We are officially T-1 week for Publication Date of Dinner: A Love Story, and T-3 weeks til school’s out, so I thought I’d share a section from the book that is one of my favorites. It’s about the transformation my husband undergoes when we are on vacation.
When I was growing up, we never took typical family vacations. We never booked a house on the Cape for a week or went to Fort Myers in February; we never sat at the kitchen table with a map of the country circling national parks we wanted to visit like I imagined most families doing. Part of the reason for this was that my mother, once she found her calling as an attorney, turned into a workaholic— today, at seventy-five, as partner in her own law firm, she still works harder than all of her children combined—and, like all workaholics, she derives pleasure from work, thereby rendering the need to get pleasure elsewhere useless. (I’ve always gotten the feeling that she finds vacation from reading ninety-five-page contracts a whole lot more stressful than reading those ninety-five-page contracts.)
Another reason we never went on typical vacations was that my sister, Lynn, was a nationally ranked tennis player who competed in tournaments all over the country. Naturally, we’d all tag along with her on all of these trips no matter where they were—Charlestown, West Virginia, Raleigh, North Carolina, Indianapolis. They were always during July and August, and the organizers seemed to find some sick pleasure in selecting venues where the average temperature was a hundred degrees in the shade and never ever near a water park with one of those long, twisty mountain slides. But the truth was, I didn’t mind. I was ten, eleven, twelve years old. All I needed was a hotel pool to be happy.
But now that I am not a kid—now that I am a grown-up and I have kids of my own—vacation is a different story altogether. I need the pool, yes, but I also need a whole lot more. Most of the time I need a kitchen. I need a grill. I need to go to a place with lots to do. In fact, from the moment we arrive at wherever we happen to be vacationing, Andy and I are crafting ways to make sure we are squeezing the maximum amount of pleasure out of every moment of our waking hours. We take our vacations seriously. Before we have finished our morning coffee we have a plan for the day, one that usually includes exercise for the grown-ups (we usually tag-team our runs while the kids watch their morning TV), a large chunk of time in or near a pool or beach, some sort of afternoon adventure that involves exploring the local terrain (like a road trip or a hike or a bike ride), and of course, shopping for dinner that we will make in our own kitchen while drinking gin and tonics.
One morning when we were on vacation in South Carolina (where Andy’s parents have a house near the beach), the girls were finishing up watching an episode of The Backyardigans, and Andy looked at the clock.
“It’s ten o’clock in the morning and we still don’t have a plan,” he said.
“It’s only ten in the morning,” I said, taking a sip of my iced coffee that Andy had prepared the night before so it would be ready for us when we woke up.
“Yes, but we have a lot to do today.”
“We do?” I asked. The way he said it made it sound as if we were on deadline for something serious. “Like what?”
He started ticking things off on his fingers. “We have to go to the pool, we have to go to the beach, we have to try out that new kite that my dad bought for the kids. I want to go for a run and I assume you do, too. We have to decide whether we want to go to that dock you just read about to pick up some shrimp, and if we don’t, we have to figure out what to make for dinner sooner rather than later because at six o’clock I need to be right there on that deck drinking my gin and tonic.”
Now there was a deadline I could get excited about! Because of behavior like this, I nicknamed Andy “My Drill Sergeant of Leisure.” My Drill Sergeant of Leisure shows up the second the plane’s wheels touch down. My Drill Sergeant of Leisure shows up first thing in the morning, turns to me in bed, and says with a straight face, “You have some serious decisions to make” (usually something like: Pool or beach? Grouper or mahimahi?) He can’t help himself. It’s not that he can’t relax—it’s the opposite of that actually. For both of us, taking a few minutes in the morning to think about the day’s structure ensures that we’ll get to do all the things that help relax us the most. (Stay with me, here.) That means we know what we’re having for dinner before we’ve finished the morning paper. And if we haven’t already shopped for all the ingredients we need to make that dinner happen (almost always the freshest piece of fish we can find, grilled, plus a medley of colorful, easy, barely cooked or no-cook salads) we will refer to our Drill Sergeant’s schedule to figure out the best time to hit the market without interrupting the natural flow of the day.
While most people can’t think of anything more stressful than coming up with an hour-by-hour plan to chill out on vacation, I can’t think of anything more stressful than being unprepared for our favorite time of day. Because to deprive ourselves of even one spectacular vacation dinner is, for us, no vacation at all.
You know how I keep saying that this cookbook is different from others because all the recipes are strategy-based? Well, you can tell from my mix-and-match vacation dinner chart (scanned right from the book) that I wasn’t kidding. Here is the ultimate example of how you can become obsessive-compulsive just like me. See delicious results above: Fish Tacos + Mexi-Slaw + Grilled Pineapple Salsa = Perfect Vacation Dinner. Recipes on pages 239, 242, 243 of Dinner: A Love Story.