach, but instead I grill a steak, I cook potatoes at the beach. oven, I boil sweet corn and slice tomatoes. Someone else is in charge of the music so I’m not worried if people enjoy the 90s hip-hop / Taylor Swift mishmash that is my fault. There is a lot of laughter, fueled by a good amount of slightly sparkling white wine. I’m in a rocking chair with a plate of steak on my lap and a glass of this wine in my hand. As the sun sets over my reverie, casting the last of its pink light on the silhouettes of my children, I absorb it, squeezing every last drop of its magic into a small reservoir that changes my attitude and makes it seem like the banality of most days a day at the beach.