The weather outside may look like January — heavy grey clouds; rain on the freeway that makes the truck to our right loom larger with its spray; nippy air — but it really is June. The light, no matter how dim, is lingering longer into the evening than it did a month before. All the stores advertise sales for dad and grad. And just this morning, at the Market, I saw the first cherries grown in Washington State available for sale.
It’s finally starting to be summer.
I’ve been thinking about summer a lot, lately. The joys, the bounty, the unexpected pleasures. The roaming season. The months of meandering. Growth without needing to be measured.
Little Bean will be a summer baby. The Chef and I both were, as well. In fact, LB will be born just before his birthday, and about two weeks before mine. For years to come, those few weeks at the height of summer will be a time of celebration, gluten-free cakes, and a cacophony of green leaves in the garden. This summer, if the weather ever turns warmer, after Little Bean is born, perhaps we’ll spend sleepless nights walking around the backyard with LB in our arms, looking at the moon and listening to the grass grow beneath our feet.
(Thank you to our friend Laurie for that poetic suggestion of how to deal with a crying baby.)
Summer has always been the time of bounty for me. Most of my life, simply having three months off from school (first as a student, and then as a teacher) was enough to make me want to wake up with a hallelujah every morning. Now that I create my own schedule, I see how the earth unfurls itself in these oh-so-short months. It’s as though all the energy lying dormant under ground during the winter explodes outward into summer. Every bit of produce I crave, all year long, is available at the farmers’ markets in twelve short weeks: fat heirloom tomatoes; plump raspberries; bitter arugula; cool cucumbers; dark juicy blackberries. Miss a week of the market and miss a week of the summer. It’s a time of almost embarrassing blowsiness, like Blanche DuBois in too much red lipstick.
Oh god, I love summer. We can’t wait to share it with Little Bean.
When I was a kid, summer meant barbequed steaks, long swims in chlorinated water, Bing cherries, late mornings waking to the sunlight on my face, iceberg lettuce with ranch dressing, red flag smog alert days, listening to the Beatles on my headphones, and tall glasses of lemonade.
But a really decadent pleasure of summer? The one I looked forward to most at the end of a long, hot day? A cold glass bowl of shrimp cocktail.
We didn’t eat it often. But sometimes, on special occasions, my mom piled tiny pink shrimp into a parfait glass and smothered them with red cocktail sauce. It never mattered that the sauce poured out from a bottle. What mattered was eating as many shrimp as possible. Damn that glass for emptying so fast.
After I went gluten-free, I found out the hard way that many commercial cocktail sauces are now forbidden to me. The Chef and I were at the ocean, two summers ago, in a little beach shack seafood place. Outside, in hand-written letters, a worn wooden sign reading Restaurant lay up against large rocks, a man-made driftwood, quite a distance from the shore. The menu felt sticky underneath our fingers, one page laminated with nothing much on it but seafood simply prepared. Everything had been pulled from the ocean the day before. We stared at each other across the table, moony-eyed and taking photographs of each other’s hands, the engagement rings on our fingers new to the touch.
He persuaded me to try oysters. Until that day, I had never let one slither down my throat. Early in my childhood, I had been traumatized by the memory of my slovenly uncle (no longer part of the family, thank goodness) at a buffet. Always greedy and slightly seedy, he walked to a table piled with ice and dotted with fresh oysters. In just a few minutes, he plucked enough of them from the display to mound his plate high with the craggy shells. Unfortunately, he sat across from me at the table. I watched in horror as he threw back his head, opened up his mouth, and shoved one oyster after another into his gaping maw. He smacked his lips after each one. I lost my appetite after that. (And who eats oyster at a buffet?) I could never imagine eating an oyster, since it meant looking like that man.
The Chef laughed when I told him this story, and then he ordered us oysters. “We need to get you past that,” he said. In order to make the first briny, still-swimming-of-the-sea mollusk seem more appealing to me, he dolloped some cocktail sauce onto the slithery flesh. And then, slowly, he slid the oyster into his mouth, savoring it, before swallowing. Okay, he made it look sexy. Much better than that uncle. I tried one too, keeping my mind as open as my lips. To my surprise, I loved the texture, the taste only a glimmer on the back of the tongue, since I swallowed the oyster whole. I looked at him, in pure pleasure, and said, “Give me another.”
Too bad the cocktail sauce was bottled, and it contained soy sauce. I didn’t think to ask. I spent the next two days sick.
(Still, I’ve eaten oysters many times since. I won’t let one little gluten episode ruin my pleasure in food.)
I don’t want to go all the rest of my summers without the tangy taste of cocktail sauce on my tongue. And we want to share with Little Bean, someday, the pleasure of a cold glass, salty large prawns, and the wash of red peppery lemony sauce.
We have no way of knowing what Little Bean’s memories of summer will be through the years. But shrimp cocktail, I have a feeling, will be one of them.
Homemade cocktail sauce
Really, it couldn’t be any easier to make this if you tried. That bottle seems more convenient, but once you stir these five ingredients together, and dip your finger into the tangy red sauce, you won’t reach for the bottle anymore. A bit of bite, a peppery lick, a little lemon, and some zing at the end — oh my goodness, bring the summer here.
I much prefer raw, grated horseradish here, but you can use prepared horseradish too. Beware — some prepared horseradish has gluten in it. That, and about 12 ingredients, some of which I don’t know how to pronounce. But prepared horseradish is more intensified than the raw stuff, so be sure to use a little less, unless you want your mouth to fall off.
1/2 cup ketchup (find the best one you can, with the fewest ingredients)
4 tablespoons raw horseradish, grated (or 2 tablespoons prepared horseradish)
1 teaspoon lemon zest, finely minced
several dashes of Tabasco, depending on your energy that day
1/4 teaspoon each kosher salt and cracked black pepper
Mix all the ingredients together. Allow the cocktail sauce to marinate for a bit (at least a couple of hours), coaxing the flavors to mingle together.