In Underrated, we review the ordinary rituals we build around food. Next up: eating fish and chips with a side of sand.
Eating on the beach is an impractical choice. The wind blows sand into food with ease, seagulls will not respect your boundaries, and everything feels sticky to the touch. Still, this evening my family carries our haul of fish and chips past the groups eating their meals straight-backed at real tables featuring plastic cups of Sauvignon Blanc and toward the ocean. Our fried food is swaddled in off-white paper like a newborn coming home. We stop at the border between sidewalk and sand, and even my dad, who eats pizza with a knife and fork, understands we must remove our shoes and feel the warm grains nestle snugly around our toes.
Sitting cross-legged near the water without towels, we watch the hermit crabs scuttle into their holes. And with only fingers to eat our pile of food, we let any sense of dinner decorum crumble. We dig our heels deeper into the sand until we uncover the damp, cool pockets still wet from the morning tide. We tear into steaming hunks of cod, shower everything in lemon juice, and let all the crumbs tumble onto the paper, now almost transparent with oil drippings. The breeze is thick and briny and it makes us giddy, a little bit wild. We’re all grown, but for now my Australian family are toddlers; sticky and laughing.
The mix of salty air and fried food offers a waft of possibility, like we’re at a theme park of nature’s making. Our experience is almost entirely sensory: The crash of the waves. Tea splash of sunscreen as it hurtles out of a tube. (My own red face smolders under the last sputters of sunlight.) whizz of frisbees and the crack of a cricket ball flying off a wooden bat. Then the inevitable: The caws of a colony of gulls circling hungrily above our mauled dinner. In what world, my dudes?
In this childlike reverie nobody cares who was supposed to do the dishes last night. Or who racked up the international phone bill. Or who is responsible for the rogue grains of sand that are now grinding between all of our molars. We reach for benevolent explanations to make sense of one another. We aren’t wounded or agitated. There are plenty of reasons for any earlier tantrums. Maybe mum didn’t sleep well. Dad’s allergies are playing up. My brother is stressed at work. I dunk a handful of thick-cut yellow chips into the creamy tartar sauce and shovel them into my mouth.
Away from the decency of knives and forks, this break in normalcy, this ritualistic mess, is what levels us. In our very serious world, eating fish and chips on the beach erodes everything that holds it together. It throws out all rules of adulthood, its anxieties, its niceties; what’s left is just the unspoken grace to make a screaming mess of everything. To claw, to spill, to build sandcastles mid-meal. Then, just as quickly, to flop onto our backs and make shapes in the clouds or wonder at the first stars speckling the violet sky. Here, on the edge of land, we’re enjoying the pure, primal pleasure of the experience. The joy of being nonsensical together, just for the sake of it.
Soon, it’s over. The sun has almost dipped beneath the green mountains lining the coastline behind us. Just a few of the soggy chips are left; I’m the only one who loves those. Suddenly, dad is scrunching the paper into a ball. My brother is draining the last of his cheap beer. Mum is rubbing her hands on a wet wipe. We walk towards the car, splashing our sandy feet under a rusty tap and sliding back into our shoes. My heart sinks, but we’ll be back. Fish and chips will be there, always the same: salty, abundant, ready to make us ravenous for life once more.