An entry in the first of many guestbooks at my family's lake house in Guntersville, Ala., reads: "July 4, 1962: "We were given a surprise housewarming . . . . They brought all the food with them! Barbecued spare ribs, potato salad, rolls, tomatoes, Hickory King corn, chocolate cake."
Fast-forward half a century, to last month's annual family get-together. The dinner menu was pretty much the same, except the corn was Silver Queen and red velvet and carrot cakes kept company with a (German) chocolate one.
Where the family is concerned, I have learned the hard way not to mess with food traditions. (My father: "What the h--- is THIS?!") I leave my cheffy ways at home and direct my attention toward the grill, while drinking frozen lime daiquiris.
But some of those ways were unleashed when my partner and I returned to the lake house in August. We were hosting some friends from Washington, all of whom orbit in the restaurant world. One couple came with us, another arrived the next day and a fifth person who doesn't eat a lot of meat showed up the following day.
There is something about the lake house that makes one ravenous all the time. Perhaps it's the Appalachian foothills' pine air, as my grandmother used to say, or the cabin's lingering scent of must and bacon. Whether we're on the porch, perched perfectly to afford the best view of the placid inlet and the Tennessee River's main channel beyond, in the boat or at the dining room picnic table, the main subject of conversation is the next meal.
I started planning for this month's stay on the last day of my July sojourn. I left a pork shoulder and a jar of my stepmother's zesty barbecue sauce in the freezer so we could have barbecue on a night before our fifth guest arrived.
I knew of the woeful lack of spices at the lake, so in my carry-on I packed a big bag of barbecue rub and a traveling spice kit that reflects my personal taste for sultry and bold yet versatile flavors: smoked paprika, sweet paprika, adobo seasoning, cardamom, chili powder, coriander, cumin and cayenne, as well as celery seed for coleslaw and bloody marys.
Because I knew my father and stepmother would be dropping in for a day with us (they live in my Alabama hometown, 40 miles away), I brought two pounds of Maryland jumbo lump crabmeat to make West Indies Salad, a favorite of my father's. (More on this salad to come later.)
Also in my bag: a dozen Whitmore Farm eggs and items I didn't want to pitch: half a loaf of country bread, a wheel of Camembert and a pint of already prepared West Indies Salad.
Incidentally, I checked TSA.org to make sure I could take all those items on a plane, always a good idea. Gel packs are fine as long as they are frozen.
Convenience with touches of refinement was the culinary formula we followed for our long weekend. Upon arrival, a friend and I went on an initial excursion to the Guntersville Foodland with a vague plan. Steaks, baked potatoes and veggie-filled salad for that night to keep things simple. Barbecue the next night, smoked chickens for the third night. Something in the seafood department for the fourth night.
A spiral ham right out of the package, sliced tomatoes, sandwich fixings and chips were put out every day for lunch, allowing people to avail themselves of the spread whenever they wished.
We shopped as people do on vacation. We loaded up on what we thought we would need, hoarded snack foods we don't usually stock back at home, and wound up forgetting a bunch of things.
We eased up on ingredient standards as well. A favorite family casserole whose recipe is tacked on the kitchen's bulletin board calls for frozen hash brown potatoes and cream of chicken soup. It was a smash hit. No surprise about why, with butter, sour cream, cheese and a crunchy topping that was supposed to be crushed cornflakes, but we had forgotten to buy them. I improvised with crushed Tostitos, which turned out to be an upgrade.
Once I returned home, I re-created the casserole without the frozen and canned products. In the new version, still rich, I used fresh potatoes; a thick, intensified velouté sauce; a lot less butter and half the original amount of topping and sour cream.
Letting go of one's food snobbery can lead to discovery. My family always opts for canned, refrigerated biscuit dough when at the lake. I don't care for the chemical tinge of those biscuits -- not that it keeps me from eating them. But I wasn't about to make biscuits from scratch. So I tried some no-name, ready-to-bake biscuits I found at the store, which morphed into tall, fluffy, buttery wonders.
They appeared at every breakfast thereafter, along with things we re-purposed from previous meals. Foodwise, being at a vacation house is a game that can be won by starting and ending with nothing. Every meal-planning session of ours involved a discussion of how to reinvent what we already had: Baked potatoes and their skins from the first night's steak dinner became steak and eggs and hash browns (plus melon and bacon) the next morning.
Sour cream comes in handy at a lake house. It cut the richness of mayonnaise in a salad I made with smoked chicken that was pulled from the remnants of one evening's meal. Enhanced with scallions and celery, the salad was served alongside the spiral ham as a lunch option. I also created a dip by stirring smoked paprika, Old Bay Seasoning and leftover West Indies Salad into sour cream.
As long as there's a grill on hand, smoked chicken is a perfect vacation dish. It requires so little effort to produce. You simply coat chicken with a seasoning rub, place it over a drip pan (I used an old saucepan) on a grill and roast the bird, covered, over indirect heat for an hour with some chunks of wood on the coals.
A wise cook never wastes an opportunity. When I readied chickens for smoking on the grill, I put their necks, gizzards, livers and hearts in the drip pan and added water, celery, onion and carrot. I wound up with a terrific smoked broth.
The broth came in handy the next day. As I peeled pounds of shrimp to prepare them in a New Orleans barbecue style, it occurred to me that I could add their shells to the broth, then strain and reduce it. The concentrated blend of flavors became the base for the dish's traditional sauce, a beurre blanc with Worcestershire sauce and lemon juice.
I spooned helpings of barbecue shrimp over more of those freshly baked, no-name biscuits. And that, as it happens, put a crimp in my vacation food strategy. When I looked to use the leftovers for lunch, they were gone.