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Neman: What's the point of beach cooking when nobody can eat?
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Neman: What's the point of beach cooking when nobody can eat?

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Right about now, I am very much missing the vacation that wasn’t.

Every year toward the end of the summer, my wife and I join friends for a week on the beach. I love it all. I come prepared with an armload or two of books, and spend a glorious week stretched out on the hot sand. I read to my heart’s content, splash about in the ocean, sip fruity rum drinks (something I never do when there is not an ocean nearby), lose at Scrabble and, with my wife, cook up a storm.

The cooking is one of the parts of the vacation I look forward to the most. There is something uniquely satisfying about cooking a good meal for others. It is basically the only thing I can do well, and I enjoy showing off my abilities to friends who otherwise do not have much reason to find me impressive.

In addition, by the universally accepted rule of vacations, whoever does the cooking does not have to do the dishes. And I would much rather cook for two hours than clean up afterward for 30 minutes.

Plus, we get a week’s worth of good meals out of it. Win-win.

I don’t mean to imply that our friends do not do any of the cooking. They do. But we make most of the dinners as well as the unplanned snacks: my homemade pico de gallo is something of a tradition, and who else is going to make the fresh chocolate bread for breakfast?

But this year, for reasons of COVID, there was no trip to the beach. And while I regret that terribly, a little part of me is secretly glad. The cooking part.

The problem is, we are getting old and infirm. Even the younger ones among us are getting infirm. And that makes cooking for the group harder and harder still.

One of us is allergic to fish, which is practically a tragedy when at the beach. She can eat all of the shellfish she wants — which is important when another tradition is buying a half-bushel of ridiculously overpriced steamed crabs for dinner — but she can’t have fish that swims.

No mahi-mahi. No tuna. No black sea bass.

No salmon. It’s not native to the East Coast, but still: No salmon.

Another one of our number, after years of unexplained-but-worsening stomach troubles, has finally found relief with a low-FODMAP diet. FODMAP stands for Fermentable Oligo-, Di-, Mono-saccharides and Polyols, which I’m sure I don’t have to tell you are short chain sugars that are not easily digested or absorbed in the intestines.

Basically, she experiences tremendous discomfort or pain if she eats a wide variety of foods, many of which are exactly the kinds of thing I like to cook at the beach: sweet corn, onions, garlic, mushrooms, peaches (her husband makes a peach pie at the beach every year), cherries, watermelon, breads, cereals, pastas, crackers, nuts, milk, cream, ice cream, custard and soft cheese.

That’s rough, and this list is by no means all-inclusive. But at least she can eat hard cheese.

Which is precisely one of the things another of our group, her son-in-law, has discovered he cannot eat. After years of unexplained-but-worsening stomach troubles, he is now staying away from all dairy products and all gluten. No cakes, breads, pies. Nothing made with wheat.

Seriously, what is there left to cook?

These are not fad diets, either; these are restrictions our small group has to follow in order to stay healthy. They are not going away, and they will probably get worse.

So part of me — the cooking part — is glad that I am missing the vacation that wasn’t. But I miss the rest of it: the sun, the sand, the surf, the books.

But not the losing at Scrabble. That part I can do without.

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