As the sun was setting over Rehoboth Bay on a Saturday in late April, the smell of a wood-burning fire and steamed clams began to fill the air surrounding the Indian River Life-Saving Station Museum. State park interpreters, dressed in turn-of-the-century surfman uniforms, led a group of 30 eager guests through the Life-Saving Station, describing nighttime beach patrols and perilous high-seas rescues that were performed along the coast over 100 years ago.
While guests learned about the forming of the U.S. Life-Saving Service and the brave men who served at Station Indian River, Chef Lion Gardner of Blue Moon Rehoboth put the finishing touches on his 19th century, locally inspired dinner courses.
“While it isn’t completely clear as to what the surfmen in our area ate on a regular basis, we do know a few things, and the rest we left up to the chef’s imagination” says Laura Scharle, interpretive programs manager of Delaware Seashore State Park. “These men ate a great deal of canned goods, occasionally bought perishables, and even lived off the land to some extent.”
Scharle went on to explain that with the abundant marshlands close to the station, waterfowl and seafood probably made up a good portion of the surfmen’s diet, as well as some native plants, such as the wild beach plum.
“This was an exercise in culinary anthropology,” explained Gardner. “Since we didn’t have a lot of information about what the surfmen were eating, we focused on things they were likely to have eaten based on what was available to them in terms of ingredients and cooking methods.”
As guests were touring the upstairs of the Life-Saving Station, the downstairs was transformed into a dining room, complete with lantern light for ambiance. Once guests were finished the tour of the historic building, they sat down for dinner, which began with steamed clams, oysters, and periwinkle snails.
“When Chef Lion’s catering manager sent me the menu draft, I was just about giddy with excitement when I saw it,” Scharle explained. “Periwinkles are tiny snails that live in salt marshes in our area and we typically see them climbing up blades of cordgrass; not served up for an appetizer!”
After the first course, guests enjoyed clam chowder (served in a tin can) and a foraged greens salad. Next up were the entrees served family-style: shad, barbequed pheasant and muskrat stew!
Gardner explained how he came to the menu choices. “We researched popular canned goods of the time. We focused on ingredients that could be easily foraged, trapped, hunted or caught here 100 years ago, and we cooked everything simply on an open fire.” He also acknowledged that the surfmen “lived a demanding life and the likelihood that they spent hours a day planning and preparing meals was pretty slim,” so he deviated slightly from historical records “to create a memorable meal, and not simply try to recreate a typical dinner from a bygone era.”
Gardner and his team wanted the guests to have a real culinary experience which is exactly what they got. One of the attendees, Robert Martin, said the “interpretation and replication of a 19th century surfman’s dinner was above and beyond my expectations…this meal was, for me, the ‘piece de resistance’ of my weekend getaway.”
After a dessert of fry bread and local jam and honey, the museum tour continued out to the beach. With oil-lit lanterns in their hands, guests walked out to the beach to experience what a surfman may have experienced on an evening beach patrol. Park interpreters finished the evening by telling stories of tragedy and mystery that occurred along the coast.
This one-of-a-kind dinner experience at the Indian River Life-Saving Station is being offered again Friday, Sept. 20. Reservations can be made by calling 302-227-6991 at least seven days in advance. To learn about other programs and events held at Delaware Seashore State Park and the Indian River Life-Saving Station, go to www.destateparks.com or www.facebook.com/delawareseashorestatepark/events.