I am eight years old. My father, my brother Andrew and I board a large fishing boat in Menemsha. We have packed sandwiches and bananas for lunch. We both have binoculars around our necks and backpacks holding our picnic. We leave the docks at a crawl and soon open up the engine to a brisk pace after exiting the harbor. We arrive at the lone dock on Penikese Island, cold from the wind but awake. Two muscular young men help us secure our lines and an airplane flies low overhead dropping the day’s mail and newspaper in a sealed plastic bag into the ocean 20 feet away from us. The parcel hits the water with a loud smack and large splash. One of the young men strips off his shirt, exposing many crude tattoos, and dives into 65-degree water to retrieve it.
We walk down the dock toward land, Andrew and I bringing up the rear in a group of adults sporting assorted packs themselves, all carrying binoculars. We have done this before, walked the island in search of seagull nests, but this year will be different. Andrew and I will walk alone. Our instructions are simple: spend the next few hours on this uninhabited island and find baby seagulls. When you find them, place a band around their right ankle. Do not worry about ticks. Do not put on sunblock. And don’t think about poison ivy.
We set out past the lone dwelling on the island, paying a visit to the 600-pound sow that we look forward to seeing once a year. The adults scatter in all directions, covering as much of the island as possible. Birds flit and glide above us as the wind sweeps off the ocean and along the contours of the cliffs, roughing up our faces and our hair, making it dance like beach grass. Our first mission is to find a large rock to perch on while we eat everything we have packed for the day, which we do at the peak of the first small hill. From our lunch table we can scout the surrounding area with ease. We watch mother gulls circling and swooping down to their nests as they feed their babies. We look out over the northwestern tip of the island; Cuttyhunk is not far off. Wild pastures leading to short, rocky cliffs are in front of us. Clumps of grasses dangle from the edge of the cliffs like a bad toupee. We make our way from nest to nest, following old stone walls and barely passable paths. The mother gulls are irritated by us and frequently make their presence felt with aggressive swoops. One of them makes contact with my scalp, its sharp talons scaring me more than causing any pain. I cry, but am careful to wipe away the tears before reuniting with my father. My brother witnesses it and consoles me the way only he can, by ignoring me. In my fright I had stepped into the seagull nest and onto an egg, cracking its shell. While I sulked, my brother had busied himself with taking the top off the egg. By the time I realized what I had done, he was stirring the contents of the egg with a stick. It was the color of an orange hunting vest and had the consistency of yogurt.
We emerge from our travels and are back at the dock before the adults. We sit on the boat, eager for ice cream. Neither of us has a sunburn. Neither of us has a tick on us. And no amount of poison ivy contact that day would lead to even a hint of an itch. My legs are tired and ache slightly. We relish the shade and share slugs from our thermos. It has been hours since the early lunch we gobbled. The uphill walk to the ice cream shop shakes the fatigue from my legs and I run the last 50 feet with pure joy. The walk back down the hill is markedly different from the ascent. No other thoughts enter my head as I experience the pure pleasure of cold ice cream sliding down the back of my tongue into my throat. The constant battle to keep the melting drips at bay around the area where the scoop meets the cone gives me complete focus. It is a rare occasion when the culmination of an event can match the anticipation leading up to it. I finish every last bit of the cone with the same wide eyes that met the first lick.
The ride back to Menemsha brings me back to earth as the boat jumps and jostles over rolling whitecaps. I am wearing every bit of clothing I brought with me, my sweatshirt hood pulled tight around my nose and mouth, making things bearable as the fleeting day grows cool again and the sun begins to disappear behind us. The ice cream no longer gives me joy and has begun to agitate my stomach with every thud of the hull crashing onto the waves. I lie down, resting my head in my father’s lap and close my eyes with no intention of sleeping. Tears escape from my sealed eyelids. I try hard to contain them. I cry because I am happy and don’t know if I will ever be this happy again. The ice cream has come and gone, I am cold and tired from a day spent searching for nests, only to return to my own alongside my dad.
Margot Wellington’s Caramel Ice Cream
For a small ice cream maker like Krups or Cuisinart
Mix one cup sugar with enough water to dissolve. As syrup darkens around the edge, swirl pan to darken evenly. Bubbles should be darker than golden. Have a bowl of ice water nearby to stop the cooking immediately when it seems ready. The best flavor requires that the syrup be cooked just a bit more than one would expect. When it is cooled enough to stop bubbling, add half cup of water and heat until syrup is dissolved. Cool and set aside.
Take one and a half cups of milk (whole is richer), four egg yolks, three tablespoons sugar, pinch of salt. Whisk sugar and yolks, add milk and heat to scalding, stirring with a wooden spoon until slightly thickened. Strain into bowl with one and a half cups heavy cream. Add caramel syrup. Chill for several hours or overnight. Churn for 30 minutes; pack into plastic container and freeze for a few hours more.
Caramel Crunch Topping
Dissolve half cup sugar into a little water, boil and swirl to caramelize. When golden or darker, dribble onto aluminum foil. After it hardens, put in a ziploc bag, break into shards with rolling pin. Sprinkle on ice cream.