How do you like them shrimp?
It was never the shrimp, or the eggs running onto the extra bacon strips. It was not really the view, although it is fabulous.
It was at those white plastic tables, on a plastic throne, where he held court. He was the knight of the grill, flipping eggs and burgers, filling Styrofoam cups with his best brew.
There was the thwack of that screen door opening into the grill’s steaming heat that filled the square, enclosed porch. There was the crackle of that grill, the words “Hey, where ya been? I was going to call you.” He would call, you know. He knew if you’d been missing. He worried about his friends.
Walls lined with necessities of camping, candy everywhere, and the ring of the arcade machines, that was Joe Kaelin’s concert hall. Marshmallows, chocolate bars, containers of milk, eggs, and butter, ketchup, and hot dogs filled shelves alongside charcoal and matches and fishing gear. Joe kept basketballs and volleyballs to lend out so kids could shoot hoops and play at nets just outside the Cedar Point Park store. These reminders of simple things are what bind family and friends, the stuff that memories are made of.
Joe knew about memories. He and his wife, Mary Ann, ran the store for 31 summers. Many customers who had gone to the park as children were now taking their own children to meet Joe and Mary Ann, to enjoy pleasures that were cheap but priceless — a hot marshmallow glowing with embers skewered on a stick found in the woods, or a firefly lighting up a jar like your own miniature moon.
Joe had wood for endless campfires and ice cream for late-night snacks. Every Saturday he ran a movie night for the children, who brought blankets and sleeping bags, lying under the stars in pajamas as they watched a carefully chosen movie — Joe was a PG guy.
He was a raconteur. Not “Joe the plumber” from that famous campaign, but Joe, chief chef and bottle washer, procurer of treats and necessities at Cedar Point. Teller of jokes, weaver of stories that would lead into jokes, food critic. Insisting on a critique of those shrimp — they were the best, it was the sauce, you know!
Joe got the recipe for the sauce from one of his many cruises. He loved to travel in the winter, visiting Mexico, Europe, and the Caribbean. Did he love those cruises for the cruising or because he always managed to get comps? It was a game, though it came with that recipe for the infamous sauce for the shrimp.
But it was those bagels, oh those bagels, that kept the locals coming in. Oh how Joe loved those bagels! He picked them up fresh every day at the crack of dawn. No one delivers to Cedar Point Park — too far out of the Hamptons loop, both physically and metaphorically. So Joe would rise early and seek out the bagels, the foundation on which he built his breakfasts of eggs, bacon, ham, and of course his coffee. That coffee was like the nectar of the gods, but it came in Styrofoam cups.
The meal was presented in a Styrofoam container with three sections. Joe wrapped the necessary plastic utensils in a paper napkin on the top of the box. If the knife or fork was missing he would be visibly upset. Presentation was everything.
He tallied the number of eggs he flipped, bagels he cut, the rolls consumed, and always the number of bags of ice. Joe kept a tally because it established how many people he served, not how much profit he made. His trips to the restaurant depot for the famed shrimp salad he piled on kaiser rolls became the stuff of legend. His burgers were the best value in the Hamptons, according to Joe, because they sat on kaiser rolls, not the sissy buns of those other places.
He loved food. He loved good value. He loved his Republicans (for which we forgave him). He loved being at Cedar Point Park because what he really loved was schmoozing with his customers.
Joe did not need to man the park store. He was comfortably retired from Coca-Cola. Joe was at the park, spending long hours and hot days at the store, because he loved the interaction with the people. His customers were campers who might return year after year and local residents looking for an un-Hampton dining experience. The conversation was on the house, as were his jokes and advice.
Joe continued to work last summer, although his cancer was getting harder to control. Mary Ann took up a lot of the extra work because she knew how much Joe loved being at the store. The day before he died Joe was planning for summer 2014 at the park.
We know he is flipping burgers in heaven now, but for some of us he will always be seated on the plastic throne, telling jokes, as he greets us when the screen door thwacks.
Jackie Friedman is a summertime resident of East Hampton.
Joe Kaelin, a native of Riverhead, died on Oct. 23 at the age of 71.