Two weeks ago, I flew down to Fort Myers, Florida to spend a couple of days with five college friends, some of whom I hadn’t seen in a decade, maybe more. It hurts my heart to type this, but it’d been nineteen years since we’d graduated. Nineteen years since we’d borrowed each other’s toothpaste on the way to the bathroom before class, nineteen years since we ate almost every meal together in the dining hall — a big, smelly-footed family — and did the stupid things that, as long as we survived them, would provide us with the stories we would sit around and laugh about nineteen years later, when we were middle-aged men at bro-downs in Florida. In the intervening years, we’d scattered across the country — Utah, Chicago, Baltimore, Vermont, New York, Florida — and had twelve kids between us, more than a few recessed hairlines, and the requisite number of cranky shoulders, bad backs, and surgically repaired stuff. (I had my old roommate Buck, now an accomplished orthopedic surgeon in Salt Lake City, examine my shoulder as soon as we got there. “Torn labrum,” he told me. “I’ll email you some PT exercises.”) We were not what we used to be, but come on, who is?
We met up at a half-empty hotel with mile-long hallways in Cape Coral, where we’d rented two sprawling, chandeliered suites with water views. We’d spend a couple of days going to spring training games, and maybe even drinking a beer or two before the sun went down. It’d be like The Hangover! We were free! No school lunches to be made. No one shaking you awake at 6:45 to ask if you’d like a tour of her dollhouse. No shuttle service to soccer practice in the freezing, indoor bubble. No one to ask — true story — if “tickling is allowed in boxing.” Our nights would undoubtedly be spent eating 48 dollar ribeyes, drinking martinis, and playing card games into the wee hours. (Only problem there: I don’t know how to play any card games and I go to bed at 11.) We would, in short, turn back the clock. We would party like it was 1999.
Only we didn’t.
On Saturday, after an afternoon game (Sox-Twins), we huddled up to discuss the plan for dinner. The choices, it dawned on us, were grim. I wasn’t strong enough for the hotel bar, which had a sad, swinger-y vibe that depressed the living sh*t out of me. Locally, there was a Chik-Fil-A and a Hardee’s and not much else that we could see — well, beyond a massage parlor, which probably didn’t serve dinner.
“Our room has a kitchen,” Billy said.
“Why don’t we get some groceries on the way back from the game,” said Dave.
“And cook in?” I said.
“Yeah,” said Brian, “you’re the family dinner guy.”
I wish I could say I was bummed or horrified or annoyed at the prospect of staying home, in my shorts and socks, and cooking for six grown dudes. But at this point in my life, why even pretend? The truth is, I loved the idea. It was a relief. So we stopped at the Publix supermarket and loaded up on ingredients for chili — turkey chili, no less — and, lock up the womenfolk… a spinach salad. Oh, it got crazy! We went off! We put on some music and hung out in the kitchen, just like at home, Brian helping with the meat-browning duties, me showing Dave how to chop an onion, Buck loitering in the living room to check the scores on SportsCenter, Dave — who was keeping me company by the stove — peeking over my shoulder to see how much chili powder went into the pot (eight tablespoons; I doubled our usual recipe), Brian making a fresh round of gin and tonics, Billy saying, Huh, he’d never seen anyone put sausage in chili before, but I told him to trust me on this, and he did. All the familiar rhythms reasserted themselves. I was at home. It’d been nineteen years, but these guys were like family. And what do you do for family? You cook for them. And then you sit down and eat. — Andy
Served with bowls of the usual trimmings: avocado, sour cream, cilantro, shredded cheddar, tortilla chips.
Spinach Salad with Almonds and Cranberries (Florida Supermarket Version)
Two bags fresh baby spinach, shredded
1/4 cup slivered almonds
Couple handfuls of dried cranberries
1 tbsp finely minced red onion or scallion
1/4 cup crumbled feta or blue cheese
Simple Balsamic Vinaigrette (Hotel Kitchen Version)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
Few healthy pinches of kosher salt
Fresh black pepper
1 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp cayenne or hot sauce