When the pandemic pointed out that my flagship restaurant, Chef & the Farmer, in small-town Kinston, North Carolina, was only viable if people traveled, I imagined a life running a feed and seed store focusing on houseplants instead. When a member of my biological family exposed my work family to COVID-19 days before Christmas, I conjured all my favorite memories of Christmases past and projected them right there onto the present. And when the walls of our collective confinement nagged like a mosquito at my ear, I walked the well-worn mental path to my perfect day at the beach. Daydreaming has long been my particular brand of coping and hoping. So in the long, low moments of the pandemic, when I just knew I’d never really travel again; when I virtually slapped myself for not trying more versions of the pink flash-fried shrimp that time in Nerano, Italy; when I was certain all my friendships outside my pod had withered, I fantasized about a sublime day in the sun and sand.
I grew up a little more than an hour from North Carolina’s Crystal Coast. Some people claimed you could smell the salt air of Emerald Isle, Atlantic Beach, and Pine Knoll Shores from my family’s farm in Deep Run, but because summer was tobacco season and my parents met all forms of leisure with disapproval, we spent our sun-drenched days in a field or a barn and our tans started at the elbow. In fact, the first time I set foot on a beach of any kind, I was nine years old and visiting Ocracoke with a friend’s family in January. It was cold and foggy, desolate and honestly kind of spooky—not the day at the shore I’d envisioned.
Now in my daydreams I wake up on Bald Head Island in June: Bald Head because an island that doesn’t allow cars feels far away, but not so far I have to fly and be reminded of too many trips cross-country hauling food to this festival or that fundraiser; June because it’s the beginning of summer, the bundle of weeks when the season holds the promise of many more days just like this one. The windows are open so I can hear the waves crashing. I can see them, too. My second-floor room looks out onto where the Cape Fear River meets the Atlantic. Cargo ships as tall as skyscrapers and tugboats tiny and blue move through the channel and remind me that some people are working, yet I am not.
Downstairs I find my twin tweens, usually allergic to self-starting of any kind, smearing sunscreen over every inch of their exposed skin. I suggest we ride bikes to breakfast because I suggest we ride bikes everywhere and they always say no. Now they leap for their helmets without protest. We are the early birds and the traffic-free road our worm as we glide through the speckled light of the maritime forest.
I decided in my early twenties that breakfast would be the best meal to eat out while at the beach. My sisters, vacation amateurs like me, had married people by then who had been going on normal getaways their whole lives. My dad still wouldn’t dream of spending a night away from the farm, so we began renting a house on Emerald Isle for a week every summer—he could drive down for supper and drive back to Deep Run to sleep. But with no understanding of how to properly engage with the shore, we woke up day after day, brewed pots of coffee, and talked about what we should do when we finally got motivated. In my mind, breakfast at a restaurant would get us out, get us started, and perhaps give us ideas for how bona fide beach people behaved.
Alas, the breakfast-out beach ritual never took. We still piddle inside half the day. But in my ideal scenario, my kids and I park our bikes just outside Yana’s in Swansboro. (Yes, we jumped from Bald Head to Swansboro. It’s my daydream and I’ll jump if I want to.) To my kids’ delight, there is no line. Both my children, who hate to make good choices in front of me, order a side of fruit with their peach fritters, and I settle into the thing I always want to order at diners but never do: two eggs over easy, white toast, bacon, and hash browns. And it’s fine that it’s nothing fancy, because I’m not there for restaurant research, I’m there to escape. Since March 2020, I’ve permanently closed the Boiler Room, the Cheers of my town. I’ve overhauled Chef & the Farmer. I’ve opened a biscuit and hand-pie shop in Charleston, South Carolina; launched a PBS series I’ve cared about like a baby, three years in the making; and finished writing, shooting for, and promoting my second cookbook. Phew. Change my order to peach fritters with a side of cheeseburger. Then, over short glasses of OJ and multiple cups of weak coffee, we chat about the day ahead and how grateful we are to be here at the beach sans the iPads and Xboxes my born-again angels elected to leave back home.
From there, I imagine I’m an organized domestic planner. As a restaurateur and general people pleaser, I know how to put on a special experience. Yet in my family life, I’m lucky if I muster a B-plus at anything besides skin care. Here, though, I think ahead, make lists, shop in advance. I’m able to connect the dots to next-level activities because I laid the dots beforehand. Picnics, for instance: There’s hardly an event I’d rather host. But the packing, the planning, the schlepping—all of that is why I only go on picnics in my head. Not today. Today we stop at Roberts Grocery in Wrightsville Beach for a pint of chicken salad. We swing by the Friendly Market in Morehead City to grab pimento cheese and a tomato pie. And back at the beach house, as everybody suits up, I cut cold Bogue Sound watermelon into perfect cubes. I finally break out the vintage tiffin box I bought but have never used, and stack the chicken I fried last night below watermelon with flaky salt. Above that sits the adult watermelon soaked with tequila and lime, then the chicken salad and pimento cheese sandwiches on white bread. The tomato pie fits perfectly on top.
Daydreams are no place for dragging chairs, games, umbrellas, vintage tiffin boxes, and coolers down to the beach. As many times as I’ve tried, I can’t reimagine that act as anything other than hot and laborious. Instead, we load up our four-wheel drive and find a spot right on the shore of Ocracoke, only a few yards from the patch of sand we’ll call ours. It’s low tide, when shallow puddles make safe cool places for kids to play and adults to lie. I grab my book, a juicy romance. Just as I reach the best part, my children run over. I grimace behind my sunglasses. Usually, it takes at least fifteen minutes before they ask to be entertained. But on this day, for the first time ever, my codependent twins have made some friends right out there in the wild. They don’t need me after all.
I read. I swim. I catnap. We eat fried chicken sandwiches, slurp booze-soaked fruit, and people-watch until the light shifts and the breeze gives an edge to the heat of my suntan.
I’m the kind of tired some might mistake for post-exercise exertion, but those of us well versed in sun and sand recognize as joy-fatigue. I shower, moisturize with something faintly coconut, and put on a cute dress because a good suntan deserves it. I serve simple snacks—cheese and crackers, boiled shrimp, crab dip and chips. I cook something outside. I know it should be fish because I’m Vivian Howard and no one can fathom I cook anything but fish at the beach, but instead I grill steak, bake potatoes, boil sweet corn, and slice tomatoes. Someone else is handling the music, so I’m not worried if people are enjoying the nineties hip-hop/Taylor Swift mishmash that is my default. There’s a lot of laughing, fueled by a fair amount of slightly effervescent white wine. I’m in a rocking chair with a plate of steak on my lap and a glass of that wine in my hand. As the sun sets on my daydream, casting the last of its pink light across my kids’ silhouettes, I soak it up, squeezing every last drop of its magic into a little reservoir that shifts my attitude and makes the mundanity of most days feel like a day at the beach.