Chincoteague, Va. -- You spend a week at the beach cooking, eating, bobbing in the ocean, and you learn some things.
You learn the difference between a cobbler and a betty. A cobbler has the sweetened crust on top of the fruit. A betty has layers of fruit and crust.
This distinction becomes useful when you have polished off one bowl of the peach-mango ecstasy and want another. If, when praising the dish to the heavens and asking for seconds, you call it a "cobbler," you get corrected. You might even get referred to the source of the dessert and the distinction, "Cobblers, Crumbles & Crisps," by Linda Zimmerman and Peggy Mellody ( Clarkson Potter $11).
But if you call the dish a "betty," you get an appreciative smile from the cook and a bigger second helping.
You learn that shelling enough fresh shrimp to feed six is a labor-intensive enterprise. After a while you figure out that this is a two-person job. The two of you get a couple of beers, grab a couple of seats at the kitchen table, then shell shrimp and talk.
You learn that when these shrimp have been cooked in garlic and olive oil and covered in a sauce made from home-grown tomatoes, an optical illusion occurs. When you were shelling them, their numbers seemed massive. But when you are eating them, their ranks look thin.
You learn that you can't really fricassee a chicken successfully on a hibachi because you regularly have to rearrange the chicken around on the grill. If you don't, some parts of the chicken will be fricasseed and others will be raw.
You learn that when you use the leftover chicken as crab bait, it gets rave reviews both from the crabs and from the scads of minnows that dart about the shallows. The crabs and minnows do not seem to have a preferred method of chicken preparation. They attack all poultry parts, fricasseed or not.
You learn, once again, that wading in the shallows of a bay is one of life's more pleasurable sensations, ranking right up there with kneading bread dough.
When the crabs and minnows nip your ankles, you are reminded that while you may regard yourself as a fisherman, when you wade into their neighborhood, these critters regard you as bait.
You learn that after an afternoon swimming in ocean with your kids, swallowing salt water, nothing tastes better than a very cold beer.
You are reminded that the best pies are ones made by your
neighbors. And that if you want to save the last piece of a neighbor-made lemon meringue pie, you had better put a warning sign on it. If you don't, even the most trustworthy people, like your father, will find that stray piece of pie in the fridge and, while the household slumbers, will eat it for breakfast.
You learn that a week in the outdoors does things to your brain. That after you have shared a sluice with a big blue heron, been startled by a herd of thundering wild ponies as both of you made your way to the beach, been greeted by a school of dolphins rolling as you arrive at the ocean and, on the bike ride back to your beach house, been confronted by a fawn that hopped out of the woods and gamboled across the street, you begin thinking that nature is only benign.
The mosquitoes bring you back to the realization that nature can be as voracious as a Salomon Brothers trader.
You learn about the storms, like Bob, the Class 3 hurricane that lurked out in the ocean before finally turning north and walloping New England.
According to the statistics kept by the National Hurricane Center in Coral Gables, Fla., Bob behaved according to form. A hurricane like Bob will come within 75 nautical miles of Ocean City about once every 110 years, the stats say. Bob won't even register in these stats, because he passed 100 miles off the Maryland-Virginia shore.
You learn that according to 1989 data kept by the state health department, more people died in Maryland from salmonella food poisoning (2) than from hurricanes (0).
And so the next morning, when the leaden ceiling that accompanied Bob has been replaced by brilliant blue skies and crisp white clouds, you learn to feel grateful.
And you celebrate with a vacation breakfast -- chocolate chip cookies and coffee.