Above: Metro Monthly Publisher Mark C. Peyko on the beach in 1965.
By MARK C. PEYKO | METRO MONTHLY PUBLISHER
Food memories have the power to take you back through time and space. Vacation food memories – especially ones experienced as a child – can linger forever.
Because our family traveled annually from northeastern Ohio to Wildwood, N.J., the journey required a stockpile of provisions – a large, carefully packed cooler, a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, and a Kellogg’s Jumbo Assortment of cereals for morning. The trip was a multi-state journey that also included an afternoon stop in rural Maryland, so we needed proper fortification.
When we were younger, our dad packed the family car in early evening and drove most of the night. As we approached the eastern edge of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, he pulled into a service plaza to get a few hours of rest before sunrise.
A little after daybreak, the children were ready to get down to the business of breakfast – in the close quarters of the car! While our parents had coffee, we competed for our favorite cereals. Because the wax paper in those little fold-out boxes had little patience for milk, breakfast was quick and deliberate. After some freshening up and a quick head count, we were on our way.
The visit to Maryland was really for our mom. It gave her the opportunity to see her two elderly bachelor uncles and deliver boxes and coffee cans filled with cookies. For the kids, the detour meant a temporary slowdown in the trip’s trajectory. By late afternoon, we were hot, restless and more than ready to get to the shore.
Once we saw signs for New Jersey’s Garden State Parkway, the trip was back on track. At this point – with our travel rations ebbing – we started eating more like the locals. We stopped at roadway farm stands for Jersey tomatoes, peaches and Bing cherries. While childhood travel was always an adventure, there was a point – always on the way to the beach resort – where time slowed to a crawl. It was hot, the traffic didn’t move fast enough and the landscape seemed unchanged for miles. But then you noticed sand on the edge of the roadway and the air cooled and freshened.
By nightfall, as we approached our destination’s exit at Rio Grande Avenue, our excitement rose. We were exhausted, yet exhilarated. We rolled down the car windows to feel the night air. The glow of the boardwalk could be seen in the distance. As we pulled up to the cottage, the first leg of our trip was over. We needed rest, but were almost too excited to sleep.
Our first full day at the resort was always the bridge between the familiar and the new. Before the age of social media, that meant exploring the island and seeing firsthand what had changed from the previous summer. It was also the bridge between our summertime lives in Ohio and the excitement of being a Wildwood vacation family.
Like most families on vacation, we had our favorite haunts and rituals. In the 1960s and 70s, that meant visiting the Marine Italian Bakery on New Jersey Avenue after a day at the beach. Although certain vacation memories have faded a little around the edges, going to the bakery for doughnuts in late afternoon has not.
The bakery was housed in one of those white-washed modern buildings that heralded the post-war tourist boom in the Wildwoods. Earlier photographs show a traditional, medium-bodied brick building, but when we first saw the bakery as children, it stood blindingly white in an ample parking lot. A few large picture windows let daylight into the retail area, but by mid-afternoon it wasn’t direct. A screen door to the left of the bakery cases let an occasional breeze pass through.
By the time we arrived, around 4 or 4:30 p.m., it was probably near day’s end. Still, some doughnuts remained in the cases. Not a lot – just enough for the six in my family, plus a few more.
The doughnuts served as a small indulgence before settling in for dinner. And after a day at the beach, we were ravenous. Still, as a child, I remember handling my powdered doughnut with care. Although all the bakery’s doughnuts were light and airy, the raspberry-filled were a little heavier. The first bite typically yielded a little filling or none at all, but by the second, you were in heaven. The doughnut’s filling was sweet, but not overpowering. More like a raspberry jam. And the ratio of pastry to filling always seemed perfect.
That memory is over 40 years old, but it always spurs recollections of other things. How clean the bakery was, the flight of steps that led to an upstairs apartment, and the shop’s relaxed, end-of-day mood. The couple who ran the bakery seemed old and Old World. And although we were probably some of the last people they saw before closing, they never rushed us.
As I get older, I wonder if I’m exaggerating the importance of that doughnut. Was it really that good? Or is it just inextricably tied to the memory of being in that bakery with my dad and siblings? Was it the individual elements or the total experience? Can they be separated? Of course not.
Back at the cottage, with the daily paper spread out and damp from my bathing suit, I read the comics and patiently waited for dinner. I’m not sure if my doughnut ever lasted the ride up Rio Grande, but it doesn’t really matter.
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