“If people sat outside and looked at the stars each night, I'll bet they'd live a lot differently.” Bill Watterson
The closest I have ever felt to what Heaven might be like was standing on the balcony of a Gulf Aire townhouse last May on a warm, clear, starry night. If you’re not familiar with those townhouses, they’re built Gulf front on St. Joe Beach in Gulf County, and they were built, if I remember correctly, in the 1980s.
When they were newly built I was a “young ’un,” and I was charmed by them. “Think of the beautiful view they must have! And they can just walk out of their back door and right onto the sand; they don’t have to walk two whole blocks, like I do!” (Oh, if only that gorgeous beach were only two blocks away from me right now!)
In my young mind, only someone like a fancy doctor or lawyer would be able to afford to stay in such a place as a Gulf Aire townhouse. I dreamed of the day that I might marry and then bring my children there to play on the beach where I grew up.
Well, I have stayed in various beach houses over the past 24 years of my marriage, ranging from a quaint cement block duplex on Mexico Beach (which my second cousin Earline told me was built by a relative to house military families so they could enjoy the beach) to an extravagant suite in a high-rise development on Pensacola Beach, equipped with every shiny, fancy new technology and luxury one could imagine. I enjoyed both, as they offered fun in their own unique ways.
But finally, in May, I looked into renting one of the Gulf Aire townhouses. We ended up in unit 8251, I believe, though I can’t imagine that any of them look particularly different from another. We walked inside, and saw a small kitchen to our left, still wearing its off-white laminate cabinets with faux woodgrain trim that was so popular in the ’80s. What memories that brought back!
Then we walked past the kitchen into the living room, where there was a large sliding glass door leading out to a covered deck. It was so dark outside we couldn’t see the beach through them when we arrived. We then climbed the narrow stairs to the bedroom level, and found there was another balcony facing the beach. I slid open the vertical blinds, unlocked the glass sliding door, and stepped alone out into the night. The Gulf breeze, the first time it blows across your face after a too-long absence, is intoxicating. That was the first thing I noticed.
I stepped over to the rail, and looked to my east and my west, noticing the white powdery sand we are so blessed with in Northwest Florida glowing in the moonlight. I heard the waves gently roll in to shore as the moon shimmered on the water, and I looked up to see the millions and millions of stars overhead, as far as my eyes could see. It was so overwhelmingly beautiful that it felt as if I were in a dream! No university planetarium could ever match the view from that balcony on that May night. I called my family out to see it with me, and they were equally awed by the sight.
There is nothing else that I have seen on Earth that has come as close to what my mind conjures when I think of Heaven as that beautiful sky-meeting-the-gulf experience. I’ll never forget it.
I was reminded every night that we stayed at the beach of nights as a teenager, when our student group from Beach Baptist Chapel would occasionally build a bonfire on the beach for us to enjoy. We’d roast and eat hot dogs, slightly crunchy from the sand particles blowing around in the breeze, and talk and laugh and sing and dance. Those memories are strong for me. I can still smell the embers and recall the grit between my teeth, as well as the walks and talks with friends under our vast, starry sky. Heaven on Earth.
In honor of those glorious beach nights, full of fun and peace, which we’re all hungry for, I offer you a meal that you can prep at home and cook on the beach, where it’s allowed, or on your grill if you’d like. Some folks call these hobo dinners, some call them packet suppers. I just call them delicious.
Easy Foil-Packet Dinner
(adapted from my friend Robbie Shoults’ recipe)
1 pound meat, like sliced smoked sausage links or large, peeled shrimp
1 bell pepper, cut into strips (red, green or yellow, whatever your preference)
2 ears of corn, cut into four disks each
1/2 onion, quartered
4 or 5 small potatoes, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 medium yellow squash, sliced 1/2 inch thick
1/2 a small eggplant, chopped into bite-sized chunks
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1 large jalapeño pepper, seeded, and cut into rings
1 cup sliced fresh mushrooms (optional)
Seasoned salt, such as Tony Chacheres
Preheat oven to 400 degrees, if baking inside, or prepare grill.
Stack two pieces of foil together, then place the first seven ingredients in the center of the top layer of foil.
Add seasonings, sprinkling over all ingredients, then top with 1 tablespoon of the butter, and jalapeño pepper rings.
Fold in all four sides of one sheet of the foil to middle and seal, then repeat with second sheet of foil.
Bake for 35-45 minutes in 400 degree oven, or grill over medium heat for 15-20 minutes. (Check potatoes for doneness, carefully so as not to get burned by steam!)
Stephanie Hill-Frazier is a writer, food blogger and regional television chef, whose on-air nickname is “Mama Steph.” She grew up in Gulf County, on St. Joe Beach, a place she will forever call home.
She is married and has three young adult sons who are considerably taller than she is. You can find more of her recipes at whatsouthernfolkseat.com and at Facebook.com/whatsouthernfolkseat.