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Decisions, Decisions: What to Eat at the Beach?

July 19, 2007 By:
Rachel Silverman and Jared Shelly
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When Darren Dutterer (left) and Josh Jafar hit the beach, they bring their own food. Photos by Jared Shelly

 Who hasn't approached summer with a sense of trepidation, fearing those dreaded little words: bathing-suit season?

And, at the same time, who hasn't also longed for the cool custard treats, backyard barbecues and greasy boardwalk fare that seem to be a requisite part of the heat?

The great paradox of the season shows off its true colors at the New Jersey shore, where bikini-clad bodies frolic next to and even on a 137-year-old boardwalk laden with takeout pizza stands, ice-cream parlors, hot-dog vendors and saltwater-taffy shops.

Indeed, popular resort towns like Longport, Margate, Ventnor and Atlantic City are practically awash in outdoor activity, with vacationers jogging, surfing, swimming and walking along the ocean.

Meanwhile, signs for funnel cake tempt hordes of hungry strollers, and the smell of homemade fudge wafts out of confectionary storefronts.

Just how do beach-goers -- Jewish beach-goers, at that -- make sense of this blaring dichotomy? What food and health choices do they make, and what factors -- taste, calories, cost, convenience -- inform their decision-making?

For some, like New York resident Marjorie Lockwood, who was recently doing a little shopping in Atlantic City with a friend, "Vacation does not mean splurging on food."

Lockwood, a sales representative at Bloomingdale's, said that she sticks to a diet of fish, chicken and vegetables, as well as small portion sizes, even when she's away from home.

"This is about as 'boardwalk' as I get," said the slight woman, munching on a plate of steamed shrimp and cocktail sauce.

For others, like 83-year-old Florence Bryen, maintaining a healthy diet can be challenging in an environment where greasy, fattening foods abound.

"You have to eat what they have," said Bryen, a resident of Marlton, N.J.

A regular weekend visitor to the beach, Bryen explained that her food selection is even more limited by her inability to drive. (Her sister-in-law, Marilyn Golden, a woman of around 70, provided the transportation for this trip.) At home, the grandmother said that the issue's not such a problem since the Meals on Wheels Association of America delivers hot trays of brisket, quiche and chicken to her door.

Eric Fels, 39, acknowledged that healthy options can be difficult to find, especially when it comes to places where you can take the whole family.

That's why this father of two young girls said that he and his wife, Amy, often wind up cooking dinners at their Margate rental.

"We don't want to have a fancy meal with the children," said Fels, a doctor from Allentown, Pa. "When we do go out, we end up eating pizza a lot. It's not exactly the best for my cholesterol."

Pack a Lunch
Adding in the kosher element can present another hurdle to eating at the shore, noted Rabbi Shalom Plotkin of the Conservative Beth El Synagogue in Margate.

Though a few kosher options do exist -- there's the Jerusalem Glatt Kosher Restaurant in Ventnor and Shari's Steakhouse on the Black Horse Pike in Atlantic City, for example -- the rabbi admitted that the choices are much more limited.

If you happen to be stuck on the beach and your stomach growls, vendors like Mark Hyman, 58, of Longport, carry Jack & Jill products, which are certified kosher dairy by the Orthodox Union.

To really be safe, however, it may be smarter to simply rely on yourself, suggested the rabbi.

As Plotkin put it: "If you're going down to the beach and you're really concerned, packing a picnic would be your best bet."

Sprawled across towels on the Margate beach, Darren Dutterer and Josh Jafar, both 16, seemed to heed his advice.

Throughout the day, the boys snacked from a cooler filled with kosher sandwiches, chips and drinks. The duo also played football along the beach and talked of jumping in the ocean for a long, cool swim.

"I always keep kosher and eat healthy," offered Jafar, who was visiting from St. Louis. "On the beach, I don't want to be any different."

Ellen Fraint, a student at the University of Pennsylvania, provided yet another perspective.

Although she said that she normally eats healthy during the year, the 21-year-old explained that she doesn't like to deny herself treats like funnel cake and nachos at the shore.

"It's a day off -- you're supposed to have unhealthy food," said Fraint, who wore a T-shirt with Hebrew lettering.

Yet her companion seemed a bit more conflicted.

"You can't be healthy on the boardwalk," admitted Melissa Bridge, 37, of Philadelphia. "But if I'm in a bikini and I'm eating ice-cream and funnel cakes, I suddenly feel just a little bit hypocritical -- and very self-conscious." 

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