For the last 22 years, my boyfriend and his family have spent the tail end of their summers on Delaware’s eastern shore, in the quiet town of Lewes. Renting a different house each year, they find themselves in varying accommodations; home decor ranges from elegant to startlingly eclectic, and kitchens come stocked with every imaginable appliance or, most recently, virtually bare.
Never sure what environment each year will bring, expectations are instead situated around traditions—a preferred spot on the beach, a hidden bike path, a favorite pie. After only my third trip to Lewes, the salience of these traditions is gripping. They are a source of anticipation and nostalgia year-round, and nearly all are anchored by meals. There is a gluttonous evening of cheese fondue and a night spent tackling a mountain of freshly caught crabs smothered in Old Bay. We take a compulsory trip to the nearby Dogfish Head Brewpub, and for an evening we tug at straws of piña coladas heaping with ice cream.
Three years ago, on my first visit, we tentatively embarked on a cooking project that has since joined the ranks of family tradition. A recent trip abroad had introduced my boyfriend’s family to a South African dish called potjiekos. Dutch oven meets medieval cauldron, the potjie is a three-legged cast iron pot that is nestled directly into live coals or a wood burning fire. Layered with meat, vegetables, spices, and a healthy splash of wine or beer, it is covered and left to gently steam-cook its contents over a three to six hour period. Unlike a stew, potjiekos is never stirred, causing the flavors of each ingredient to remain remarkably distinct. The vessel itself is of European origin, but the dish’s unique techniques and seasonings originated with the Afrikaner Voortrekkers. These pioneers slow-cooked wild game and vegetables in a blend of Dutch-Malay spices on their gradual voyage inland from the Cape in the 1800s, inaugurating a practice that has endured as a South African pastime.
Backyard grilling or beachside clambakes may be more familiar evocations of summertime meals, but they also tend to be labor intensive, nearly always relegating someone to grill duty. Potjiekos creates a social atmosphere for everyone involved: All the ingredients can be prepped ahead of time, and once the fire is built and the pot sealed, there is little to do but sit back and relax. We take short dips in the ocean, toss frisbees, and dangle marshmallows over the flames. Bottles of wine make their way around the fire pit while we watch the steam, fragrant with coriander, rosemary, cardamom, and lamb, fade into the dusk.
Hours later, tomato paste and red wine have thickened into a full-bodied sauce studded with plump raisins. The leg of lamb, tender from the long cooking period, slips off the bone, and we serve the softened vegetables and succulent meat in trenchers of warm country bread. Savoring the dish, I realize that just as we have adopted this foreign tradition, it too has adopted me into this family seated fireside on the Delaware shore.