When the Moment Is the Most Important Ingredient

Kitchn Diary: Anne in South Carolina

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Close your eyes. Imagine the best meal you've ever eaten. Maybe you were in Paris, lingering in a cafe just one block from the chic flat your friend lent you for the week. Perhaps you were in New York or San Francisco, where the chef boasted a Michelin star or three, and each course was perfectly paired with a new glass of wine. The meal might have been enjoyed in a friend's home, your friend who always chooses beautiful ingredients and treats dinner parties as art (which, incidentally, they are).

My best meal? Came from an Igloo cooler, y'all! It was delivered by an angel, to me and my two miserable offspring.

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Most parents (actually all, or you're a liar) have been there. You're having a great time, the kids are playing together and laughing, and all is right with the world. So right, in fact, that you forget how quickly things can go oh-so-wrong. It's all fun and games, until someone loses an eye their dang mind. Which is totally contagious.

My oldest sons were five and two years old. (The third was not even a twinkle in my eye. Had to let the memories of toddlerhood fade before we had him, years later.) We were at the beach for a few days without my husband, who had stayed home to work (lucky bum). I was so proud of myself, because I had gotten all three of us up early and out of the house, fully fed with a healthy breakfast and sunscreened from head to toe, ready to enjoy an early day by the sea.

We walked cheerily to the beach from my mother-in-law's house where we were staying, about ten minutes, and I brought everything I needed for a couple of hours in the sand. I had water, sunscreen, buckets, towels, a couple of small snacks, and — because I live in a fantasy world — a book for myself. It was over 100°F out, but we were fine, basking in the glow of South Carolina sun. I mentally patted myself on the back. "What a great mother I am! Just look at those well behaved, adorable children!" The boys were finally old enough to actually play together and they were having a blast.

Until they weren't. Parenting hubris is the worst.

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Honestly? It was my fault. In my heart, I knew it was time to leave, probably about an hour before the sandpiper crap hit the fan. They were bound to get hungry. And start punching each other. And crying, sand mingling with the mucus running out of their noses, while I stood by, powerless to stop the madness, paralyzed, when I should have been madly shoving everything back into the beach bag and dragging them home with super human strength. But I was hungry, too. And that sand mingling with mucus? I didn't want to go anywhere near that. But it all happened so fast. I panicked. Then I whimpered.

At first, I thought it was a mirage. Or was it my lovely aunt, who had a house on the beach, walking toward us? With an Igloo cooler. I didn't care what was in the cooler, I just knew it was my salvation. Dear, wonderful Aunt Kathy, who had raised three children of her own, knew exactly what we needed.

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She opened the cooler to reveal three turkey sandwiches, some chips, three bottles of water, and two bag juice drinks, lovingly placed over a bed of sparkling, cold ice. As if this weren't perfect enough, there was an ice cold, forbidden treat nestled in that ice. Oh, sweet nectar. Never has a Diet Coke tasted so delicious. A thirty dollar glass of wine on a patio in Provence wouldn't have been an improvement.

Those cold turkey sandwiches on white bread, with the thinnest swipes of mayonnaise to hold them together, were perfection. Along with the icy bags of juice, sweating with condensation that cooled and rinsed angry little hands, and chilled bags of chips, they had magical powers. Tears dried and energy was restored. The boys had the strength to get back in the ocean to wash away the sandy mucus. The meal in that cooler transformed our little crew. And I was a good mother again.

Do I sit around craving plain turkey sandwiches and juice bags? Well, no. I think about food a lot, and write about it, which makes me think about food even more. I shop with care at the farmers' market and I've been known to take way too long to order at a restaurant, lest I somehow miss the best dish. Whenever I get too obsessed, I think about the Igloo cooler, and the beautiful meal Aunt Kathy prepared for us. Sometimes, the best meals are served exactly when you need them most. And they are delicious.

What was your favorite unexpected meal? And have you ever been trapped on the beach with two screaming children? Not so much fun, is it? Hope your summer is going better!

(Image credits: Anne Wolfe Postic; Flickr user Elise Ramsey under CC BY 2.0; Flickr user Elise Ramsey under CC BY 2.0)