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Posts Tagged ‘nature’

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This is been a milestone summer for me. I’ve had to learn to balance a new job and commute, which provides what I need to survive, with time in nature, which provides what I need to live.

I’m not going to say it’s been easy, late afternoon- and weekend-warrioring. But man, those moments have been sweet.

This summer I found wild blackberries growing along banks I’ve wandered since I was a kid, but never noticed. Made tea from flowers and leaves I dried, made lattice-topped pies from olive oil crusts instead of butter (never thought it would work, but guess what), and made sure to throw a pebble into the lake just to hear the PLUNK that always, always satisfies.

For the first time, I saved my molars and got every pit out of the wild Concord grapes I found, smacking my lips on their tartness. Swapped in my beach plums for cranberries in my favorite crisp, and they were fantastic. Sneaked onto footbridges in the woods and onto the lawn of my shamelessly absent neighbor, where in the dark of night I shamelessly picked enough fruit to make sour-cherry tarts.

I sank my tired feet into powdery sand and let the wind and 360-degree pink-and-grey sunsets wash the stress off me. There were 17 seagull tail feathers at the beach the other night, perfect quills for my next production of “1776.” Was serenaded by a Russian mulberry-lover, very much off-key (don’t ask. Actually, do. Great payoff.). Discovered that honeysuckle blooms in fits and starts all summer, just right for drying, and jammed May-fresh ones into a bottle of Laird’s to flavor the whiskey. Twice I sat and watched the yellow sunlight sparkles chase each other over the lake, and once I saw a fleet of catfish making kissy-faces at the surface of the water.

Walked the trail at Monmouth Battlefields, the Revolutionary War site, and marveled that Washington and the boys withstood 90-degree heat on that day in June while in wool uniforms (many couldn’t, and succumbed to heatstroke). Sat down to take a shot of a lone apple, looking like a dropped musket ball, and spent the next 15 minutes plucking vicious grassy needles off my bum. Freedom has its price.

Yesterday I really felt the sun and wind and crunch of sycamore leaves as I trudged along the banks of my lake. Today, driving home, I really loved the different greys of the clouds, layered like deckled pages in a book, and felt the coolness — new to the season but old, coming back.

So the wheel starts its descent, so the fall of the year has begun. Falling with it.

 

 

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I haven’t had a second to write since I pulled the Easter bread out of the oven! This is a first, and I’m not jazzed about it. Being a contractor means you’re never bored and always busy. Which, as any contractor can tell you, is simultaneously great, and blows. Today was the first day in months that I haven’t gone Mach 2 with my hair on fire.* I’ve been so happy to relax a little, to start cooking again (brownies for my teenage cast and crew)…

Three sticks of butter plus cake flour mean they’re essentially a semi-solid.

to eat ice cream (hoooo doggy. Twice this week, actually, and both bloody spectacular)…

Chocolate-orange and coconut ice creams plus hot fudge sauce, all homemade, at the bent spoon in Princeton.

My beloved peanut butter moose tracks, greedily gobbled an hour ago.

I am unusual in that I am oddly, inextricably connected to nature; I must see and smell and touch everything new each season. This past month I missed my ephemerals. I only barely nuzzled the Kwanzan cherry blossoms before the rain took them down. I’ve never missed these, and the lack of them has affected me powerfully, like trying to breathe with the only one lung’s capacity. Subtracting them has not been not healthy for me.

But I’m dreaming about visiting the farm (finally open), foraging (wisteria right now, and much more to come). And I had the loveliest surprise a couple of days ago:

I thought I had missed the lilacs, too, blooming so early this year. Drove in between rushed errands to try to find some blossoms that weren’t spent so I could bury my nose in them, and didn’t have much luck. Then I happened upon a huge, lush group of bushes next to the art building at my alma mater, where I was finishing a prop contract. The school is at the opposite end of the state, and I’d forgotten that flowers there bloom later. The wind off the lake blew their fragrance around me before I even saw them, fresh and sweet as could be. I remembered the strange miracle of more: my theory that whatever we miss, somehow the universe makes it back up again. And then some.

*Gratuitous Top Gun reference.

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Huber Woods, Navesink. New Jersey’s a dish, isn’t it?

