Full metal Ina (my summer vacation)
CNN — (CNN) -- It's that time again. Time to slip out early in the morning and deflate the pool floaties. "Mr. Crockie," the crocodile, looks up at me accusingly as he shrivels on the chaise lounge. Two air mattresses wait for similar treatment behind him. I gather up the big water guns, the water pistols, plastic sharks, two purple rubber octopi, the goggles, plastic treasure chest and shuttle them into the garage.
It's a rental property, so I'm not sure if I'll see them again.
Overcome with sadness, I actually wave goodbye to Mr. Crockie. Later, I'll take my wife and daughter down to the beach for a last look. We'll wait until it's after 5, so there will be parking spots and no crowds, only a few Southampton locals surf casting. Which will, of course, only make it look more beautiful and more sad, that magnificent gray and dark green Atlantic surf breaking in the early evening light that cinematographers call the "golden hour," the smell of salt air, a particularly briny variety unique to the Northeast -- accompanied, perhaps, by the vestigial scent of steamer clams opening in a pot somewhere, lobsters dying under pressure, drawn butter, distant deep fryers, corn on the cob. Or will I only imagine that part? The light will have taken on that extra level of clarity that says autumn. As if someone has just slapped on a higher quality lens and made everything crisper, brought everything into focus.
It's the death of summer.
This was my second "real" vacation of the last decade. Many of you will no doubt be thinking, "Uh, wait a minute, a--hole -- your whole life is a vacation!"
For "A Cooks Tour," then "No Reservations," and now "Parts Unknown," I've been in near constant motion for most of the past 13 years. I go to some pretty cool, pretty interesting places. This year, I went to Israel, Spain, Japan, South Africa, Sicily, Denmark -- and Detroit.
I go wherever I want.
But since the birth of my daughter, I'd never, until last year, had a real family vacation. By "real family vacation," I mean "normal" -- like on TV, like in movies, or like it was when my family would take me "down the shore" in Jersey. A vacation like I was raised to think you were supposed to have -- back in the day when home ownership and a week near a beach was not an unrealistic thing for a single-income, middle-class family to hope for. When it seemed the whole neighborhood would load their station wagons with children and comic books, sun screen and cabana wear and head to Barnegat Light or Seaside Heights.
So vacation for me is idealized, admittedly over-romanticized, total immersion into fatherhood, into the suburban/vacation dream, backyard barbecues, entertaining at home -- what some troubled observers have referred to as my "going Full Ina." (As in Ina Garten, Food Network's "Barefoot Contessa.")
After years on the margins -- followed by years traveling -- now that I'm finally an actual Dad, and finally able to actually take some time off, I admit, I do, occasionally, go overboard with the enthusiasm.
My first few days of vacation, I submit anyone in my orbit to a brutal and relentless program of nostalgic touchstones from my dimly remembered youth. There's a frenetic quality to my hospitality -- a desperation, a manic rush to do it all:
"Wake UP!! Daddy's making pancakes!!" a typical day might begin. I will then pile way too many ("plain? Blueberry? Chocolate chip?") in front of still bleary-eyed family and guests, sighing painfully when they don't administer both syrup and thoughtfully pre-softened butter the way I'd like them to. This will be almost immediately followed by urgent, military-style preparation for an expedition to the beach. By the time the assembled have been marched into the car, sandwiches will have already been assembled, cut on the diagonal, wrapped first in plastic wrap then put in carefully labeled sandwich bags; bags will be labeled by both contents of sandwich and designated eater. Various fruits, beverages, napkins and wipes will have been pre-positioned in the cooler bag -- along with the cold packs and disposal bag. Umbrellas, beach chairs, plastic pails and shovels will have been put in car the night before. Towels at ready, I am, after 30 years in the restaurant business, nothing if not organized.
Later, after multiple trips to stores and farm stands -- where I shop like an Italian grandmother on amphetamines, alternately squeezing fruit, elbowing indecisive customers in the produce aisle and giving unwanted cooking advice to total strangers ("You definitely don't want to marinate that. I don't give a s--t what your 'chef' says." ), I will carefully rotate stock in the refrigerator, I will poach off some chicken breasts and replenish the chicken salad for tomorrow, start deep prep like vinaigrette, dicing vegetables for ratatouille. More often than not, my menu (which I obsessively decided on last week as part of a seven-day cycle) is something simple -- an over the top "greatest hits of my childhood" menu -- or "golden moments anthology."
