Discover more from The Supersonic
The Diner: In Search of The Perfect Summer Meal
During a weeklong vacation in the Hamptons, a writer embarks on a literary-inspired quest to capture summer on a plate
I just got back from the Hamptons, where I spent a week off with my wife and two sons. We Airbnb’d a place with a friend and her twin boys, and it was pretty glam by everyone’s standards — especially the saltwater pool, which all four boys cannonballed endlessly (Dad snuck in a few impressive splashes of his own for good measure).
The two Moms had big reading ambitions. Several tomes were toted out, as well as Emma Cline’s “The Guest,” which many people have declared the book of the summer. The novel concerns the weeklong misadventures of a woman named Alex, who—reeling from being thrown out of her older lover’s lavish summer home—spends a week in the Hamptons, bouncing from house to house and beach to beach. It’s a good book, one that I’d read back in June, and one that, in a way, reminds me of John Cheever’s famous short story “The Swimmer” (read it here, or better yet, listen to Cheever himself read it here), whose drunk protagonist—the eternally youthful and terribly WASPy Neddy Merrill—decides to make his way home through the suburbs one Sunday evening by backyard pool, and, somewhere along the way (swimming lengths, crashing cocktail parties, jumping hedges), loses his mind and everything else he holds dear.
All of this was somewhere in the back of my mind when I decided to concoct my own quixotic mission while, as they say, “out east.” My ambitions were far less literary, and thankfully, not dark in the slightest: I simply wanted to taste summer. Not figuratively, though I suppose I’d wanted to do that as well, but actually sink my teeth into it — consume the season before it slipped away. June, July, and nearly all of August had flown by and I didn’t have much to show for them. A few weekend trips to see family. A handful of bike rides. One movie. One baseball game. And zero meals that seemed to capture the essence of summer, that season that used to stretch out endlessly. I’m not sure what constitutes the quintessential summer meal—something grilled, something fried, something caught on the end of a fishing line—but I was sure I hadn’t had it this year.
And so the Hamptons. Bougie, yes, but a beach destination nonetheless, and we all know the type of no-frills cuisine beach destinations do best. Fish fry ups. Things served between buns. Ice cream. Ice cream. Ice cream. The type of grub that only spares those whose internal furnaces still burn with the high metabolism of youth. Fuck it, I thought, practically patting my belly, like Alex gifting her way through the South Fork and Neddy Merrill skipping his way home by pool, I had my objective: I was going to eat my way through the Hamptons till I found the perfect summer meal.
I crushed a Club Sandwich with fries at John Papas Cafe in downtown East Hampton, but it was—as the kids say—mid. So too was the Lobster Roll I ate in the rain off Montauk Highway as Land Rovers sped past and my boys played in the mud in lieu of eating their chicken tenders — a far cry from Duryea’s, which had been our planned destination had the weather and the kids cooperated.
Things got off to a rocky start when I consumed an entire bag of Cool Ranch Doritos on the drive out (all while telling my two sons they couldn’t have any, lest they spoil lunch), but I chalked that up to an appetizer, one that presaged the type of dietary abandon I’d be adhering to all week. I crushed a turkey club with fries at John Papas Cafe in downtown East Hampton, but it was—as the kids say—mid. So too was the lobster roll I ate in the rain off Montauk Highway as Land Rovers sped past and my boys played in the mud in lieu of eating their chicken tenders — a far cry from Duryea’s, which had been our planned destination had the weather and the kids cooperated. Dinner at Moby’s was a blessing (the bill less so), thanks in a large part to the ample backyard where the boys ran around and came close to killing each other, but the Italian fare felt more Mediterranean than briny Atlantic. We loved Nick & Toni’s, the spot we’d chosen for my wife’s 40th, until the boys cut that evening short when they melted down on the babysitter, forcing us to request the check long before I could order the tartufo for dessert — a Ben Leventhal favorite. Along the way there were plenty of poolside snacks and beers (excuse me, crispy bois), ice cream runs and s’mores, so that by the time we looked for a last-minute meal after a beach day in Amagansett, my waistline felt far wider than the narrow spit of land on which we drove.
