The moment when everybody wishes he had listened in geometry class comes, not on little cat feet, but on the monstrous paws of the elephant that is the Family Vacation By Automobile. There is a way, one family member says, bending over the trunk, to fit in the Cuisinart. I just know there is.
I used to think that the light travelers and the heavy travelers were sex-differentiated, but this might be a uniquely personal recollection. My mother emptied the refrigerator into the car while my father and his cigar fumed. We will surely need this little bit of lettuce, she always said. As I remember it, he just smoked more. The lettuce only made it to the first stop, but the cigars endured.
By the time we got to where we were going all the carrot sticks, all the apples, all the bits of iron-rich (this will make your blood strong) green pepper had formed a homogenous pool of brown goo. We were thus freed to enjoy onion rings, lake perch, potatoes, chicken, all french-fried by a woman named Edna Mae in the back kitchen of her tiny restaurant at the lake.
Here on the east coast everybody seems to go to the beach. If you want an instant window into the souls of all your dearest friends, ask them what they take along.
I have one friend who takes along Gourmet magazines -- as many as she has in her library -- corresponding to the month of her vacation. She even went so far as to have them bound this way -- all of July together, all of August, and so forth. This is a woman who goes to the beach despite the fact that she always gets sun poisoning. Her reasoning is that the other members of her family don't, and are therefore frolicking outside while she remains serene within.
A few things about rented beach houses are axiomatic. There is always a blender, never a food processor. (This is because everybody who is old enough to own a beach house got two blenders for wedding presents, speculates a friend. Soon, she says, some of those who got two food processors will be old enough to own beach houses, too, and then we won't have to schlep ours.)
Another person I know well takes all the equipment to prepare her drug of choice, which is coffee. That means grinder, plastic filter, pot, paper filters and beans. Her nightmare came the year she packed everything but the grinder and had to look each morning at a five-pound bag of unremittingly hard coffee beans that would not render coffee no matter what she did. That was the year she discovered that yes, you certainly can, if you have to, grind coffee beans in a blender.
Although the pots at beach houses are always huge -- big enough for the lobster or the eight ears of corn -- they are also always warped and wobbling. But I have yet to run across anyone who takes pots to the beach.
Citrus zesters, yes. I don't know why my friend takes her citrus zester. She also takes champagne glasses, which in some obscure way may be a clue. And of course her removable-bottom tart pans, she adds. In assortment. And her good garlic press because no beach house ever held a good garlic press. And a boning knife, she goes on. Then a bread knife, of course. She does not take her rolling pins, ever, because you can use a wine bottle or a broom handle for that. "Of course," she says to her interviewer, who is scribbling this list as fast as she can, "that's just what I take when I go to see my parents for a weekend." (Her parents, who live in New York, bring their own water when they come here to visit.)
Coolers, in graduated sizes, are of course crucial to any beach life. Kitchenware stores carry some interesting little items along this specific line. Called Cold Boxes, they come in various sizes and shapes and include their own built-in coolant that you keep in the freezer until it's time to cool something. These things are good for taking perishable foods like potato salad down to the beach. They will keep them safe all during the three hours it takes to get little Joshua to come in out of the surf.
While beach houses won't have all the necessary stuff of life -- citrus zesters, for example -- they will always have useless trivia like those little pronged things that hold corn while you eat it. To those of us who grew up where the corn grew up, using these things is a crime against nature. The butter is supposed to drip down your arms.
There are signs that these worries -- that you'll forget something crucial like the boning knife or the champagne glasses -- will soon become an anachronism, a sort of horrific remnant of the pre-civilized past. The friend who travels with her tart pans says that a 24-hour gourmet store recently opened in the community where she rents a house.
Just think! Citrus zesters all night long.