SCITUATE — If the holidays ever leave you feeling cheated of their implied downtime, I highly recommend just starting your own.
Take ours, for example. It’s called Nautical Thanksgiving. Twice a year, on long weekends that bookend the summer, the gods of leisure (along with our friends’ parents) grant a large gang of us access to a sturdy little summer cottage perched on the shore. An old Navy house (complete with anchor-emblazoned official china), it has bunks and beds for a dozen, with enough floor and field space for the air mattresses and pup tents of a potential dozen or so more.
On a good weekend, the place feels completely removed from the rest of the world: noisy with birds you never hear in the city, and at night, the whisper of the distant crash of the waves against the rocks beyond the field. And way across the jaggy bay, barely visible behind a scrim of fog, sits Boston — fussing over something, most likely.
Over the course of 10 years, Nauty-T (as it’s affectionately known) has transcended its humble origins as a bunch of 20-somethings who grew up together in Central Massachusetts gathering to destroy a dozen lobsters, roll some bocce, and spit whiskey into a bonfire (which still remain essential ingredients).
The Saturday night dinner that sits at the center of each Nautical has grown into a party-wide production. Guests (and ingredients) roll in on Friday night. Trunks and backseats stuffed with tubs of seafood, cases of prosecco, large hunks of meat, bags and bags of groceries (including a box of Cookie Crisp that I requested one year and have received every time since) are all unloaded and repacked into a smallish kitchen, which quickly becomes the turf of Avery Appleton. Along with husband-chef Gary Strack, owner of Cambridge eateries Central Kitchen, Firebrand Saints, and Brick & Mortar, Appleton steers the culinary ship of Nautical – which, despite her repeated triumphs, quite literally crashes on the rocks immediately following dinner every year.
This year, we’ve got a table of 15 to feed, and a seven-course dinner menu planned. Gary will be making his “poor man’s porchetta”; Avery is steaming lobsters with seaweed and preparing a huge bowl of Lena salad (named for the wifey half of our hosts, Lena and Darcy); my Houstonian husband, Evan, is preparing his favorite brightly flavored ceviche; and we’ll have sides of roasted potatoes and various squashes, and grilled Halloumi cheese served with an olive and red pepper tapenade. Since this is obviously not enough food, we also have the makings for a mean mozzarella and meat platter, as well as what must be a bed-worth of local oysters — just to tide us over until dinner is served.
And all hands are on deck. As the party has repeated, its cast has deepened: The regulars introduced ancillary characters and significant others, and new recruits and near strangers were incorporated into the mix. The party itself has grown wise and seasoned, gnarled with its own traditions and bizarre lexicon (when you are hungry, for instance, your “food arrow” is pointing downward; when you are full, upward). Serving as the gateway in and out of every summer, Nauty-T has assumed its own place in the psychic rhythm of our annual holiday schedules. As such, it has cultivated its own strangely spiritual element, one that is deeply concerned with keeping our food arrows up.
Like other holidays, Nauty-T proceeds in a state of near-unconscious prep. Through the day on Saturday, when one isn’t lobbing one’s bocce ball at the pallino (known exclusively as “the polenta” ever since someone misidentified it as such years ago), one is fulfilling some sort of essential task: plucking sprigs of thyme and rosemary, shucking oysters, husking corn, roasting and peeling peppers for Lena salad, scrubbing mussels, gathering seaweed from the ocean (great for steaming lobsters), and squeezing limes for ceviche.
These little prep tables give everyone a chance to catch up — or meet, depending on who shows up this time. At a typical Nautical you could meet a writer, a firefighter, a film director, a lawyer, a fashion designer, a US Department of Justice staffer, a curator, a guitarist, and at least a couple of chefs, among others; or you could meet a random girl named Stacy who attends only once because everyone decides she’s more of a “Rachel.” And even as work continues toward the evening feast, a second line of food arrives in perfect interruptions: a spread of mozzarella and olives, oysters with a bubbly mignonette, and sandwiches that grow competitive in their increasing Dagwood Bumstead-ish complexity.
In early May and mid-September, it doesn’t take long for it to get dark, and the glow of the grill quickly becomes the only light outside the cottage (apart from a little lighthouse way offshore that slowly blinks “I love you” in Morse code). Tonight, Gary’s got a pork shoulder (porchetta) on the grill, its skin glossy with the reflection of the flames. Inside, every table in the house is lined up and a sampling of mismatched chairs assembled. It’s a chaos we have down to a science.
Dinner begins with a moment of clarity — a toast to the hosts, to the cooks, to the long-distance travelers, to the weather — and descends into a blur of passing platters and intense, attentive silence. Lena salad — our old faithful friend, its mix of crisp onion and smooth avocado a tribute to another summer gone by — almost molten against the crisp skin of the rich porchetta. Grilled halloumi with Avery’s olive-pepper tapenade, divine with its savory char, becomes fast friends with simple roasted fingerlings. Freshly freed lobster meat finds its way into a cool scoop of tangy ceviche. It’s frankly all a little too much.
As Saturday gives way to Sunday, we hobble down to the rocks, build a fire and let it die. Most years, there could still be a quick dance party in Club That, a converted shed with a bed and a red light bulb where we sleep (“You sleep in that,” said Lena long ago, pointing at it across the yard). This year no can do because it’s been taken over by spiders.
Letting the tide sweep over the rocks to put out the party and send us to bed, Nauty-T feels natural and ritual at once, the way every day ought to, let alone every holiday worth the word: a balance of labor and leisure, the idle and idyllic, a celebration of everything and nothing, all at once, with whoever can make it.