Florida

Every year for the past 15 years I have been coming to Southwest Florida.
I have family here. More important, at least for my kids, this is Disney country. Orlando and Busch Gardens beckon from one end and Rum Runners from the other– I drink the Rum and my kids do the rides.

All around are towns with musical names that reek of Native American history, Americana and coastal living: Thonotosassa, Cape Coral, Bonita Springs, Fort Myers and Naples. The Caloosahatchee River cuts a warm swath through the land attracting fisherman who catch red fish, snook, trout, and tarpon. Boats are almost as common as cars here. Both are usually manned by white-haired men and women.

Retirees are a cliché here in Florida. Everyone makes fun of them, even the retirees themselves. “You don’t want to go to Walmart at lunchtime dear,” said one kindly old soul when I asked for directions. “The Seniors really slow up the lines.” Restaurants like local favorites, Crispers and Sweet Tomatoes, serve salad buffets at prices suiting withered wallets ($6.89 for soup-salad-sandwich combo). The lunchtime crowd is a sea of time-warped fashion (teal skirts, polka-dotted blouses, sneakers and walkers).

Every home has a pool and retirees moonlight as Mommy-and-me swimming instructors. Ours is called Sue and she has short spiky blonde hair and an athletic figure. Over the years, she has taught my mother-in-law and both my daughters to swim. Sue, it turns out, is a member of the local chapter of the Red Hat Society. The ladies wear red hats and purple dresses and meet once a month at “hot new” restaurants for lunch. When I tell Sue that I want to join, she says that I don’t fit the group’s most basic membership requirement: ages fifty and above. “But you can be my guest,” she invites with a bright smile. Sue is the group’s photographer and they call her the “Red Snapper.” The group’s president is Queen Mum and this time they are lunching at a month-old restaurant called Brew Babies in Cape Coral.

The Red Hat Society was formed by Sue Ellen Cooper in Fullerton, California in early 2000. Now they have chapters all over the United States and Canada and even an official website (www.redhatsociety.com) with membership forms, conventions and ‘Purple Perks.” They call themselves the “fastest growing women’s dis-organization in the world.”

On the appointed day, Sue is waiting for me outside Brew Babies. She shows me where to park and ushers me in. Ten old ladies in purple suits and red hats nod amiably when Sue introduces me as her guest and quickly get back to discussing push-up bras, real estate prices and dead husbands, God rest their souls. When I tell them that I plan to write about them, they are expansive after multiple glasses of Sangria. I can write anything I want but no names please. Listening to the conversation, I can see why.

“Aren’t you drinking anything?”
“No.”
“That’s unusual. When did you stop?”

“Suzy really did us in by selling her house for $250,000. I hate to say this but she really brought down the prices.”
“How much have you listed your home at?”

They are honoring one of the members who is moving to South Carolina because she “can’t stand the Florida hurricanes.” South Carolina has tornadoes, warns someone darkly.

Most opt for one dish—the smoked salmon salad is popular—and no dessert. Can’t afford to with my diabetes, says my neighbor ruefully. They sign the farewell card, take out their calendars and begin negotiating the next month’s meeting. Seniors, I find out, travel a lot. One lady goes to her summer-home in Maine to escape Florida’s withering heat; another is accompanying grandchildren to Orlando; a third has houseguests. Finally, they settle on a restaurant and a date. They pull out letters that they received from the US Army in Iraq to thank them for the care-packets they created for soldiers in Iraq. An official-looking letter from the Second Infantry division (or regiment) begins by saying, “Dear Patriot.” The waitress brings all the individual checks and soon it is time to leave.

It would be easy to parody the Red Hat ladies; to poke fun at their monthly ritual. But I find that I can’t. They are in the sunset of their lives to be sure. Their world, at least from the outside, seems small and small-town. But they are, in the word of many a song from Nashville, doin’ the best that they can. And at eighty years of age, donning red hats and purple dresses for a meal with like-minded friends may not just be socialization. It may be the secret of their longevity.

Brew Babies is one of those restaurants that you want to succeed. Owned by husband-and-wife Valerie and Wayne Elam, it is long on heart and short on service. The food is very tasty—the smoked salmon salad with carmelized onion, gorgonzola cheese and toasted pecans—was the toast of the Red Hat ladies lunch. Valerie is a jazz singer and she invites us back for dinner to hear her sing. Her son, Dallas, plays the guitar and her daughter helps man the tables. There is a big crowd and the Elams are struggling to cope. The wait-staff is young and inexperienced so Valerie interrupts her singing to bring food to the tables. The ambience is charming however with tables around a small fountain in the garden. Everyone lingers. The all-women kitchen sends out great salads, thin-crust pizzas and decent steaks. The restaurant has no freezer or fryer because Valerie insists that the food be healthy and fresh. Wayne insists on hamburgers and such. They close on Saturdays and Sundays and the entire month of July to go up to their home in Cape Cod. You get the feeling that this is a couple that liked the idea of a restaurant without fully realizing all that it involved. You might want to visit them soon lest they close. (www.brewbabies.com)

Coconut Point is one of those typical Florida planned-communities: 500 acres, numerous shops (Chicos with its elastic-waist pants is a big hit), and restaurants all set in a sprawling suburb of Bonita Springs. There are three restaurants: Blue Water Grill serving primarily seafood, The Grill Room and Bice Grande Café which serves Italianized America. Of the three, only Bice is open for lunch. The spacious dining room is cool; black-and-white photographs of Sophia Loren, Marcello Mastroianni and other Italian movie-stars constitute ambience. The hand-polished rustic floor is a nice touch however and the bar looks swell. Locals had recommended Bice to me—decent food, they said. Huge portions, enough to take away and eat for lunch the next day; and reasonable prices. This I realize is a recipe for popularity in Florida
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Bice Grand Café, 23161 Village Shops Way, Suite 101, Coconut Point, Estero. Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-midnight Friday and Saturday; brunch menu served until 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For information, call 239-390-9927.