You'd never know it by visiting them, but seven of southern New Jersey's 21 shore towns do not allow eating or drinking on their beaches.

It was eight towns until Aug. 19, when Brigantine discarded its own obscure ban.

"I would've never guessed," said Susan Sczechowicz, an island resident since the casinos sprouted in the late 1970s. Her group relaxed last week in the cove at the south end, next to the Absecon Inlet. "Every time we come, we barbecue."

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The city combs through its laws periodically to pluck out the ones it lacks the will to enforce, City Manager Jim Barber said.

"I think everything has become more relaxed in general," Barber said. "Years ago, you couldn't walk on the boardwalk without a shirt on. Good luck enforcing that today."

Several municipalities still use the following boilerplate passage Brigantine retired: "No person shall use said beaches for picnicking. The word 'picnicking,' as used herein, means the carrying of or otherwise transporting any box, basket, bag or tub or other receptacle in which there is contained food or beverage, or both, and the consumption of such food or beverages, or both."

"It's very loosely enforced," said Lisa Stefankiewicz, Stone Harbor's deputy clerk. "You're just not allowed to put out a big spread."

Longport also has such a law on the books, Beach Patrol Chief Dan Adams said, but as for enforcement, it literally looks the other way.

"I really don't want the lifeguards turning around and watching the beach all day," Adams said. "Our main priority is to provide a level of protection to our beach patrons who are swimming."

The rare citations in Longport are not for eating and drinking but for not cleaning up afterward, leaving gull bait behind. Like ball-playing - another activity that is technically illegal on the beach - if it does not bother anyone else, the lifeguards let it go.

"It is something we talked about this winter, revamping the code. Some of these ordinances were written a pretty long time ago," Adams said.

The beach patrol has not caught many visitors actively feeding the gulls, Adams said: "We do our best to try to curtail that activity."

Part of Brigantine's motivation to phase out the refreshments law was the relatively long walk between the beach and the street, Barber said.

Beach Haven's flowery ordinance lets beachgoers bring food and drinks, as long as they "constitute a light repast."

No need for a napkin in your lap, but the law requires a post-repast cleanup.

Of course, one person's light repast is another's hors d'oeuvre and another's Thanksgiving binge. So how much can you legally eat? The rule listed for Beach Haven at longbeachisland.com is more specific: "A small sandwich is all right."

Bryan Caton has maintained that unofficial Web site since 1996, gradually accumulating beach-use rules municipal officials convey to him, he said.

Said rules do not always square with the laws found elsewhere online. Caton's site does not mention Barnegat Light's restriction on non-alcoholic drinks, and it says Ship Bottom bans food and alcohol "through Oct. 1," a qualifier that is absent in the borough's official code book.

"Basically, the rule is, when the tourists go home, you can do what you want," Caton said.

Sea Isle City's police department has jurisdiction over any beach-based lawlessness, but policing refreshments is apparently not on the radar screen. Lt. Dennis Felsing had no idea such a law existed in the city.

"I'm a little taken aback," Felsing said. "In my career, I don't remember ever having written a ticket or seen one. People eat on the beach all the time."

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