If you are lucky enough (or unlucky enough) to be my guest during the month of August, you can rest assured that you will eat the f---ing freshly sliced, impeccably sourced local heirloom tomato salad. You better notice the artful way I have separated the yellow tomato slices from the green and various hues of red. That I have alternated between opposing, contrasting colors as I spiraled slices, domino-like around the service platter. Notice please that each slice is the identical thickness. That I have drizzled the tomatoes at only the very last minute with a very fine olive oil -- and that the balsamico that I applied like thick syrup is from the town of Modena, where the old man who sold it to me drained it from his personal batteri.
The steamers will have been carefully purged, of course, to remove as much sand and grit as possible. But there will be conveniently located bowls of broth near your seat, for the dipping and washing process so important to the correct enjoyment of your clams. Drawn and clarified butter will also be nearby. Should you require any help or instruction as to the proper technique for removing your steamer from the shell, slipping the dark, stocking-like membrane off its foot, or the dipping sequence, please let me know. Because if you f--- it up, I will be glaring at you with barely concealed hate.
The lobsters will arrive with shells thoughtfully cracked ahead of time. You will find that your claws separate easily -- having been deftly and professionally levered just so -- by a heavy knife. The tails will have been halved and segregated from claws, fanned out at the southern end of the platter -- claws to the north. A few heads will provide impressive garnish at the center of the platter, their antennae twirling heavenwards -- but not all of them. Because only my wife -- God bless her -- is cool enough to dig everything out of the heads.
The corn will arrive, still steaming, freshly salted, and drenched evenly with ungodly amounts of whole butter. Holders will be nearby. Please don't stab yourself -- as I will be displeased to interrupt my duties as maniac obsessive host in order to ferry you to the nearby hospital.
At such time as the main courses are finished, and the wine has been consumed, discarded shells, lobster guts, napkins and other effluent will be quickly rolled up in the convenient newspaper tablecloth.
Rest assured that your cheese course -- and there will be a f---ing cheese course and yes, you will f---ing eat it -- has been sitting out for some time so as to be ready to be served at optimum temperature.
Dessert? You're on your own. What do I look like? A f---ing pastry chef?
It's pretty much like this every day. On those days when we have no guests, I'm tempted to wander the streets, looking for someone to kidnap whom I can subject to my cycle menu. I'm like a psychotic version of Ina Garten. But if Jeffrey isn't "sooo happy I made meatloaf," I'll bury him in a shallow grave.
Tomorrow will be hamburgers! And hot dogs! Not to worry! There will be the right, the perfect potato buns. Relish. American cheese. Said cheese slices will have been pre-separated and replaced, kitty corner, in a neat stack, for easy-grab action once I'm at the grill. There will be ketchup, of course, and two types of mustard. I prefer Dijon style -- but as a man who respects tradition, I will also provide yellow, ballpark-style mustard.
Ordinarily, I would berate guests who put ketchup on my hot dogs, or mess up my burgers with a mix of mustard, ketchup and mayonnaise -- but because it's summer, and I'm all about mellow -- I will let it pass.
The homemade potato salad, made by me, from freshly boiled fingerling potatoes, their skins slipped off while still hot, folded with mayonnaise, a touch of red wine vinegar, freshly cracked pepper, salt and herb from the garden will be most excellent.
In my insane efforts to make up for a largely misspent life, and my guilt at being away so often and for so long, I will have overcompensated by perhaps overproducing. Simply put -- there will be more food than any reasonable person could be expected to eat. You will, however, be expected to eat it.
You will be happy at my house. We will all be happy together. And normal. Absolutely normal.
Anyway, that's all over now. Now it's back to the city, unpack the bags, pack the bags. Go from normal to the farthest from normal anyone can go. Sometime Friday, I'll be caked with leftover studio make-up, sitting alone in my hotel room above Sunset Boulevard, eating room service spaghetti Bolognese, or In-N-Out burger.
And -- oh yeah. On Sunday, September 15, I'll be watching the season premiere of "Parts Unknown." We shot it in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. I'm particularly proud of this one -- as it's sure to piss off just about everybody.