I always feel a little desperate on the eve of September, as if I need to start storing sunshine in my bones to save for the dark days of February. As fall peeks around the corner, I can feel the heavy, humid days slowly fading, and with them baseball, the sweet smell of grass, and the guilty pleasure that is summer food.
As wonderful as it is, summer food does not have a sophisticated culinary pedigree. Unlike its blueblood cousins that require delicate handling and white-linen surroundings, summer food is best eaten when you are sweaty, dirty, sunburned, tipsy and/or trying to remove sand from every crevice. It is, much like a Thanksgiving meal, food that is inextricably linked to experiences and memories.
We all have a perfect summer day lodged somewhere in our past: a hot sun shimmering over a lake/pool/beach/backyard, an afternoon that lasts forever, friends and family circling around a grill, the pleasant thump of slamming cooler lids. And in every perfect summer day, picnic/patio/kitchen tables groan under the weight of too much food, which is then ladled in enormous quantities onto paper plates, sending all partygoers into a comfortable haze of food coma.
When confronted with a pile of meat and a bottle of ketchup, I am slightly disgusted by how much I can eat. But summer etiquette does not frown upon a three-bratwurst day. I do not go so far as to fill up two plates at once, mostly because I need one hand for my beer, but I find it almost impossible to overlook any dessert, or not take one of every salad. No matter how many times I have eaten potato salad in my life, it never tastes better than it does coming out of a big plastic bowl and sloshing around on a plate next to watermelon, baked beans and corn on the cob.
Warm-weather fare is comfort food in a different way than fried chicken and gravy. Hot dogs and ice tea are the companions of the days I love best, from my past and present. I remember long weekends spent camping with my family, and I foresee Sunday afternoons spent playing with my kids in the pool, and I can see both of me with a hot dog in hand.
As summer winds down, I vacillate between excitement for fall and longing for July. Come September, I will miss the summer food and the barbecues that go with it. But no matter what the season or how deep the snow, I know that I can instantly conjure up cicadas, late sunsets and the smell of sunscreen with a single bite of potato salad.