Every year on Thanksgiving I make my family’s recipe for stuffing, eat it in great quantities, then go hiking. (The unfathomably good recipe is here.) This tradition does not vary, because like diamonds and a little black dress, like Valentino and the smoulder, it works. It ain’t broke.

But. I had to alter the tradition a bit this year, as I’m still nursing the effects of last month’s scratched food pipe. The stuffing starts with a loaf of crusty Italian bread. When it’s done, it’s spicy, rich, and chewy—the kind of addiction you wouldn’t mind having. And I don’t.

How it ought to look.

I was disheartened for a good week beforehand because I thought I would have to forgo this dish. But I decided to buck up, and good techie that I am, made a plan: to eat stuffing, somehow, and not have it aggravate my condition.

Instead of buying my Italian bread on Monday and letting it go stale on my dining room table until Thursday, I bought it fresh, the day before. Next I pulled the crust from the fluffy white insides—the part I was hoping I could swallow easily—and froze the two portions separately. I also prepped some homemade chicken broth.

On Thanksgiving morning I defrosted the bag of bread insides and added it to my pan with the sausage, spices, olive oil, eggs, toasted nuts, and Parmigiano-Reggiano. I ground the dried rosemary with a mortar and pestle so it wouldn’t be too spiky going down. Then I poured broth over the whole thing to make it even more tender.

I am not going to lie and tell you that it was delicious. It was decent. The next day it was quite a bit better. But it was more important that I wasn’t uncomfortable, and I wasn’t. I made it work. This was a huge win.

Then I went hiking.

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Gradations of light and shadow, eastern meadow.

Longtime readers know about my love affair with nature—with the wildest parts especially. It is at once a source of serenity and energy for me to leave the paved walkways and cross meadows, hills, glens, groves, the untidy places, the unmanicured country. There is no grass, let alone neatly trimmed grass. The spicy fallen leaves are slippery. I get my ankles tangled in the snarls of vines that cover the rolling ground. Chipmunks, groundhogs, and squirrels dart between thistles. Once I even saw a coyote. I always hope I’ll run into him again. But I hike mostly because I love the feeling of being enveloped by something ancient and unspoiled. It’s like getting massaged on the inside. And I always try to see something I haven’t seen before.

A few Thanksgivings ago I found a hidden cemetery, with maybe 30 occupants in all. I always wish them a nice holiday.

Last year I found tiny old wooden shacks labeled with numbers—1937, 1938—and I fancied them past years, relegated silently to the woods of Navesink. I could not bring myself to look through the windows and still cannot. This year I found 1929.

And also this year, beyond the eastern meadow, I followed a deer path until I was surprised by the shadow of a horse. It stood perfectly still, so I ventured closer to investigate. It was a sculpture, perfectly to scale, and made entirely of driftwood blackened with age. Imagine coming across this with no warning.

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The afternoon light gets low pretty early these days. I watched it ride the edge of the trees and wondered if I had enough time to look just a little farther. I’d never been beyond the brook at the western end of the woods, and it was tempting. I decided it was getting too late to chance it. Coming across a coyote at nighttime is somewhat less appealing.

But here’s the thing. Being sick or injured can make a person want to withdraw and not take chances. God knows it’s happened with me, especially recently. After a month of ping-ponging between my food pipe being okay and being uncomfortable, you can believe I’ve hung back from time to time. If I’m not careful, though, that can become a new habit.

Last Thursday I wanted to go farther. I’m so glad I wanted to. It’s a good sign. There are times when I won’t be able to, like this time. But I figure as long as I always want to know what’s beyond the brook, I’m okay.

For dinner that night I ate half an Italian sausage, some caramel applesauce I stirred up on the spot (sliced apples with a little butter, brown sugar, and water), and vanilla pudding I’d made the night before. And it was okay again, and I was grateful.

The crust from that loaf of Italian bread is sitting tight in my freezer, waiting for another batch of stuffing. It’ll happen.

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This is sassafras, which apparently makes a delightful root-beer-like drink that I have yet to try.

I love going off-roading and picking out plants. Especially the edible ones, because then I can add their location to the ever-increasing list of minutiae in my grey cells, and come back when their season hits. Oh, there’s a blackberry cane, I say to myself; wow, that is one colossal patch of garlic chives. I get a bang out of finding beeches, sycamores, mulberries, crab apples—trees people don’t tend to plant anymore because they’re considered messy.* I know them all well. To me, this isn’t just green stuff sticking out of the grass; it’s friends. I’m serious.

