My Italian husband gasped when I first told him, while we were at the seaside in Italy, that I craved a burger or a BLT. He couldn't imagine why I wouldn't want a plate of spaghetti alle vongole or some fried calamari. The only fish I grew up having beachside was either a fried crab cake with ketchup or a cup of clam chowder.
We may now spend most summers on the Mediterranean Sea but when I taste saltwater, I still long for the Atlantic Ocean.
My husband claims that hamburger meat and bacon are heavy, culinary choices that warm you up after skiing, for instance. Fresh fish, on the other hand, is light, he says, and therefore the natural fit for a summer meal after a seaside dip.
It's not that I wouldn't second his menu choice at the beach - it's that having a hamburger or a BLT catapults me back to New England summers, where goose bumps pop up on your skin after a bracing swim, and multicolored sea glass appears on pebbled beaches.
A hamburger often followed a morning of tennis lessons with the local pro, who wore zinc oxide on his lips. While we practiced our backhand, he had a hard time maintaining his own. "Eye on the ball, kids," he would say, not following his own advice. "Racket back, no spaghetti wrists, now step - well, good morning, Mrs. Van Alle - and follow through." Inevitably, there were more balls hit outside the court than on it. But we weren't there to qualify for Wimbledon; a few sets with pals led to friendships for life.
A supply of BLTs, on the other hand, would have been prepared by my grandmother for picnics on deserted islands. Her weathered hands were as quick to wrap the soggy sandwiches in wax paper as to tie a bowline knot to the dinghy. But the best BLTs were made by my father because they oozed Hellmann's mayonnaise and had an abundance of thick bacon.
Pulpy lemonade usually waited next to the tennis courts in a plastic pitcher. My brother and I spent a few summers selling "homemade" lemonade to help satisfy his comic book and my bubble gum cravings. We used our weekly allowance to buy cans of frozen lemonade and added water. It didn't matter that we hadn't squeezed the lemons. Homemade to us meant prepared by Mom (who kindly shrugged off labor costs). The day we sold a cup to Donny Osmond we concluded we'd made it big and closed shop.
Thermoses taken on summer picnics were filled with iced tea made from my mother's secret recipe. She promised me the recipe when I married since it had been a wedding present to her, along with a set of iced tea glasses. As she stirred the big pot of soaking tea bags in the kitchen, she often shared with me stories of courtships and love affairs, insights into who she was before I was born.
After riding the waves at the beach or sailing in the harbor, we might buy an ice-cream sandwich on the way home. It would arrive at a quiet moment at the end of the day when the seats of our family station wagon stuck to the back of my legs. My brother and I would place our arms next to each other and compare the hues of our suntans. Our rope bracelets, a sign of summer braided to our wrists, grew grayer and smellier with every passing month until December, when our mother insisted they be cut off.
Beach life at the Mediterranean does not disappoint in the glamour department. Italians often bring two bathing suits to the beach (a change of costume means you never walk around wet). They are masters of discreet stripteases performed underneath towels wrapped around them. Batiked sarongs replace soggy towels tied over bronzed legs. Swimmers float for hours in bathtub-warm water. Sun creams smell like Parisian eau de toilettes.
Fish, salads, fruits, and vegetables are available at many beach stands in Italy, and certainly contribute to the lithe legs parading the dunes.
My taste buds have rapidly adjusted to spaghetti alle vongole and the requisite gelato that Italian beaches offer. And my husband has converted me to iced tea with a spoonful of lemon granita as a substitute for my combination of lemonade and iced tea.
But it's the heartiness of the American summers of my childhood that I miss, where we rode bikes instead of mopeds, read books instead of text messages on cellphones, played cards instead of Gameboy, had a month's holiday instead of a long weekend, and never waited an hour after a meal to swim but dove right in, head first, minutes after our last bite of hamburger or crab cake, or the last spoonful of delicious clam chowder.