It was our penultimate night out east and still relatively early, and so we went to Lunch, an obvious choice made famous by Showtime’s The Affair (the staff wear tee shirts proudly inscribed with an “As Seen On…” nod to the steamy show). Still, as we easily secured a table and wedged ourselves into one of the wooden booths, it felt like I’d reached the end of my quest — the perfect summer meal, at last. My suspicions seemed to be confirmed when our order arrived, all of it perfect in its summertime simplicity — shrimp cocktail, clam chowder, lobsters rolls, plenty of French fries. I’ve always felt out of sorts in summer. I grew up in a backwater ski town with an Austrian father. Winters were our thing, and so the pleasures of an all-American summer—one of baseball games and fireworks and languid days by the water—have mostly eluded me. But the old man, for all his griping about the caloric and processed American diet, loved himself some seafood, no matter how fried or slathered in mayo (all this was exotic to him, which we blamed on his landlocked roots), and the food before me that night at Lunch felt like a meal my late father would have loved, which of course made it taste all the more special. We dug in. The kids behaved. Mission accomplished, or so I thought…
The next day was my youngest son’s third birthday, and we celebrated it poolside at our Airbnb. Some friends came over with their two daughters. We strung up Spider-Man balloons, stuffed gift bags, blew up pool floats. My wife, in the middle of making her banging potato salad, tossed me several packs of Schweid & Sons beef patties and told me to go fire up the grill. Mild panic set in. I have, in all my 42 years, never grilled so much as a hot dog. We didn’t own a grill growing up, and though my father bought one and cottoned to the pastime in the last decade of his life, I was long gone by then, living off a steady diet of Seamless orders and late nights at Schiller’s. I confessed my ineptitude to the stunned crowd of parents, all of whom gathered round with morbid curiosity while I inspected the Weber, cautiously circling it—tongs out like a weapon—as if it were a UFO that had crash-landed in the backyard. I called my father-in-law, no stranger to the pleasures of charcoal-fired meat. I called our Airbnb host. I endured flack from my fellow parents, our friend—the aforementioned mom who we rented the place with—saying, in so many words, that while she didn’t subscribe to the tenants of traditional masculinity, my inability to operate a grill was “fucking pathetic.” Had I been able to chart an escape route via backyard pools, I would’ve split faster than Neddy Merrill.
In the end, I figured it out. I grilled burgers. I grilled dogs. I clicked the tongs like a pro. Kept hydrated with a crispy boi in one hand while I flipped sizzling meat with the other. I asked, “you want cheese with that?” I fed my family. I fed our friends. There I was, a sometimes effete urbanite who can’t so much as throw a frisbee, doing the tribal dance of the all-American dad, and goddamnit I felt like one. Were the burgers good? Sure, some of them. Others were burnt to a crisp. But nobody complained.
After our guests departed, we ended the day in the pool. All of us: me, the two moms, the four boys, our ragged band of misfits acting like this Hamptons thing was old hat. My older son, a boy sometimes timid by nature, took off his floaties and did the doggy paddle he’d been attempting to master at camp all summer. Others ripped off their swim trunks and flashed us their privates while making deranged ooga-booga noises. And we three parents laughed and floated in the placid water. Our bellies full. Our bloodstreams warm with just the right amount of booze. The backyard, strewn with toys and torn wrapping paper that floated in the mild breeze, looked like a crime scene. We ignored it and gazed up at the green trees that softened in the fading light of late summer. We called out to Alexa requesting songs, the speaker positioned just far enough away from the pool so that only the adult voices could reach her. We didn’t request the songs of our youth, but the songs once beloved by our parents, all those corny anthems we’d endured in the back of their cars during summers long ago. Boz Scaggs. Bob Seger. Todd Rundgren. Nostalgic music that we’d all come around on in the ensuing decades. “God, my parents used to love this song,” our friend said as her naked boys jackknifed into the pool behind her.
There we floated, the three of us in our forties, buoyantly stuffed with my bad food, our minds drifting back to a time when we were children, and the people who took care of us were still alive. We hummed “Night Moves,” we felt autumn closing in, we wanted the unspoken moment to stretch out for a beat or two longer, but I knew that it was already over…because I’d had it, the perfect summer meal.
Blackbird Labs, Inc.