Walking through Huber Woods in Locust, NJ last spring, chill as a coconut granita, I thought of how many people I know who are uncomfortable in nature. I don’t mean uncomfortable camping, although the two probably go hand in hand. I mean just walking and bellyaching: ‘This is boring, is that poison ivy, what if a bug looks at me,’ etc.

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This is a pine tree, easy to discern from other evergreens in that its branches stick straight out like arms, parallel to the others.

Did you read the second book in the Wrinkle in Time series, called A Wind in the Door? In it, the characters are in a void and at risk of being ‘X-ed’—that is, wiped out, in Madeleine L’Engle’s cool vernacular. The only way they can be recovered is by what the author calls ‘Naming.’ Heroine Meg figures this out, calls by name everyone out of the void, and saves them all. The Naming re-integrates body, mind, and soul—makes them whole again.

And it occurred to me that I had practically grown up outdoors, and moreover had worked at Huber Woods as a naturalist, cuddling snakes, walking-stick insects**, and other assorted beasties. These things, once I knew what they were and learned about them, were as comfortable to me as the eight-year-old mint-green fleece I have on right now. If you know a lot about your surroundings, that makes a giant difference in whether you feel like a granita there, or as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rockers.

Names are powerful. If I can continue being a booky nerd for one more paragraph, let’s remember why John Proctor chooses to walk off to his death at the end of The Crucible.*** He’s happy to lie and say he’s a witch, as long as it’s verbally. But ask him to sign his name to the charges, and that’s where he draws the line. When you attach a name to something, that something gets imbued with power—sometimes for good, like in Meg’s case, or in ill, like in Proctor’s. He didn’t want his name, his very identity, stapled to a lie.

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These are tufts of coyote fur. I actually saw one trooping through Huber Woods one day. Told the rest of the nats and they didn’t believe me.

But the power of a name is good when it comes to nature. It gives us the ability to discern what’s around us, and can help us to relax. I think of earlier this year, when my friend Laura asked me to check the back of her property to see if she had any poison ivy. She wasn’t freaked out about it or anything; she’s just a gardener who’s out in the grass a lot, and was smart to want to know. And now she knows there isn’t any.

I love when my friend Lauren, a talented photographer, shows me a photo she took of a bird and asks its name, or gets excited when I name a flower she shot. She told me when she and her husband (a chef) go on hikes, her husband points out edible plants to their children, and often they all take a nibble. What a profoundly useful gift—to teach the kids to embrace the earth instead of to be afraid of it.

Bottom line: we’ve all gotten so detached from the earth that we have no idea what’s around us. Yesterday I picked wild crab apples and a little girl told me she thought they were cherries. Okay—she was three. Fair enough.

But an hour later an adult said the same thing to me. Cherries have a brief seasonal window, something like 2-3 weeks, in late spring. In other words, the adult was way off, and I’m sure it’s because supermarkets provide more or less the same produce all year round. I see this as a grave problem, and just goes to show I have a lot more work to do to educate. Not to spit in the eye of Madison Avenue (though I’m certainly not above it), but to re-acquaint, re-familiarize, and encourage people to see and feel and taste what’s growing in its own time. Because right now we’re lost in a void, and it scares me.

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These are wild strawberries (sadly, the ones without much flavor. Yellow flowers pre-berry denote no-flavor strawberries. It’s the white flowers you want for that incredible wild strawberry flavor. They’re my white whale).

On your next hike, take a reliable field guide with you. It’s cool, I’m telling you. Look up the plants and animals and birds you see. Name them.

And how wild would it be if you Naming them, getting to know them, getting comfortable with them, re-integrates us—helps to make us all whole again?

Or along with the field guide, take me along with you. You know I’d totally dig it.

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This is a groundhog. He and his ilk may look like Sherman tanks but they move like MiG-31 jets.

*Wow—made it to Sentence 4 before throwing in an editorial about today’s societal wussiness. Milestone.

