Trip to beach was no picnic for Italian families
Food preparation was essential, ensuring everyone ate well and ate often
Growing up in a baby boomer Italian family in Hamilton, you learned early on that a day at a beach or park was never a picnic.
Just like a line cook in a busy restaurant, an Italian family’s trek to a park was all about the food preparation and there was plenty of prep to go around.
While many families might be content to munch on takeout while flaked out on a blanket, Italian families prefer to feast on a banquet at lunch, and then a multicourse sit-down supper. None of this happens by chance.
To pull off a successful day at the beach, a variety of food needed to be gathered and prepared, from fresh bread buns to a variety of cheeses, pasta, homemade prosciutto and more.
The day would feature a full plate at lunch with bread, meat, a salad, assorted fresh fruit and beverages. At times, there would be homemade lasagna or stuffed peppers.
The magnitude of the meals amplified the importance of another Italian must for a trip to the beach, the location, cleanliness and collection of picnic tables.
It was another reason families needed to arrive early.
Scouting for the ideal site, near shade and easy access to the parking lot, was essential. And there would be other families who would jockey for position and tables in this summer ritual.
Everyone was utilized to scout for the ideal spot and to collect the right amount of picnic tables to ensure seating space for all. And there was always another table reserved to place picnic coolers and food supplies.
The site needed to be near an open lawn area so beach chairs could be folded open and an afternoon game of bocce could be played.
Men in white undershirts and sandals with dress socks, often with a glass of wine in hand, competed for bragging rights and attention under the hot sun.
The lunch dishes and utensils were cleared and cleaned. Some might take a walk to work off the midday meal and others would sit in the shade to share some conversation.
Some of the children might go exploring or for a swim.
It was rare to see an uncle wade into the water. Rarer still to see an aunt.
Before long, preparations were made for an evening meal that often featured a barbecue with chicken and steak, some vegetables and a salad.
It was a good thing no one was in a rush to leave because the barbecues were fuelled by charcoal and nothing was hurried.
There would be more red wine with dinner, which would often feature a couple of different desserts and sometimes brewed coffee.
It was a day that started early to finish the prep that began the night before and to ensure we arrived at a park or beach no later than 10 a.m. Weather was always a big factor and my father would start looking out the window at sunrise.
Packing and unpacking the car required plenty of trips and armloads at the beginning and end of the day.
We would not get home until after 8 p.m., sated, sometimes sunburned and always spent.
It was a chance to get together with aunts, uncles and cousins. No family made a solitary trip to the beach was the unwritten rule. There was always at least two families and preferably more.
Everyone tried to arrive and leave at the same time. Any family that broke with protocol was frowned upon and taken off the call list.
A trip to the beach involved a round of calls to see who was willing to make the trek. No takers, no trip to the beach.
When it came to food, each family tried to outdo the other. Someone always had something that was envied by the other families, but it really didn’t matter because everyone shared.
The uncles were tasked with identifying the ideal location. Sometimes it was Knights Beach, other times Christie Conservation Area or Brant Park. When an ideal spot was found, it was locked down until the novelty wore off or a site with better picnic tables was identified.
Shade, a good lawn area for bocce and clean picnic tables were musts for a successful day. But they were all secondary to the hours of preparation to ensure everyone ate well and ate often.
A trip to the beach for an Italian family was no picnic, but a good time was had by all.
Summertime meant all-day picnics for writer Frank De Palma.