It’s August 1981. I’m wedged between my mom and dad in the front seat of my dad’s juniper green Plymouth Scamp, while my sister Kathleen rides in the hump seat between Grandma and Grandpop in the back. We sing along with Kim Carnes on the radio as she rasps about a girl with Bette Davis eyes. It feels like there’s no air conditioning in the car, but no one complains because we’re going to Ocean City.
A trip to the ocean is an unrivaled treat for us. We don’t go every year, and Dad’s business— he runs a small pharmacy in Rosedale— prevents us from staying more than a night or two when we do. “Oh, you’d be bored if we spent a week there,” Mom declares. Although it feels like we could spend a thousand days walking the beach, making sand castles and jumping waves, we also have the vague understanding that the beach might not feel as special if a visit weren’t short and rare.
The day before we leave for every beach trip, my sister and I participate in one of our most important vacation rituals: grocery shopping at the Mars in Carney Village. While Mom picks out the large shiny red can of Donald Duck orange juice and a six-pack of the small green cans of grapefruit juice we’ll sip on the beach, Kathleen and I carefully examine every variety pack of miniature cereals, looking for the best combination of sweet brands. The Kellogg’s bundle has Sugar Smacks, Frosted Flakes and Apple Jacks, but the Post assortment has Honey Combs, and General Mills’ package has Golden Grahams and Trix. The decision- making is excruciating because we know it will be another year before we get this choice again; we don’t eat sweet cereal at home.
Breakfast shopping finished, we follow Mom to the snack aisle, where each of us is allowed to pick one snack. Since bags of Utz potato chips and pretzels are mainstays at home, we pass them by for more exotic offerings. After a few minutes of deliberation and negotiation, I choose crunchy pale yellow Potato Chipsters. Kathleen decides on a large blue can of Durkee potato sticks, toothpick-like shards of crispy potatoes that can also be used in mini-sword fights. We convince my mother that the bag of corn Bugles can be Dad’s choice, and she surprises us by tossing a bag of Pepperidge Farm Milanos and a box of Cheese Nips into the grocery cart.
Just as there’s a lovely sameness to what we bring to the beach to eat, there’s a routine to meals once we’re there. Aside from an occasional trip to the cafeteria line at English’s Chicken House for chewy pancakes and limp bacon, we eat breakfast and snacks in our room, saving dinner as our big meal out. In past years, we’ve seen dolphins playing in the waves from the dining room at the Sheraton, and orange-red sunsets from the windows of the Quarterdeck. But this year, we’ve rented an apartment at the Windjammer on 46th Street with a huge picture window that looks onto the beach. Maybe because the apartment has a full kitchen and maybe because Mom has been battling a cold (which turns out to be mono), we have dinner right there.
Earlier in the day, after (sugar) cereal and a long walk on the beach— Kathleen and I in our bathing suits, Grandma in her cotton dress and Keds sneakers and Grandpap wearing shorts for the first time ever (they are madras plaid)— Dad had said, “Let’s take a drive to Shantytown.” We drove to the inlet to walk through the little shops, but the real goal was a nearby seafood store where my parents picked out pearly gray littleneck clams and snowy fillets of flounder.
As the sky outside our window turns from yellow to dusty blue, Mom and Grandma steam the clams in the kitchen’s dull gray pots and dip the flounder in egg and cracker meal before laying the fillets on a cookie sheet to be oven-fried. They slice green cabbage into slivers for homemade coleslaw, but save a little time by adding a bag of frozen french fries to the fish in the oven. Sun-flushed, sandy and still damp from the ocean, my thighs stick to the yellow vinyl chairs as I wait for the food to be ready. Then suddenly it is.
I love flounder, its velvety softness, its faint taste of the sea, but this is flounder unlike any I’ve ever had. It tastes like the air smells: clean, slightly salty and fresh. I watch as my dad dips the meat of the tiny clams into melted butter. I’ve never had clams before, but I love butter, so I want to try. They taste of the sea, too, but more strongly, and their texture isn’t feathery like the fish, but soft, like a piece of fresh Trident gum. We eat and eat until we can hold no more, then head out for another walk along the beach, where we sing songs and make up stories about living in Ocean City year-round. Later in our trip, we’ll get Fisher’s caramel corn and a box of saltwater taffy on the boardwalk, but it’s the fish dinner that will stay with me as the first time I remember eating something so fresh.
In years since, I’ve developed my own beach food rituals. I always pack coffee and a bottle of blood orange juice, granola from the Dutch Market and a tub of yogurt, a bag of pistachios, a bottle of bourbon. And if there’s time during our visit, I’ll drive to a fish market and buy whatever looks freshest for dinner. My parents maintain their habits, as well. Checking in on the phone after a weekend at the ocean, my mother tells me, “Your father bought a bag of Bugles to take to the beach. He says it’s a tradition.”