**Hyperbole. I wouldn’t advise it. They’re really cute, but break easily.

***If you’re under 15 and haven’t read it in school yet: spoiler. Oops.

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Intelligent and Perceptive Reader: Wait, what? What happened to your early or mid-summer edible wild posts?

Me: Yeah. About that.

I was busy this summer. Most people claim work or childcare as their reasons for The Great Busy. Me, I crewed two shows back to back in July and spent August regrouping. Now here it is September, I’m late for my summer post, the honeysuckle is gone, I can’t wear white after Labor Day, and I’m irritated with myself. Next year I am doing a proper honeysuckle post with a recipe and everything. Syrup maybe. Just you wait.

In the meantime, here we are. Please keep in mind the advice I have given in previous edible wild posts:

1) Only eat a particular plant if you are 100% sure it’s the plant you’re after.

2) Don’t forage for plants off the side of the road because they’ve likely been blessed by household pets in a less than appetizing way.

3) Don’t forage for plants from neighbors’ yards unless you know they haven’t been sprayed and/or unless you are particular friends of the cops in your municipality.

In the picture above we have four lovely summer wild edibles common at the Jersey Shore and much of the Northeastern coastline. Clockwise from top left:

Beach plum (Prunus maritima)

I posted about this fruit a couple of summers ago in plum gig, and talked about my adventure foraging with my neighbor, Mr. Cook. He’s been picking these fruits all of his life (a solid 80 years or so, I am guessing). I gloated a little when I saw that one of Wikipedia’s shots was of beach plums on Sandy Hook, where he and I picked.

The plums are the size of red seedless grapes, and aren’t spectacular eaten out of hand. They’re best cooked with sugar to make jelly (Mr. Cook’s all-time favorite jelly) or in jam (what I like best).

Blackberry* (Rubus fruticosus)

Blackberries are in the Rose family. Fruits begin jade green, then become red, then a shiny black. When they’re really ripe, only one delicate tug is needed to have them fall into your hand. Blackberry canes (the thick stems on which they grow) are notoriously thorny, so go easy when picking or wear gloves.

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)

I first read about this succulent invasive about ten years ago, but it’s only recently that it’s become a bit of a darling in the culinary world. It’s lemony, can be eaten in its entirety—leaves, flowers and stems—and offers a hefty dose of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Best of all, you don’t have to grow it. I mean it. It’s probably all over your property right now, in plant beds, in sidewalk cracks, everywhere. The sprig in the pic above? Found growing happy and lush in the crack between the curb and street in front of my house. Purslane plants are the Kardashians of the plant world; they just won’t go away. But despite being inanimate, they’re higher on the useful scale.

Beach rose (Rosa rugosa)

These hardy plants grow in the dunes along the shoreline. Like all roses, the petals and the hips (coming in my fall post! To a WordPress account near you!) are edible. They’re thorny, like all of their rosy siblings and their cousin the blackberry. I’ve read that many beach roses smell wonderful. These didn’t have much of a scent, and the flavor was mild, like Bibb lettuce.

*”This article is about the fruit. For the smartphone and its manufacturer, see BlackBerry and BlackBerry (company).” –Wikipedia again. They’re so helpful.

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I learned a lot as I researched this post; mainly, that I need to make the radical decision to do all of my research early—like, say, before shooting. If I had, I would have made sure the lilac blossoms below were shot with the ones above. The way it is now, they look like they threw a Lego in the classroom and I put them in timeout.

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Totally hanging their heads.

Anyway. Part 2 of the edible wild series! The sun’s getting closer, it’s greening everything up, and lots of flowers that are blooming now are edible.

Some cheerful reminders:

1) Be sure that what you think you’re picking is what you are in fact picking.

2) Don’t pick from roadsides because dogs have a singular way of worshiping beauty in nature.

3) Don’t pick off other people’s lawns unless they’re pals who definitely don’t use pesticides, and besides you made them devil’s food cake pops last New Year’s Eve and they never said thank you.

Clockwise from top top:

Cherry (Prunus ‘Kwanzan’ Kanzan)

Cherry trees are in the Rose family. Look closely at a wild cherry blossom and a wild rose blossom; you’ll see the former looks like the latter’s kid sister. Pickled cherry blossoms and leaves are a treat in Japan, where an affinity with cherry trees is a sweet part of their nationalism. Note: Eat cherry leaves sparingly; they’re toxic in high amounts.

