August was always the most magical month for my family. Every August, we loaded our car up “to the gills” (Jeanne’s words, not mine), and carefully backed it on to a ferry boat in Point Judith, Rhode Island. We then climbed to the top deck to eagerly search the horizon for our first annual view of Block Island.
If you know me, you have surely grown tired of my tales of Block Island. (It has been likened to Alyson Hannigan’s character in American Pie, “One time…at band camp!”) However, so many important moments of my life unfolded on this tiny island. This is where I learned to ride a bike, transformed jetties into cities, and experienced the pure joy of summer romance. It’s also where I first learned of my Grandmother’s death, and –most important of all— married Jeff, my sweet, gentle husband. It’s where we scattered Mom’s ashes.
Block Island has also bestowed me with many friendships. The connections I formed there are countless, spanning from playmates to college buddies to fellow parents at the beach. However, perhaps the most precious and influential group are the folks we met at the Surf Hotel –a funky Victorian building located on the beach with a lobby brimming with porcelain dolls, and heavy mahogany furniture. The Surf was an acquired taste, appealing only to those who did not require amenities expected in 20th century hotels (Forget 21st). Yet I loved it. Mainly because of the eclectic group of people it attracted each year.
Our friends at the Surf included suburban families, urban couples, and elderly individuals. But none of that mattered. I would sit on the porch and talk to adults about real topics, be it art, politics, faith or just what made us laugh. It was as though the timeless quality of the Surf magically erased the barriers of age. I received my most valuable education from these friendships and their varied perspectives. Namely, that there are many ways to live well.
May my children be blessed with such a lesson.
One friend was Peter Heineman. An artist in Manhattan, Peter was constantly puttering around with various projects. He would walk the shores of Block Island for hours, scavenging bits of shells or garbage that struck his interest. Each year, he pounded out postcards on an old-fashioned typewriter and sent them off to friends and family back. Peter studied the world carefully through intense blue eyes.
When I was a kid, Peter was something of an enigma to me. He didn’t speak much, and told stories about his Depression-era childhood that often terrified me. I felt more comfortable around his wife, Marie, who organized amazing art projects for the kids and made you laugh until you cried. Yet, I later learned that Peter had spent those years carefully and lovingly watching my brother and I grow.
About five years ago, I was the lucky recipient of a Peter Heineman postcard. Typed in classic courier print, it read like poetry:
“when you were small it seemed you only ate one hot dog every other day. a casual observer might have worried some a tiny girl who subsisted on one hot dog every other day, but your parents never made a fuss about it and you grew up maybe even to eat a greater variety of menus. Now certainly at your New York [wedding] reception there was a plethora of food types. I certainly gorged myself as I usually do and have done. Born in 1931 depression baby people were thrilled that I cleaned my plate and looked around for more while other kids hemmed and hawed over oddments like peas or asparagus or clams or spinach. I was always happy to wipe my plate clean. Other mothers would say to their dispirited kids. “Look at Petey, boy look he’s eaten all his broccoli and liver! why can’t you be like little Petey?” might have worked as a kid, but it’s a hard act to follow in your 70s. but that’s probably something you don’t have to worry about. Best, P"
He had struck a chord. At the time, my own daughter was in a phase of eating one chicken finger per day, creating a whirlwind of anxiety in my house. Peter reminded me of something invaluable: This too shall pass. My mom was never a fan of forcing kids to eat, and I wound up loving food (sometimes too much). Peter held this history close to his heart.
Today, Peter is battling a rare cancer. Sad as I am, as I glance over this postcard, I am reminded of his singular take on the world and his quiet love for my family. He has made a difference, and for that I am thankful.
And, of course, there was the food. Block Island is a place for big, casual communal dinners, many of which we shared with Marie and Peter. Marie used to go clamming in the Great Salt Pond. She and my mom would serve Marie's slippery treasures iced on the Surf porch. (So gross, I thought).
In recent years, I have concocted my own recipe that incorporates clams, shrimp, tomatoes and zucchini. The combination creates a briny broth that’s wonderful with pasta or crusty bread. To me, it’s the perfect way to honor Block Island in its late summer glory. Clams are still widely available at East Coast farmers markets, so don’t be shy to try this one now.
Late Summer Seafood Medley
1 Tbsp, butter
2 plum tomatoes (cut into eighths )
1 zucchini (cut in 1 inch strips)
½ cup, chopped onion
¼ cup, fresh basil, coarsely chopped (optional)
1 cup, dry white wine
½ cup, chicken broth
Clams (roughly four per person)
½ lb of shrimp
Salt and pepper
1. Wash clams and set aside.
2. Peel, devein and wash shrimp, and set aside
3. Heat butter in deep dished frying pan on medium high heat, and add onions. Cook until translucent.
4. Add zucchini. Cook for 8 minutes or until softened.
5. Add tomatoes. Cook for 8 minutes, and then add half the wine. Bring to a boil.
6. Add clams and cover. Reduce heat to medium and let simmer, adding liquid as broth cooks down.
7. Once clams have opened, add shrimp. Cook for about 2 to 3 minutes until pink.
8. Mix in basil, salt and pepper to taste, and serve.
Serve in a bowl as a stew/soup. Or serve over pasta.
Invite a lot of friends and laugh.