Beach food. Why is it not better?

June 5, 2008

As mentioned in my last post, we just spent a fabulous week with friends at a beach in North Carolina. And the way I presented this — do I remember that my words foreshadowed a week of swimming not only in the ocean, but also in a sea of delicious morsels of heavenly provision?

And to be fair, there were some delicious morsels. Megan provided her usual supply of chocolate-covered-goodies from Trader Joe’s, fulfilling my unspoken (but strongly hinted) friendship requirement that wherever she goes, her “snack corner” must follow. She (with the grilling expertise of Will) also made a killer batch of fajitas, our inaugural meal at the beach. There were also a few other highlights:

  • One of the best pizzas I’ve had in a long time — from an Italian sandwich shop located a block away from our house. Montoros Deli Italiano is best known for their New York/Italian sandwiches, but they also bake their own bread and serve a sturdy repertoire of classic Italian desserts (we sampled the canoli and Napoleon cake, both ranking high on my list of sampled Italian-style pastries). Our last night we ordered one of their pizzas, and asked for topping recommendations over the phone. A very helpful Maureen Montoro assured us that their pepperoni is “the real thing,” so we settled on pepperoni, sausage, roasted red peppers, red onions, and mushrooms. When Tim arrived with the pizza, not only was it huge and boasting a delicious, perfectly hand-tossed crust, but the toppings were obviously sliced directly from the source just before cooking: the sausage was sliced lengthwise from the link; the pepperoni were huge circles of well-seasoned cured meat; the peppers roasted without being soggy. The biggest disappointment was the fact that we couldn’t finish it (our friends had left earlier, leaving Tim and I to share the pizza), and couldn’t bring the leftovers home with us.
  • A comforting bowl of clam and corn chowder, served as one of our appetizers at The Blue Gecko, our selection for the dining-out-alone-night of our trip. The chowder fooled me into thinking it was going to be an amazing meal; but alas, it fell short. Details to follow.
  • The fresh shrimp — caught locally — that I quickly sautéed and tossed with pasta for dinner one night. It’s rare that we get access to really fresh shrimp, and it was good to be reminded how it’s supposed to taste. Delicate, rich — with not an ounce of rubberiness.

So what ways, you might ask, was our week of eating a disappointment? Primarily, two:

  • It’s never easy to cook in someone else’s kitchen. Even one that’s more well-stocked than your own can lead a meal astray; it’s like driving a friend’s car and not knowing how to turn on the windshield wipers. In my limited experience with beach houses, this kitchen was the best one I’ve used; but still — the knives were dull, the cookware unpredictable, and the range — gasp! — electric coils. And who can blame them? Why would you furnish your beach house with top-of-the-line cookware when any renter can walk off with it, and no one’s the wiser? (Mental note: the next time I purchase a beach house, figure out a way to solve this problem for my houseguests…)
  • I’ll be honest with you: this line-item of beach-food-disappointment still has me wondering what is becoming of our world. To hell in a handbasket, I tell you. The local seafood restaurants? THEY DON’T SERVE LOCAL SEAFOOD. That’s right. All those open-air seafood markets — the ones right on the water, that the boats pull up to and unload their fishy bounty? THE RESTAURANTS DON’T BUY FROM THEM. Instead, they buy their seafood frozen, shipped in (not by sea, but by interstate and 18-wheels) by U.S. Foods, a national food distribution company. Why? Because buying fresh from the guy next door will cut into their profit margin. Which, after some quick mental calculations, estimating the price of frozen fish they’re buying, is about a 300% markup.(To quote my favorite two words from Gob on Arrested Development): “COME ON!!“This was a primary disappointment at The Blue Gecko; well, that, plus the fact that our entrées just weren’t very well conceived or seasoned (erring on the too-heavy side in that category). After asking our server what was local and fresh, she replied that “everything” was (we had the same response at Molly’s, another seafood place in town). But after speaking with a few of the seafood market workers, we learned that that simply was not true. And if that evidence is not scientific enough — after only half-consuming our “award-winning” entrée of sea scallops and grits, we were able to read a framed article boasting the award in question, at the restaurant. The article clearly listed U.S. Foods as the provider of the scallops in question.

    I’ll say it again: COME ON!!”

It probably didn’t help matters that my beach read this week included the last half of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. It was like his primary point of industrial-agricultural irony was caricatured for me, right outside our sand-laden door. So sad. So very sad, we were. I mean, isn’t that one reason you visit the sea? To taste of the freshness of its food? And yet, we might as well have been at Red Lobster on Atlanta Highway.

But — and this is a big one. It was still a wonderful week at the beach, an opportunity for which I am quite thankful. And the only way these beach-food dilemmas will really effect us is in changing how we might eat during any future trips to the coastline. We’ll skip the meals out, and put more of our resources into buying fresh from the seaside markets and cooking at the house.

And next time, I’m packing my knives.

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