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cherry_blossom

*

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

I caved and included dandelion blossoms in this post despite the aggravation they gave me a few weeks ago while shooting my first ‘edible wild’ post. Today’s post needed a good blast of yellow, for which they should thank their lucky stars.

Blossoms can be eaten raw (fun in salads), or battered and fried. To me they taste grassy and slightly sweet.

umm.edu/altmed/articles/dandelion-000236.htm
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Violet (Viola reichenbachiana)

Violets are the cutie patooties of the baking world these days, especially when sugared and arranged on top of cakes. This practice admittedly smacks of Martha, which isn’t always appealing, but in this case it works. A couple of purple or white violets, which have a teeny splash of purple in the middle, look really cool on a cupcake.

I’d heard that violets have a peppery flavor, so I tried one this afternoon to check. It didn’t. Just tasted grassy. Then I thought I tasted a slight, late-in-the-game pepperiness, but it’s just as likely that the garlic I had at lunch was messing with my head. Don’t have garlic for lunch one day, taste a violet and tell me the deal. Their cousins are edible as well—the pansy tastes grassy and the Johnny-Jump-Up tastes like wintergreen. Blossoms and leaves are both edible.

americanvioletsociety.org/Cooking_N_Decorating/ViolaChef_01.htm

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Crab apple (Malus)

The apple is another member of the Rose family, and their blossoms are similar as well. These blossoms have a light, delicate flavor.

The twig shown was clipped from one of the wild trees that grow around the lake and provide the crab apples for my yummy jam every fall.

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malus

*

And in timeout we have:

Lilac (Syringa vulgaris)

I’ll admit I wouldn’t have known the lilac’s blossoms were edible if I hadn’t browsed around Anthropologie last Thursday and seen a book on recipes for edible flowers. Okay.

Intensely fragrant lilac blossoms can serve as a base for homemade syrups, jellies and infusions. But remember they’re like your great aunt who lives in Boca—she never, ever forgets your birthday, but smells as though she takes morning laps in Givenchy Dahlia Noir. A little goes a very long way.

whatscookingamerica.net/EdibleFlowers/EdibleFlowersMain.htm

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Seaweed on coral, Tortola

The recent warm days are making me think of barbecue season and the best barbecue I ever ate. Is it treason against the U.S. if I said it was on Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands?

Right, we’ll come back to that. First let’s establish setting.

Tortola and Peter Island are two of the delicious Caribbean islands which we visited in early 2008. I was coming out of the throes of a years-long illness which led, at different points, to assorted travel whims. At this point in my recovery, I needed a change of scenery, just for a long weekend. And if it included pale turquoise water sliced with royal blue and had a view of hazy green islands, the kind Peter Pan and Wendy flew across, all the better.

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Tortola isn’t really remote, but it feels as if it is. The customs office is the size of a two-car garage. Chickens run around like squirrels everywhere you go; one of our taxi drivers waited to let a mommy and her seven tawny-colored chicks cross the road.* And a rooster was our 5am wake-up call.**

Our hotel, Long Bay Beach, is the kind of place where the cooking staff picks guava off the tree growing outside your window, every suite has its own hammock, and dawn comes up pink over the water. One whole wall of our room, the one that faced the water, was a sliding screen door, some ten feet long. We left it open whenever we were in the room, loving the balmy wind so much that we even put shells and rocks on anything likely to blow away. One morning on our way to breakfast, a blue macaw flew right over our heads.

Dawn, Long Bay Beach, Tortola

Sand crab, Tortola

A very, very shy sand crab taken with a very, very good zoom.

Pelican, Tortola

A pelican we watched from our balcony as he dove up and down in the water, looking for fish.

Breakfast at the hotel was just my bag: fresh pineapple, banana, guava juice, cereal, yogurt and perfect homemade lemon poppy seed muffins.

First we took a day trip to Peter Island, population 1, because we planned to kayak from there to Dead Chest. This was the place where folklore says Blackbeard marooned 15 men–that’s a one-way island vacation in the middle of bloody nowhere—with just a bottle of rum between them. Everyone we spoke with on Peter Island told us it was nothing more than a giant rock, and dissuaded us from going.

Dead Chest Island, from Peter Island

There it is, across Deadman’s Bay–the appropriately dark island at left.

So we didn’t. Next time. But no worries; instead we hiked the island, which was all at once a glorious tropical Eden…

Peter Island, B.V.I.

Peter Island

and the American southwest, featuring spiky vegetation…

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…and spikier animals.

Sunning iguana, Peter Island

He didn’t budge in the 20 minutes we spent admiring him and his comrades on the rocks. Showboat.

The hills along the three-mile path we hiked were also home to mountain goats, skittish things that would tiptoe near you to get a better look, then would scamper away through the trees.

One more detail about the day trip to Peter Island is worth noting, and that’s the ferry ride. No sitting in the lower cabin and looking through the fogged-over windows for me. I only like ferries if they move at a really good clip and if I can stand right on the bow, letting the sea spray wash over my face and hair and dew-dropping the outermost layer of my clothes.*** This one did. And the view of the islands we passed was hypnotic.

On the way back from Peter Island to Tortola we shared the ferry with several locals returning home for the night. And we witnessed something so charming that it has stayed with me. Up on deck one of the gentlemen broke out some Dominoes and set them on a table. I deducted that this game was played on the ferry every night because other men fell in very smoothly, in a loose and easy choreography. Empty five-gallon buckets were upended for seats, and players joined and left from time to time, including a uniformed kid in charge of the ferry and a grizzled older sailor, an American ex-pat who now lived on Tortola. ‘I haven’t played in 25 years, but what the hell,’ he said, and stayed in for the rest of the ride back. What struck me most was how relaxed and comfortable everyone was with each other, and it was a reminder of how much joy is accessible in the simple. I could see why one would want to slide out of an old life, as if out of a jacket worn too thin at the elbows, and sink happily into a life like this.

Time to eat.

We asked our cabbie about the Bomba Shack, which Frommer’s listed as the ticket for barbecue in this part of the Caribbean. And apparently on Wednesdays and Sundays they offered all you can eat for $10/plate. Hello.

He stopped next to a set of shacks that looked as if they’d been decorated by a group of pre-teen surfers after a ten-box Mallomar binge.

Bomba Shack, Tortola

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How to explain this place? Here’s one way: The owners apparently have created a god of sorts called Bomba whose nature isn’t clear, and Google was no help. But you’re encouraged to offer sacrifices to it (note underwear, above).

Here’s another way: The Bomba Shack serves shroom-spiked tea when the moon is full.****And they give it to you for free because they aren’t allowed to sell it. The menu is scrawled onto plywood out front. Music—emanating from speakers taller than me—is cranked up to levels that could orbit Jupiter, and grill smoke and customers alike float between the shacks. We paid the cabbie right in the middle of the street and went looking for dinner.

The party is on one side of the street. There, to a very friendly American woman behind a counter, we shrieked that we wanted two plates’ worth; she grinned, took our money and gave us tickets. The cook (a single woman) and picnic tables are on the other side of the street.

You have a choice of barbecued chicken or ribs. Both come with corn on the cob and red beans with rice, and I’ll stop here to bring up a concern that I’m sure is swimming through your logic-loving minds: Exactly what kind of lunatics eat at an open-air shack on a dirt road, one whose owners hand out drugs and worship a deity with a preference for women’s panties?

I’m not saying you don’t have a point. But we did it. One bite of that meal and all sense floated out to sea with the grill smoke. The barbecue sauce had a no-BS kick, and the meat from the chicken and the ribs slid off the bone with no embarrassment whatsoever. It was delectable—one of the great meals of our lives. We shared a table with some amiable Australians, licked our fingers and grinned at each other. Lunacy loves company.

Then we crossed the street to watch the surfers cut through waves shimmering from the apricot-colored sunset, soaking even further into a place where the night wind smells like earth and salt water.

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*For the obvious reason.

**Click the rooster link. Long Bay Beach is yellow–but a muted yellow. Not a biggie.

***My first name comes from the Latin word for ‘sea’ (mars). The genitive is ‘maris’ (of the sea). Put an ‘a’ on the end and you make it feminine: Girl of the sea. Yes, I’m a mermaid. My parents didn’t do this intentionally, but there it is.

****No, we didn’t. The moon wasn’t full, anyway.

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